Eliot Bamford wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian today about class in America and class in Britain. This is something I run into quite a lot when I teach here in the US; despite being Irish and not British (more of that in a moment) I carry some specific assumptions about class with me when I touch on issues such as social cohesion, community identities and, of course, the appeal of socialism to large populations in China. That is to say, I am not thoroughly familiar with how Americans discuss class.
In his piece, Bamford discusses this problem, which for him is internalized just as his class identity was internalized in the first place.
I like to tell people I grew up in the shadow of a coalmine because it sounds so very salt-of-the-earth, dragged up by the bootstraps: a quintessentially English working-class existence. When we moved, just under one mile away to a bigger home with a larger garden next to my grandparents, it seemed we, as a family, had progressed. My friends would visit and comment on how the home was “posh”.
Two things strike me about this quote: for one thing, class identity is pretty clearly linked for Bamford to others perceive him, or perhaps how that perception confirms a personal narrative of self-worth. It also fits a certain cultural norm of not wanting to appear to have airs or to feel above one’s station. This kind of social arithmetic, which will feel familiar to many living in Britain, has little place in the United States. Being coy about one’s achievements, for example, takes on a different form from similar self-deprecation in Britain and Ireland; in the US one can be coy but also more receptive to public praise. I am of course relying here largely on anecdotal experience of my own but I do believe there is a lot to it. Bamford is essentially sharing his own individual experiences and much of it rings true.
Secondly, he talks about transformation through class as being key to that self-perception of identity, a transformation he later discovers does not, in fact, transcend his original class identity in the eyes of his compatriots in other parts of the country. It really is worth reading the entire piece to get a clear sense of that. It reminds me of my friend Ben Williams, who would ask students at DePaul University to self-identify by class. Middle-class identity proved the unanimous winner. There is no cachet to being working class, something that is disorienting for someone like Bamford:
…most New Englanders took my comments in good humor and annoyingly consigned them to “English humor” and quaint “ye olde” quirks. Yet my class identity, which I had previously elevated, had no place in the discourse.
Personally, I notice this particularly in American political speeches. Candidates for office talk about the middle class as a quasi-mystical group of transformative agents that will save the country while simultaneously needing help and support. No one talks about working class, and no one really talks about the poor. Instead, we focus on the jobs people work (“the single mother who works two jobs”) without extending that to any kind of class analysis.
Being Irish complicates things a little further. Somewhat (okay, very) ahistorically, I fall into an assumption of egalitarianism through poverty shared by the majority of the Irish population prior to the Celtic Tiger coming to life in the early 1990s, and so I tend to lean towards the idea that class is nowhere near as important for the Irish as it is for the British. I actually still believe that, but the cultural trappings of class identity can be definitive, particularly in the form of having some clear connection to humble origins, the “salt-of-the-earth” of which Bamford speaks. In the US, such talk exists though it varies from community to community and the change can be jarring.
In the classroom, I’ve found this to be fertile ground. Discussing the emergence of the middle class and the social upheavals of Industrial Revolution Britain gives me opportunities to share anecdotes with students and to talk about the desire to identify with those like you. It also feeds into broader political movements and by no means is restricted to those from the “right” background. Thus arrives the figure of the self-made man, and food for thought for another blog post.