Class and Privilege

Mom (the indoctrinator) ‘presenting’ me to Great Great Aunt Harriet (elder from the classy part of the family) while Dad’s mother looks on.

I’ve recently had conversations with a couple of friends that left me wanting to think more about the concept of ‘class’ and especially that of ‘having class.’
As with many things, I received a healthy dose of indoctrination from my mother about what it meant to have class. Some of it was communicated directly. Much of it was not but still came through clearly (and loudly). And as is generally the case, what was not communicated directly offered the most authentic reflection of her actual values.

So, for example, she was adamant that having class had nothing to do with having money. And she was clear there was nothing flashy about having class. (Hear that, Donald?) Having good manners was part of it. Maybe being thoughtful and valuing education, too. And that may have been the sum of what she articulated about class.

But then there were the unspoken messages — the ones buried in a glance, an eye-roll, an off-hand comment. And for any number of reasons, I was vigilant and careful with my mother — I paid attention to ALL of the cues.

So, I learned early that you had to be a WASP to have class. Maybe you could qualify if you were from some other part of Northern Europe, although that certainly isn’t the image in my head. It was a very limited group that could possibly have class. Irish, Jews, Blacks, Italians…need not apply. She would never have said that out loud, though — that would not be classy. You had privilege but you didn’t flaunt it. You just took it as your due, I guess.

In my childhood hierarchy, if I’d had to assign rank to our family, it would have been clear that my mother’s side of the family (attorneys and alcoholics and such) had more class than my father’s family of teachers and beloved coaches. And Mimi (my mother’s mother) always felt that Aunt Emma (yes, THAT Aunt Emma) and Aunt Helen looked down on her.

These were the faces of ‘class’ in my young life. Something about lineage seemed to define you, separate from your foibles or accomplishments.

And as I sit and think about this, I can see how effectively I was infected by those messages. Embedded early, they were lessons that simply became part of me. I couldn’t ignore them so as I got older I had to make choices. And in general, I’ve tended to react against these lessons, much as I did with her anti-Catholic tirades.

So, now I have the opposite knee-jerk reaction from what she likely intended. People I perceive as having what my mother would call ‘class’ can sometimes, especially if I’m feeling a little bit cranky, just bother me. It really isn’t fair, I know, but the scent of privilege just bothers me when I get a whiff.

Not always, but sometimes. Okay, often.

And clearly I need to think about this more.

And being a WASP who drank her mother’s Kool-Aid before she knew better, I am also aware that there’s a weirdly privileged luxury about all this ‘bother’ about class and privilege.

This entry was posted in Old Family Stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Class and Privilege

  1. Pingback: The Annual Dashing of Hope…Continued | JordanCornblog

  2. Alice Nye says:

    Very interesting–and VERY relatable. Jordy, you are One Class Act!

    Liked by 1 person

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