“Class Passing”

Another name for “class passing” is “code shifting”. We saw President Obama do it when he addressed a primarily black audience at the memorial service for those killed at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston in 2015. The rhythm of his language shifted ever so slightly, but enough. He led the group in singing Amazing Grace, something that fits perfectly with Black Church worship but would be unthinkable, for example, with the primarily white affluent crowd at the Roman Catholic Al Smith Charity dinner.

The Guardian has a really interesting piece about how those of us who’ve moved from one class to a higher one learn the norms and language of our new world. My father’s family were farmers; my grandfather lost his farm during the Depression. My father had two years of college but had to drop out because he ran out of money. His siblings were clearly working class: two small farmers, one who did shift work in a defense plant, and my Aunt Pauline who ran a small general store after the premature death of her school bus driver husband Max. My mother’s family were more financially successful, at least initially — grandfather Philip Halpin owned an elevator company that rivaled Otis. But he lost the business during the Depression because of his alcoholism, referred to by the Irish Catholic euphemism “pop’s spells.” The family fortunes declined precipitously. But my mother’s social class aspirations did not. As a young married woman, she aligned herself through the Women’s Club with ladies whose lives represented where she wanted to be, not necessarily where she and my father were. She taught us the language of middle class life. We never, like our New Jersey cousins, said things like, “How are you’s doing?” Actually, it came out more like, “Hower yiz doin’?” My smart as a whip Cousin Adrienne, who commuted to sophisticated New York to her office job at Mobil, talked like that even into adulthood. My sisters and I never did.

Jerry had a PhD when I married him, and he pulled me along to that level of academic achievement. We had a successful if small financial planning business, and now I am well and truly in a different class from the one in which I grew up. How did I learn the language and norms? I think I was less conscious of modeling than my mother was, although perhaps I didn’t need to be because she’d already walked that path and brought us along. I built my upper class identity along the lines of a successful business woman, a language with which I was readily comfortable. When I joined the tony Genesee Valley Club after Jerry died, I did so as a community business leader, not as a member of old Rochester gliterati — could never have convinced anyone I was that in any case. As chair of the board of the Women’s Foundation I crossed paths with old Rochester money, and quickly crossed swords with their expectation that things would be decided by them outside the meeting, then put into practice by me. I prevailed, but my personal relationships with those board members did not endure — I like to think I walked away first, not because I didn’t understand what they were asking me to do, but because I found the clubbiness and closed circle stifling.

Obviously lots to think about here, and this article intrigued me. How about you? Have you moved up a notch or two — or down? How have you mastered the language and norms of where you are now?


6 thoughts on ““Class Passing”

  1. This week our book club is discussing Hillbilly Elegy. I suggested it and am leading the discussion. Upward mobility ( social, economic, and emotional) is a strong theme of JD Vance’s story, and your questions as well as those in the Guardian article gave me some additional ideas. Pam, if you are still holding off reading this book, I urge you to try it now. Forget that it was used to explain the backgrounds of Trump’s “base.” It’s just a very good and thoughtful story, and the realities of his mobility journey are both amusing and
    thought-provoking. And his loud, cussing grandmother was his incentive!

  2. for Phyllis: Wish I could be there for discussion! I will read the book, and let you know what I think. I am in early chapters of a book and have one next in line, but will get to Vance book after that.

  3. Was going to say the topic of class passing was being added to my list of topics for my visit! But saw what Phyllis had written. I read it, found it informative, but did not enjoy it. I like books, like movies, where I like the characters. I could not relate to the people /Vance wrote about and much as. I tried, I could not like them. I didn’t want to feel that way, but I did.

  4. for Ada: I had a similar reaction to the latest Arlie Russell Hochschild book about why the people of Louisiana continue to elect officials like Bobby Jindal who enact policies that make them sicker and poorer — the book is Strangers in their Own Land. I wanted to be more empathetic to the subjects of her research, but at the end of the day, I found them shortsighted and self-destructive.

  5. That book was recommended by several friends. Have my nook here in Cayman. When I finish my spy jag, I’ll download it.

  6. for Ada: I love Hochschild’s writing — all the way back to The Second Shift. And I think she is empathetic in presenting the viewpoints of the people she interviewed. That said, I think her subjects showed very black and white thinking, ie “we want jobs so we have to accept pollution”. No sense of “pollution that is a consequence of oil drilling can be offset by requiring companies to use mitigation strategies, and we can still have jobs”.

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