bell hooks on writing about your own social class

You learn early on in the academy that, if you are from a working class or impoverished background, and you are white, you just don’t get to discuss social class. It’s hard telling where I learned it: when I first lived in the college dorms of young women from families who had, to me then, unbelievable status (parents who were lawyers, even teachers!), the subtle assurance they all had they deserved to be in college and would be able to stay there. Or perhaps it was the first time in my planning theory class in a PhD program when I said something about hunting as a means to provide food for poor rural families and the Harvard- and Berkeley-educated peers sneered about how “things are down on the farm”–complete with Tom Joad accent for effect.*

You’re just better off leaving behind what you came from and pretending to pass as somebody from elite classes. Why? Oh, the stupidity. In the US, coming from real poverty is shameful. Boring-ass bootstrap stories about how somebody came from what is, in reality, the lower middle class to become affluent or accomplished or famous–those are fine and sanctioned. Real poverty–the kind that involves dirt floors or no indoor plumbing reeks of the rural and the gutter. And nobody wants to hear it, let alone really confront the idea that real poverty has any meaning.

I’m reading bell hook’s Remembered Rapture right at the moment, and it’s moved me more than any of her previous writings, which is pretty amazing as her work has always been an influence. Here’s a quote from this morning:

While I have no regret, I am saddened that writers from poor and working-class background must still count the emotional costs should they dare to reveal that which the world would choose to leave unspoken, with no written account. We all know that there are times when counting the costs acts to silence and censor. Writers from working class backgrounds, women and men of color who have only recently found our way to the printed page (in the last twenty years) who do not choose to leave behind these worlds or make of them fodder for the entertainment of a prurient privileged class are continuously struggling to find ways to bridge gaps and maintain ties.

*I used to think that I hated planning theory. I now realize that I rather like planning theory and just rather disliked some of the people you find in planning theory classes in PhD programs. Especially since, as a chubby woman scholar with the rural Midwest, I was supposed to spend my time self-deprecating and reassuring all the males around me that they were, indeed, ever so much smarter than me–when, no, they weren’t. I fortunately had a compatriot, a terrific man from rural Canada, who was better at navigating the various egos than I was, but who kept me from thinking that I was completely crazy as he saw and recognized the casual classicism that surrounded us.

One thought on “bell hooks on writing about your own social class

  1. My husband thinks my family was poor – his dad was a unionized, tenured and overpaid college professor – but we never went hungry and we had access to good medical care. No new cars, eating out once a year, but that was normal where we were. (My father was a career military officer.)

    I know we were way better off than a lot of people, but when I got to college, I was shocked at how different things were for other people. As in, other people didn’t worry about how their tuition was going to be paid! Or how they would buy books!

    My friends made enough comments to me about how I talked too much about money that I finally shut up, but I was the only one of them paying my own tuition. Their parents had the money to pay for their tuition and to give them spending money. My friends thought this was perfectly normal – and it was, for their world. But it was not the world I came from – and I still came from an affluent world compared to lots of people.

    The attitude of people who’ve never had to worry about money – their disdain for poverty or anyone other – really pisses me off. These people think everything is so easy. It’s not.

    PS A lot of these people also think that people join the military because they are too stupid to do anything else, an idea that gives me a slow burn. Thank you for calling my dad, who was the first one in his family to go to college, an idiot.

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