In a nation with growing income inequality, we rarely seem to talk about what that means on a personal and lived level. Instead we all call ourselves middle class never commenting on the fact that today’s middle class includes people in well heeled communities earning more than $150,000 a year as well as families scraping to get by and playing financial three card monte who bristle at the idea of not being middle class. No one wants to be poor and really no one wants to be rich, but the reality is some of us are closer to the ends than we are to the middle.
I live on the intersection, I am a Black woman, technically I am middle class according to the numbers reported annually on my 1040 but I prefer to consider myself working class. I am a class straddler, I am aware that my place in the middle class is tenuous at best and dependent on my ability to work and earn a certain amount of money. For those unfamiliar with the term class straddler, we are the people who were born working class or poor but who over our lifetimes have moved up the class ladder. America has always had its share of class straddlers, as a nation of upward aspirations, it’s hard to not know someone who is a class straddler. Some of us blend in well and some of us struggle with our place further up the class ladder; I would be the latter.
Like race, talking about class or even money is uncomfortable for many, so we coast along on our assumptions, never realizing that just like the assumptions made about race and racial matters, assumptions about class also hurt.
Growing up, my parents were working class when times were good and when times were bad, I knew the miracles of government cheese and butter. Like many from similar backgrounds, who live life as a class straddler, I have often at times tried to distance myself from my childhood because of the shame. Yet shame is a powerful and destructive force because it keeps us locked in a dance of inauthenticity where we fear being ourselves, we fear sharing our truth and that fear is a destructive force.
In the past year, while I have talked more openly and honestly about race in this space than ever before, I have sidestepped the class issue entirely due to a misguided sense that with my change in professional positions, it would be harmful to share. Yet it’s tiring to pretend and as I get older, I just don’t do artifice well. In fact it’s antithetical to the life I am striving to lead and the person I want to be.
A series of recent conversations sent me in a spiral and I realized that my downward spiral was a result of personal shame…shame because I have never traveled abroad. A well meaning person suggested that I should travel abroad to gain a better perspective on anti-black bias and racism. I would love to travel abroad but I cannot afford to do so at this stage in my life. Hell, I couldn’t even afford to visit my dad this summer which was very shameful…but I digress. For many first generation removed from broke folks like myself, we often carry a heavy financial burden, often comprised of family members in need of help and other obligations that our peers who were born higher up the class ladder may never face. In my case, parents who never had more than two nickels to rub together as well as early parenthood have meant that my ascent up the class ladder has come with baggage, baggage that weighs me down at times.
My story though is not unique, I know far too many other straddlers in the same place, juggling the professional face of success and the financial rewards that are reaped yet at the same time helping out family members, paying off astronomical student loans often the same loans that allowed us to gain access to the world that changed our class status. It’s a lonely place at times because never are you fully comfortable in your new world or your old world. Friends and loved ones in your old world make assumptions and often assume your life to be what it isn’t….if I had a dollar for every distant family member who assumes I am rich. Chuckle. Or for new friends who I must hide my life from. I am tired of it all. Tired of wearing a mask that isn’t real, we cannot help the circumstances to which we are born, we can only do better if the opportunities and resources present themselves to us.
There is no shame in being who we are and as I journey in this middle stage of my life, I finally see that the cost to pretend or not be fully authentic is more than I wish to pay. So, yes, traveling to see the world is a great idea yet in a country where only 2 out of 5 Americans regularly fly, I am hardly alone in staying close to home. That said, if you want to pack me in your bag, the next time you are off to see the world just let me know. Until then, I am joyful for what I have and always mindful that in a world where many struggle to make ends meet and toil at jobs where human respect and dignity is lacking that I have a chance to make a difference in this everchanging upside down world and that my kids have never known the miracles of government cheese and butter or the horrors of spoiled food from the food pantry.