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One of the reasons I've been doing all the noodling about class and my background is I'm still trying to figure out my place in the universe here.

I work with a bunch children of true privilege. Most of these kids have never had to wonder whether or not they'll make rent, if their car can make it just one more week, month, year, are oil changes every three months really necessary, how bald can your tires be before they're gonna blow...? They come from families where going to college and medical/dental/law school was a given. Of course they'll be a doctor/lawyer/dentist like Dad and Grandpa, don't be ridiculous. If they fail, they have a parental safety net that will catch them.

I understand "privilege." I understand that it is not a zero sum game, and that just because I don't have as much privilege as someone else, that does not mean I don't have more than other people. Trust me, I've learned a lot these last few years and I get that.

I understand that I will rarely, if ever, be profiled by the cops because of my race. Because I am white and well-spoken, people frequently assign me a higher class level in their head*, without telling me I'm a credit to my race.

However, I have to say that poor white people don't avoid as much hassle because of their race as you might suppose. They get followed through stores to make sure they don't shoplift. They get pulled over for "attempted" speeding because they're driving a piece of shit car. And they can't teach their children that they can trust the police, either.

Now, it is true, that if I have and bear the markers of economic privilege, I am not going to get the same hassle that a POC with those same markers of privilege will get. I will probably not ever get pulled over because my car or my clothes are too nice. I fully recognize that.

However, in order to bear those markers of economic privilege, you have to be privileged enough to be able to afford them. If it really were as simple as, "Well, then get a new car/better clothes/more expensive haircut," as I have often been told to do in discussions of privilege (talk about missing the point) we'd all be laughing.

Because I went to college, and my parents insisted on "correct" spoken English in our home, and they valued education and read to me as a child, I can pass as someone with an upbringing of a higher economic class. Because of this, I frequently get to hear what people of higher economic classes really think about people who grew up like me.

It's not pretty.

I have what I refer to as my "The Privilege of Dental Treatment" lecture that I give to new students, usually one on one in my office, after they evince some sort of shock, dismay or surprise at the conditions of some of their poorer patients' teeth. I formulated this lecture after hearing some undergrad students talk about one of my residents a few years ago, who after their turn through the local sliding scale clinic said, "I just don't understand the state of these people's teeth. I mean, I guess some people just have other priorities."

So, I listen carefully to my students discussing patients, and when I start to hear the classism creeping in, I pull them aside for my one on one lecture, beginning with "I saw the dentist exactly once** before I had my infected and impacted wisdom teeth out at 19. The only reason I got them out then was because they had infected so badly, the swelling kept me from being able to open my mouth."

In response to these opening lines, one of my students responded, "But you went to college!"

*This goes back to the "not all poor white people are Budweiser swilling NASCAR fans" thing.

**Required pre-kindergarten fluoride treatment, subsidized by the school district when I was five.
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I took that "How privileged are you?" quiz thing that does the rounds every so often, but it doesn't really take a lot of things into consideration that are kind of important.

Like the fact that people's "economic class" levels can change dramatically in a very short span of time, usually for the worse, but not always.

Growing up as a kid in Michigan, my parents owned our house. Unfortunately, owning the house meant we didn't have a lot of money for anything else. One year the water heater exploded in February, and my folks could not come up with the $120 to replace it (1970s). Fortunately, my Dad's parents could be convinced (after a lot of talking) that a water heater WAS necessary in Michigan, in the dead of winter, with two small children in the house.

The house my parents bought had been an estate sale, which included a fully stocked "bomb shelter." It was kind of a sad excuse for a bomb shelter, not being reinforced or anything, just an extra room off the main basement, but it did come stocked with a shit ton of canned vegetables, cases of Spam and Campbell's soup, tuna, and powdered milk. We primarily ate out of that "bomb shelter." We also ate a lot of hot dogs, because the Engineering club my dad belonged to used to tour the hot dog factory, and after seeing how they were made, most of the other guys couldn't bring themselves to eat hot dogs after that especially not the free ones they got from the factory at the end of the tour, so they'd give them to my Dad, and we'd freeze them.

Mom didn't work, but that was because paying for childcare would have eaten up any wages she might have brought in.

I never knew how much our heating bill was, because Mom never wanted us to know how little we actually had. Which is one reason I really suck at budgeting now. My Mom went through some amazing financial contortions to make sure my sister and I never really knew how tight things were.

When I was ten, we moved to Boise, ID, and up into the Middle Class. My folks had sold the house in Michigan for twice what they'd paid for it ($20,000) and bought a house in Boise. My sister and I had our own rooms, and we could afford things like frozen vegetables, instead of canned, and we never had powdered milk in the house again. I finally got to see the modern labels on Campbell's soup. We got all of our clothes new, and I actually had a brief flirtation with label whoring, and then discovered that Calvin Klein jeans fit like shit, and went back to Levi's (which cost $12 back in the day) and factory seconds Seattle Blues. It was kind of cool, really. We could afford to fix stuff when it broke, although Dad still did most of the repairs on the cars himself.

Then, when I was 16, my Dad got laid off. He worked in Denver for a while, but that company looked to be going under, so he got a job in Ohio. Just before we could sell the house, the government announced a big HUD auction, and our offer disappeared. My folks had to turn the house over to the bank.

In Ohio, my mom had to work too so we could afford our apartment. Dad worked a lot of overtime, Mom worked evenings. We barely scraped by. My parents' credit was shot from losing the house, and from all the stuff they'd had to put on credit cards for us to survive when shit happened, like my Dad not working for several months, or when he went to work for those guys in Denver his paycheck bouncing, which happened a couple times.

After nine months in Ohio, a company in Seattle head-hunted my Dad and since everyone but Mom was fucking miserable in Ohio, we moved again.

In Seattle, with Mom working, we did manage to emerge back into the middle class. We had decent health insurance for the first time in, oh, ever. So I could get my asthma properly treated. I graduated high school here. It took another 3 or 4 years for my folks to get their credit in shape to actually buy a house. But they did. I went to community college and got an AA to get the basic and breadth shit out of the way first cheaper, and to be able to stay on my parents' insurance. I worked nearly full time while going to community college.

Right now, my folks are doing ok. Dad got laid off just recently, again, but picked up a long term contract on the other side of the state. They're looking at "selling" the house to my sister and her boyfriend, and renting over there for while.

Now, me.

My folks couldn't afford to send me to University, because all of the various economic ups and downs had eaten any college fund they might have started. And my Dad had gotten laid off two months before my wedding and six months before I started at a four year University, so we did Financial Aid and student loans. And I worked all through school, frequently two or more jobs.

After graduating, we did all right as I worked 60 hour weeks in the tech industry for a company that expected me to be tech support, network administration, purchasing and training all in one. After two years of that bullshit, I decided it was worth it to take out more student loan debt to go back to grad school and get the fuck out of tech. So back I went.

When I got out, done except for my thesis, I got a job as an admin at another university, and discovered that in the Seattle area if I tried to for teaching positions, I would be making less than poverty level wages. Working as an admin at a University gave me really good benefits, and more money than I could make teaching.* Which kind of killed my impetus to finish the thesis.

I will though. I swear.

Right now, the Boy and I are surviving. He got let go from his job. Mine makes enough to support us, just. We live with a room-mate, so we can afford to live in Seattle. But the thing is, while my folks are doing ok, and his are, too (paid off the house, retired, his Dad still working part time), if I lose my job, or things get any economically worse, we're fucked.

Neither of our families can afford to help us out more than minimally. They don't have the room or resources to take us in. They don't have the money to pay our rent, or any of our bills. We are pretty much on our own. Yes, we have friends, but a lot of them are in the same boat we are. Particularly in this job market.

The reason I present to you this economic roadmap of my life is to point out that economic stability can be really fleeting, especially in the laissez faire corporate atmosphere that currently exists. I'm pretty sure the days of the gold watch retirement are well and truly over.

And also to point out that a college education is no talisman against poverty. Not anymore. Its also not a terribly accurate predictor of class any more, either.

*Not kidding. I have several friends who are teaching at the college level right now, and I make more money than any of them.


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October 2012

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