Editor’s note: Susan Bodnar is a clinical psychologist who works with people from diverse backgrounds and teaches at Columbia University’s Teachers College and at The Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, two children and all of their pets.
By Susan Bodnar, Special to CNN
W.E.B. Dubois once said that even working white people benefited from the “the psychological wages” of membership in a dominant race. There is, however, more to the story of class in white America than dominance. The hardship and success of upward mobility has created a myth about white American class structure that obscures our truth.
TV shows like "Gossip Girl" make it seem as though most white Americans are simply privileged. Yet, according to U.S. Census data, almost 22 million white people live in poverty. An analysis of reported incomes suggests that people in that income bracket, as well as those with higher incomes, identify with being middle class. In a series of interviews about class status with white Americans, most are uncomfortable being seen as poor or wealthy.
Further, many don’t know what class status they inhabit. Despite the hard work that once ensured upward mobility, many white families have seen stagnant income growth. Others have accrued wealth without anything even resembling a work ethic. When members of different cultural groups marry, diverse traditions of class meet at the kitchen table. Siblings, parents and children can occupy different financial statuses. Some identify with class backgrounds from childhood more than their own.
Behaviors like how to speak, dress, move and gesticulate define class as much as income in white America. On a visit to Westport, Connecticut, I overheard residents complain about a guy who could afford a big house filling the driveway with fixer-upper cars perched on cement blocks. He had the money but not the class.
Gene Bailly, a retired professional living in Vermont who was raised in South Carolina, felt identified with his culture of poverty despite comparative financial success.
He explained, “Even though I worked as an administrator at Columbia University and was pursuing a graduate degree, I behaved and understood the behaviors of others through the lens of a kid growing up in the cotton mills. "
My father-in-law, Sam Schatsky, grew up poor on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but become a manager of an arts supply store, proudly raising a family in a New York City suburb. The direct line from ethnic immigrant to a thriving member of the so-called melting pot is no longer typical. So many white Americans have more than one socio-economic affiliation and their connection to each has been a circuitous path rather than a straight line. Lifestyles and values interact with incomes to create a class structure that is more kaleidoscope than pie chart.
Aren’t all of us part long-skirted immigrant grandmother, part someone who longs to work with his or her hands, part kid dreaming of becoming a firefighter or part parent working too hard to achieve a secure financial future?
Further, those of us who now enjoy an easier standard of living sometimes find the concept of class alien. We have been so self-guided, self-driven, self-educated and self-blaming that we no longer consider ourselves members of any group. Many succeed economically, but falter emotionally, having lost family support and friendships in the quest to fulfill an ambition.
Some relatives and friends still feel angry that I moved on, not realizing how much it hurts to leave home and disconnect from loved ones to fulfill yearning dreams. A young woman who attended a prestigious private high school on scholarship expressed similar feelings when recalling what happened when her mom volunteered for the new school’s fundraiser: “I watched her pick up her coat and leave while the other moms stayed for the event. She couldn’t afford a ticket.”
Newly acquired class status brings the fear of losing it, and the worry about how loss would affect family and community. Even though the median net worth of white Americans is just more than $81,000, economic insecurity is at a record high of 20.5%. Especially in these times, it seems like anyone’s financial architecture could crumble without warning.
Jeanne Egan, a marketing consultant in New Jersey, who comes from an Irish-American working class family, explains, “I got here on my own and I’m still on my own even though I have a supportive and loving partner. But the minute I stop making my new life happen economically is the minute status can slip away.”
Sadly, white racism is legendary. Yet tensions between the classes also occur. Some white people aim to buttress their self-worth by enacting superiority over other white people derogatorily termed, “white trash.” Bailly, the son of the teenage cotton mill workers, revealed “even though I was in the top 15 or 20 of my high school class of 200, the guidance counselor never once suggested my going to college because I was the kid of mill workers and he didn’t see us as college material.”
Scott Lenz started working at age 14 and eventually graduated with a bachelor's of business administration in economics from a college he could afford. He was hired as a corporate logistics manager. When his job performance evaluations indicated he qualified for a promotion to the financial department, he was denied because “I didn’t have the markers of the right background.”
The assumption that white people should be able to “make it” in the style of Horatio Alger, despite economic stickiness at the higher and lower income brackets, also contributes to class tension. Is the wealth of those who work in finance a new standard that renders others less worthy? Even successful people perceive that they have failed, making excuses for what used to be considered triumphs. Doctors, artists, small business owners and teachers, as well as those performing the maintenance tasks that support a functional society, bristle at being undervalued. The fundamental respect traditionally granted to everyone’s contributions, including those still building their lives, has waned.
Charles S. Smith, a 30-year-old custodian working the night shift at a Tucson middle school, keeps trying to afford to complete college. He feels stung when people assume he is an immigrant because of the job he holds. “People come up to me while I’m at work and start speaking foreign languages to me,” he said, “as if they can’t believe that a regular white American could be doing such a job.”
Kelly Washburn, a strategy and communications consultant in New York, lost her job during the "Great Recession." Comparing her life to how hard it was for her widowed mother to raise a family, she now feels the expectation that "anyone can make it" denies a piece of reality.
She said, “We can’t, by definition, all be exceptional. We can’t all transcend the statistics."
Yet we relentlessly demand it of our selves. We trudge forward in pursuit of the same things that motivate most Americans: healthy meals, an excellent education, travel, a decent place to live, and a few good clothes. But those things now cost more money than most people have.
The real secret of class in white America is that whiteness is like our own Frankenstein. We built a giant creature of spectacle and entitlement that has taken on a life of its own, requiring more of our resources to feed it. But no matter what their class status, no white American is ever quite that white.
The opinions expressed are solely those of Susan Bodnar.