December 13, 2009

Occasional reviews meets existential crisis: over-identifying with Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo (Wiley, 2004).

Quick summary: Limbo is about a largely-hidden segment of American society: blue collar children who grow up to be white collar adults, and all the ups and downs that come with living in between classes. It’s a pretty good book, and I found that I identified with it in many ways. There are certainly flaws: for one thing, it’s written by a journalist and aimed at a general audience, so by necessity it isn’t as detailed or analytical as I would like. Lubrano also tends to be too broad in his class definitions, and I frequently wonder where, exactly, he draws the line between “middle class” and “upper class.” His subject pool also limits his argument somewhat: most of the people he interviewed are from the East Coast, most of them attended elite Ivy League schools, most of them went on to hold high-ranking positions, and most of them are from the baby boom generation. I wonder how his argument holds up for younger “straddlers,” as he calls them (us, really), for those from the West Coast, for those who didn’t become professors or high level executives but instead became a part of the more “regular” middle class.

But aside from these general criticisms, I find his argument compelling, not least because there are very few books out there that look at class in this way. For a variety of reasons, class isn’t really discussed in our culture, and it’s difficult to talk about how it feels to be in between classes, especially since, like any other group, the middle class tends to overlook its own privilege. Most people don’t realize what they have; they don’t realize how much others have to struggle to attain things that simply came to them. This is something I’ve been thinking about more and more lately, and reading Limbo helped me to frame the ideas I’ve had swirling around in my head, helped give me a language to explain the way that class functions in my own life.

One of the major themes in Lubrano’s work is the importance of cultural capital:

People born into the middle class to parents with college degrees have lived lives filled with what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.” Growing up in an educated, advantaged environment, they learn about Picasso and Mozart, stock portfolios and crème brulee. In a home with cultural capital, there are networks: Someone always has an aunt or golfing buddy with the inside track for an internship or some entry-level job. Dinner-table talk could involve what happened that day to Mom and Dad at the law firm, the doctor’s office, or the executive suite.

Middle-class kids can grow up with what sociologists describe as a sense of entitlement that will carry them through their lives. This “belongingness” is not just related to having material means; it has to do with learning and possessing confidence in your place in the world. The bourgeois, Bourdieu says, pass on self-certainty like a treasured heirloom, from generation to generation. (p. 9)

I grew up being told how smart I was, how mature I was for my age. And I believed it. When I went off to college at 18, I thought I had the world figured out (obviously, this is partly due to the fact that I was 18). It was quite a shock when I realized how little I really knew of the world. It took a while for me to figure out that being intelligent was not that same as being worldly. There was so much that I didn’t know. Basic things, like how to make small talk at a cocktail party. Hell, I’d never even had a bagel until college.

Although I’ve gotten better, figured things out, I still find many social engagements completely terrifying. I always worry that I won’t know what to wear, what to say. I worry when I have people over to my place: what if it’s not good enough, not clean enough; what if my cooking is too basic, too middle American? I get nervous around people who are so casually middle and upper middle class. My friend’s parents, for instance. They’ve never been anything but gracious and lovely to me, and yet every time I’m around them I get tense and nervous. I start to worry that at any second I’ll say or do something and reveal myself as a classless heathen. I’m not sure I will ever get past this anxiety. There’s a real possibility that I will always feel like I’m faking my way through professional and social interactions.

It’s not as if middle-class kids don’t have issues in school…[but] middle-class students are doing something their parents did, something for which their parents could coach and prepare them. College is not such a leap from reality as the family knows it. (p. 89)

I think sometimes that I made it to college by accident and luck. Sure, I was a good student. But I never had any sense of what I would do after high school. My mother certainly never pushed me into anything. I never even thought about college until my junior year, when I was visiting San Francisco for the first time (love at first sight, incidentally) and my aunt’s boyfriend pointed Berkeley out to me while we were on our way to Alcatraz. The next fall, I noticed the Berkeley catalog in the career center and that was it. I was in love. I applied to Berkeley and to Humboldt, because that’s where my friends were applying. That was my entire application process.

Once I got to college, it was like a whole magical world, and I felt like I belonged there. But at the same time, I was more conscious than ever of the differences between myself and my cohort. In some ways, these differences were good: I understood that I appreciated things in a way they didn’t, because I’d had to work harder for them; and because my family wasn’t supporting me financially, my mother couldn’t threaten to withhold my tuition when I did something she didn’t like, as happened to many of my friends. In other ways, though, these differences made me feel like an outsider, like a second-class citizen: money was a constant source of worry for me; the $300 computer I bought when I was 19 seemed like an enormous and terrifying purchase; I didn’t go on vacation, except to my mom’s. I don’t know that I would have been able to articulate it at the time, but I was always conscious of the fact that I had no safety net if things went wrong. I’ve always wanted to go to Europe, and I considered doing the study abroad program in college, but it all seemed so vastly intimidating: giving up my apartment (and finding a new one when I got back); potentially setting back my graduation schedule—not a lot of Native American Studies classes in European universities; having to take on the funding solely through financial aid, since I wouldn’t be able to work in a foreign country. And so I never went, and I’ve always regretted it.

In some ways, this little anecdote is just a blip in life, a choice not made, based on fear and the idea that there would always be time for these things later on. But in other ways, this has come to symbolize many of the ways that I always felt myself separate from those around me. In Limbo, Lubrano frequently ignores the importance of individual character in favor of class consciousness, and I’m trying not to do that here, but I will say that I lacked the confidence of those around me. I knew there would be no one to help me if I fucked up: no parents to give me the money for the deposit on an apartment if I came up short when I came back from Europe, or to help me out until I could find a new job. Part of this is me, my own perpetual lack of confidence, my tendency to play it safe, but I wonder if I would have made different choices if I’d had the sort of resources and familial support that most middle class children enjoy.

Money isn’t the only thing that has set me apart over the years. Although I wasn’t the first person from my family to go to college—I’m not even the first with a post-graduate degree—for me, college was definitely the break that Lubrano refers to. I grew up blue collar in a small town, and I’d been champing at the bit since I was 15. When I finally got out and into a university environment—into the Berkeley environment,  no less—everything seemed completely different. It was like the entire world just opened up to me. New people, new books, new experiences. The group of people I fell in with introduced me to the world of sex, drugs, and rock & roll (a slight exaggeration, but you get my point). Growing up, I had avoided both drugs and sex. In Lompoc, drugs meant dropping out of school and maybe going to juvie; sex meant pregnancy; both meant never getting out of town. But in Berkeley, the kids smoking pot and hooking up were also getting straight A’s and talking about philosophy. I felt like I had become part of the counter-culture that I had idealized in high school, part of the world that produced Kerouac and Ginsburg. I felt like I was doing something different with my life, making my own way in the world. I thought that’s what we were all doing.

In the years since I’ve graduated, though, I’ve seen many of those same people I hung out with getting jobs, getting married, buying houses in the suburbs, having kids. These aren’t bad things—and it’s not like I’m still sitting around getting stoned, either. But I kept feeling like I was missing something, and I didn’t understand why my fellow travelers in the college counter-culture were leading their parents’ lives. And then I had an epiphany: the college experience that I perceived as being different, special, a break with the past, was not a break for my middle class friends. College is like a middle class rumspringa: a protected time where it’s expected that you will experiment, push boundaries, expand your horizons, maybe even party a little too hard. But ultimately, you will go to class, graduate, get a job, get married, and have a normal middle class life.

But what do you do when college really is a break with the past? No matter how hard you try to hold onto the people and places you grew up with, choosing a different future always entails rejecting your past in some way. I don’t think it’s any accident that the people I’m closest to also don’t fit precisely: immigrants, fellow blue-collar straddlers, military kids. I have plenty of close white-collar friends, but I find myself most comfortable among those who understand the experience of carving their own way through life, whatever that means for them.

Ironically, the longer I’m part of the white collar world, the more I’m conscious of how much I don’t fit in. More than that, I’m bothered by how much I focus on class as a dividing line. A coworker talks about a trip to Thailand with her boyfriend, and I find myself resentful of her middle class background and presumed lack of student debt, and then I castigate myself because, in truth, I know nothing about her life or family, not to mention that a good portion of my own debt is my own fault and owes nothing to my class status. Ultimately, though, it’s hard not to feel that resentment when it seems that so many of your middle class compatriots simply don’t understand how fortunate they are. They never consider that maybe you came from a different world.

I don’t know what the answer is here. I don’t think there is one; this isn’t a yes-or-no question. Maybe it’s not even a question at all. Class is a way of understanding the world, but it’s not the only way. I think my increased sensitivity to it is just another aspect of my seemingly never-ending existential crisis, and I’d like to find a way to live with my differences, to be happy with my in-between status. I’d like to focus more on who I am and what makes me happy and less on what sets me apart from other people. Now let’s see if I can keep that in mind on the bad days.



  1. Good post, Kim. Glad to be a part of your misfit circle, altho, while on paper I suppose I am pure-strain straddler, I’ve never felt like one– which is not to say I’ve been unaffected by the ‘limbo,’ but only that I’ve never understood those factors as definitive.

    Malcolm once described something called the artist class and placed himself within it. I understood him then to mean someone to whom class is almost irrelevant. Your income may be high, middle, or low, but the way you move among people is conditioned instead by your passions, interests, and delight in variety and an attempt to work as much of the world’s experience thru the loom of your own personality and perception as possible.

    What is class to such energy and appetite?

    Now, this is a purely individualistic response to the subject. Sociologically, of course, class is immensely important and almost completely misunderstood. In part because the middle class is unconscious of it, and those who come from the lower classes to aspects of higher classes, education, income, etc, cannot adequately address either the people they came from nor the people they now mix with. The attitude is high-falutin’ to one set and humiliating in front of the other. The probably has something to do with the lack of a genuine intellectual tradition in this country.

    You know, I never really learned Russian. Being completely unused to working to learn anything, the study habits needed to acquire a foreign language were completely alien. For years I have counted this as an enormous failure in my life. A bitter, terrible experience that pointed to deep inadequacies that could potentially take down the entirety of my life.

    It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I took all the factors in. 1) I was working full time. 2) My financial aid had been revoked so that I was only able to pay for one semester out of a year. 3) I was politically involved, which took a lot of time and effort that I do not regret 4) In addition to my classes I was reading two or three books a week in areas of personal study 5) I was writing, mostly badly, but prodigiously and 6) trying, like many, to kill myself with drink.

    How the hell was I supposed to find the four-five hours a night my classmates spent studying, even if I could force myself to do it?

    But for the longest time I couldn’t see the obvious class-based reasons for my failure and chocked it up purely to my lack of self-discipline and ‘laziness.’

    Anyway– not to hijack your post. We should talk about this stuff more.

  2. i like this idea of “the artist class,” and i certainly agree that class is not definitive for everyone. i find it fascinating to see where people draw the internal/external line in their lives: how much of what they do, what choices they make, their personality, is shaped by sociological constructs like class, and how much is simply shaped by who they are. you and i, for instance, might have similar “straddler” backgrounds, but we are very definitely different people and we approach life differently.

    i think there’s something to your story about learning russian. just the other day, lyn and i were discussing our respective jobs, and how we feel guilty because we are not over-worked. like there is something wrong with us for getting paid to do easy work (i mean, come on, i’m blogging on company time right now). and at the company holiday party later that same day, one of our work studies was complaining about how he doesn’t have enough work and saying “look, i was raised blue collar; work is for working, and i’m not here to get paid to surf the internet for four hours.” and i realized, that’s how i was raised, too. i’m not trying to say that only the working class has a strong work ethic, but certainly my mother does. my running of the heyday office was but a pale imitation of her office management style. and i feel like if i’m not totally committed, doing my best, going above and beyond, then i’m somehow failing.

    all of this is to say that there’s a certain black and white view of work in the blue collar world, at least in my experience. one of Lubrano’s points that i didn’t touch on is that blue collar work lacks the office politics and deceptive nature that corporate culture often calls for. growing up, i was not encouraged to find excuses for failing, by my culture, my family, or myself. in my view, if i fucked something up, if i failed, then it was my fault. i saw everything personally, never systematically.

    and yet, in retrospect, i see how sociological and economic patterns played into my failures. you realized that your failure to learn russian was, at least in part, based on the fact that oh yeah, you needed to work to eat, and i have realized that my failure to get into any grad school at all the first time i applied was based on my inability to understand the grad school process. it wasn’t just that i didn’t know what i was doing, i didn’t know that grad school was in any way different from college. for all the time i’d spent around academics in college, i had never grasped the mechanics of the system, and i had no native knowledge of it (just try explaining a humanities phd program to electricians and carpenters). i didn’t know that i needed to ask people for help. i was used to doing things myself and just blundering on. i didn’t know there were resources out there for me. most of all, i didn’t know how much i didn’t know.

    again, i don’t want to slough everything off onto abstract constructions and mitigate my own responsibility. but i do think it’s important to acknowledge that abstract constructions have real-world impacts, and that people from a less privileged class, race, gender, what-have-you face obstacles that others don’t–from the “cultural capital” that gives them an ingrained knowledge of how the world functions to very practical matters like being able to focus on studying over worrying about how to pay the light bill.

    and yes, let’s talk about this some more.

  3. Just to make things even– I’ve always felt like people from middle and upper class backgrounds were missing valuable things. Perspectives, worldview… and the ability to move thru different worlds. They are missing something– and they not-so-secretly know it. It usually manifests in guilt-based politics.

    • ah, yes, liberal guilt. in a perverse way, i love studying the policies of the progressive era, which were supposed to fix all manner of social ills among the poor (a noble goal, to be sure), but which went about it in a way that a) was based entirely on a sense of noblesse oblige and paternalistic condescension; and b) thus included almost no input from the people being “helped” and so largely alienated them. no one wants to be told how to raise their children, especially not by someone who has never walked in their shoes, so to speak.

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