Flat Agents of a Class

A TOWN in southeastern Connecticut has earned the stereotype of being ridiculously wealthy and old world. There is an annual debutante ball, a high percentage of prep school students, and a number of country clubs that tacitly discriminate against all non-Wasps.

Because I am from this town, I assiduously avoid asking people, "Where are you from?" They invariably respond in kind, and with time, my background has become a thing I am reluctant to claim.

But there are those who will ferret it out. And when they do, it too often becomes an issue. They proceed to ask, almost always in sinde or presumptious tones, "Were you a debutante?", "Do you belong to a country club?" or, "Do you know any Jews?"

There are worse offenses. One drunken college student once lurched at me at a party, yelling that I probably thought he was some lowly proletariat. Another, equally obnoxious, informed me, rather erroneously, that I would have to learn to live without maids. (My family has never hired a maid.) A political canvassing group I worked for refused to send me into a working class neighborhood, explaining that I would not be able to relate to the people, who (justifiably, they added) would hate me.

And a Brown student I met at a party told me that he knew where I was from by the way I stood. He was under the impression he immediately and deeply understood who I was because of where I came from; that I was superficial, sheltered, snobbish, and fiercely protective of my class's vested intersts.

STEROTYPES are frequently based in reality, but to use them as some sort of blueprint for people is unconscionable, simple-minded and dehumanizing. Very few politically conscious people would stand quietly by and listen to people extrapolate personal attacks from stereotypes. If I came from the inner city, who would dare ask me if my relatives were drug dealers? Or if I were from the deep South, would anyone ask which chapter of the Ku Klux Klan I belonged to?

But deriding the presumed wealthy by virtue of their socio-economic position has suddenly become easy liberal sport. It seems almost un-democratic not to have a deep and vocal contempt for those whose families are on a high rung of the socio-economic ladder. Classism has become cool.

Many would object to me using as lofty and academic a term as classism to describe the slights I have received in my life. They would argue that greater tragedies have befallen humankind than some whiny prep school brat getting her feelings hurt, and they would most certainly be right. The upper class is definitely not a persecuted minority, and we do live in a society structured by class--a structure that admittedly has benefitted me. But discrimination on a personal or social level, be it against the political majority or minority, makes people flat agents for their particular group, rather than individuals.

A friend of mine told me he found it hilarious that a woman had once told him that rich kids have alcoholic parents too. While the assertion was certainly awkward, the "rich kids" I know with alcoholic parents might not find the situation as funny as he does. There are people who believe that money is an effective buffer against suffering, and on the most basic level of comfortable subsistence, they are correct. But to think that money acts as a buffer for all pain is a simplistic and materialist notion that only reinforces classist myths.

IT IS unfair to tell people that privilege has left them dumb of the ways of the world. Such an assertion insults not only their intelligence and autonomy, but compassion. We are all capable of critically evaluating our enviroment, its impact on us and our place in a wider sphere.

Certain things are immutable. Race. Sex. Background. To dismiss or denigrate people on the basis of an immutable characteristic is unforgiveable prejudice. It breeds contempt and ignorance, and excuses people from responding to the thoughts and reactions of individuals.

It seems to some that my upbringing has rendered me incapable of any genuine or independent thought. When I argue in favor of social programs, I am dismissed as a "limousine liberal" who has a knee-jerk reaction to the poor that is steeped in class guilt. But when I say I believe that some works of literature are timeless classics, I am dismissed as typically conservative, classist, and ethnocentric. Any substantive arguments I make remain unaddressed.

I will avoid the simplistic argument that everyone has feelings and thoughts worthy of respect, though it is an immensely valid one. We all owe respect and deference to the viewpoints of others on issues that we cannot understand through experience. Certainly, race, sex and class grievances still exist, and must be redressed on a structural level. And those who espouse racism, sexism, and classism must be confronted. But it is wrong to exact retribution from individuals solely on the basis of group membership.

Some resentments are understandable on the most instinctive level. I understand a woman who, walking home, immediately fears a man she sees on the street. I understand how a person of color may be wary of being harassed by a white police officer. And I understand how someone can resent like hell those who have their basic needs met automatically, seemingly effortlessly, and who have opportunities that they might not even deserve.

But what is understandable on that level is not necessarily acceptable when it is translated into offensive behavior. Men and women are capable of recognizing and resolving their most instinctive reactions, and functioning on a level that is decent, fair and just. Discrimination rooted in those resentments is odious and indefensible. Even against whiny prep school brats.