Your experience of social class is important for you and relevant in your life, and it is not generalizable to the social class experiences of others, even to those in the same social class. Not only are our experiences different, our definitions of class are different. In some ways social class is like photons. I am not a physicist but I know there are at least four different ways to describe a photon: wave, particle, Feynman’s model, and string theory. While I enjoy photons on a daily basis, I cannot say there is a single clear definition for them.
The primacy of the personal point of view about class became very clear to me when the “privilege meme” hit the Internet. A group of students and I had designed several staff development experiences to increase participants’ awareness of social class on campus. It is important to note that the group members represented a wide range of social class of origin. One of the experiences was a list of privileges associated with higher social class and the items on the list were drawn from published research literature. This experience was designed to be used on campus at US universities with students. N. Jeanne Burns at http://quakerclass.blogspot.com/ transformed this experience, with our permission, into an Internet experience where participants were invited to copy the list and highlight the privileges that they had. Quite quickly this became called the “privilege meme” and “What privilege to do you have” and was copied and commented on widely.
Most of the postings were on individual blogs, and the commentary became interesting. While most of the comments were positive, some were quite negative. The negative comments typically centered on specific privilege items noting that those items were not valid markers of class in the writer’s experience. This is akin to assuming that you know something about public K-12 education because you went to public school. This is also akin to asserting that an entire test is invalid because you don’t think one question is fair. The personal perspective on class is important, but it is not representative of any larger population. One clear response to the privilege meme in other English speaking nations was that the items reflected a US model of class for contemporary students. This was quite true. Just as class is an individual experience, that experience is embedded in a culture and a time.
Our goal in developing these experiences was to have participants increase their awareness of social class on campus and we had hoped that the discussion after the experience would help participants to learn a wider view of social class and learn from other students’ experiences.