Monday, April 30, 2012

Social class is hidden in plain sight

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

Believe what you know.  Social class is everywhere; it is within us, it surrounds us, and we all co-create it daily.  The social class divide only exists because of our collaboration.  Like the ninja, like the purloined letter, social class is hidden in plain sight.  We all see social class, we all participate in co-creating it, but we somehow make what we see invisible. 

“What does social class look like?” is not the key question here because it looks a little different for each of us.  The key question here is: “Why don’t we see social class?” 

In order to celebrate and work with social class we need to see it, claim it, and own it.  What prevents each of us from seeing social class?  What filter obscures our view of the obvious?
We see the designer purses, we see social hierarchy, and we see prestige colleges, clothing, and cars.  We each participate in the co-construction of prestige within our own lives.  We each know our place within the work, play, local, regional, and global hierarchy.  We each have a social class identity.  We each participate in celebrations and events that are authentic to our social class of origin and current felt social class.  We each have a social class culture with shared foods, attitudes, symbols, events, norms, dress, music, attitudes toward education, and much more.  We know social class in our lives, but we don’t believe what we know.

The reasons for our social class blindness are not cognitive; we all cognitively see social class cues.  The reasons for our social class blindness are emotional; the reasons are fear and ignorance.  You will have social class blindness reasons of your own, but we all share fear and ignorance.  How each of us manages our fear and how each of us manages our ignorance is a test of our character. 

Fear is the mind killer, fear leads to the dark side, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . . we do not lack for pithy statements on fear.  Fear is personal.  What do you fear in social class that makes you blind to it?  Naming your fear, owning it, and confronting that fear are the first steps to overcoming it.

I need to constantly confront my ignorance in order to become more effective.  I may have uninformed ignorance, for example I don’t know the poetry of Li Bai.  But, now that I know this about myself I have informed ignorance.  If I don’t take the time to learn his poetry then I have willful ignorance.  I am willfully ignorant about many things, like Li Bai, like bird habitat in North America, like organic chemistry, and that is OK in my life.  I am not willfully ignorant about social class, about gender, or about ethnicity because I try to be an effective world citizen and respect diversity. 

False knowledge is the illusion of knowledge.  False knowledge is the ignorance of accepting prepackaged, preconceived information, or accepting knowledge that is past its expiration date.  False knowledge is believing that I know something because someone told you something once.  False knowledge is dangerous because nothing motivates me to learn what I think I already know.  Why would I add tea to a cup that I believe is already full?  Indeed, why would I believe that the cup of knowledge can ever be filled? 

Knowledge has an expiration date, ignorance is a renewable resource.  Understanding your ignorance, owning it, and confronting are the first steps to overcoming it.

What will you do?
Fear and ignorance are not good reasons to avoid confrontation.  Social class is invisible to us because we do not want to confront it, see it, claim it, own it, and celebrate it.  Overcoming fear and ignorance is the path to seeing, claiming, owning, and celebrating social class. 

Without fear and ignorance social class can no longer hide in plain sight.

Note: I am indebted to Coffman Distinguished Professor Maurice Miller for our conversation about fear and ignorance.  I am indebted to Allport, Clark, and Pettigrew for their book The Nature of Prejudice

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