Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It's not always about class, and class is always part of it.

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

Like many couples my partner and I talk over our day during dinner. I shared that I had had an interesting discussion in my Group Dynamics and Leadership class about the importance of race in the everyday lives of people. As usual for this discussion many of my students who are ethnic majority did not fully grasp the importance of race in the everyday lives of the students who were ethnic minority. The class discussion was very civil, after all these were graduate students who had good interpersonal skills, and the discussion did not go far enough. I will make sure to come back to this topic in other classes with my students.

After hearing my story my partner made the observation “It's not always about race, and race is always part of it.” As good intellectuals, being both readers and leaders, we explored over dinner how this applied to class, religion, gender, and other things in life.

Foregrounding and backgrounding social class.

According to research (Medina, 2014) our brains don't multi task at all – the foreground blots out the background. Watching a group of people pass a ball and counting the number of passes limits our ability to see the person in the gorilla suit walk by in the background. Now that you have been sensitized to this idea the YouTube experience won't work as well for you. You have learned to switch foreground and background and look for the gorilla. Try watching the YouTube video and see how it works.

What does this have to do with anything? What we place in the foreground gets our attention, everything else goes to the background. An interpersonal interaction gives us a variety of foregrounding options. Our personal preferences for foregrounding are interesting; why do we choose to foreground certain aspects of a social interaction? When we foreground something the background fades away. The background does not disappear, it fades into the background.

We can learn to move your focus more easily between foreground and background. We can get good at switching the foreground and background in the face-vase graphic with some practice. We can learn to intentionally place things in the foreground. In the conversation in my class the students who were ethnic majority did not have ethnicity in the foreground at all, and may not have had a well developed sense of race to effectively place it in the foreground. The students who were ethnic minority foregrounded race quickly and easily. Unfortunately every minority student has practice in foregrounding their minority status. My job as a teacher is to help everyone become aware of foregrounding and backgrounding, and to help everyone develop a sense of race, class, gender, religion, and all other critical identities that they can foreground, as well as learning to foreground research, adult development theory, institutional mission, and so on.

When I make presentations at conferences, staff development events, and in class I seek to help the audience foreground social class in two ways. First to create dissonance and second to help them develop a good sense of class for themselves. First, because audience members typically think of themselves as middle class, I use the conflict between their current felt social class and their attributed social class by using US demographics. For example 11% of the people over 25 in the US have a graduate or professional degree, this is not in the middle of any distribution. 2% have a Ph.D. degree. 30% have a Bachelor's degree. None of this is in the middle of educational attainment. I present data on family and personal income and on occupational prestige to create some cognitive dissonance that has emotional salience. This creates an unresolved internal conflict that foregrounds social class.

Second I try to help participants develop a sense of their own social class, and to use that foregrounded sense of social class to experience the world around them. I will often use consumer products to help participants understand how they assign social class to objects. For example, which has higher social class status: Beer or Martinis? Helping participants to explore, in the foreground, their current felt social class is an effective way to create class consciousness.

As with students who are ethnic majority discussing race, members of the social class majority don't foreground social class very well. Students who are in the social class minority on campus have ample opportunities to foreground social class on campus. With the ability to foreground social class comes the temptation to keep it always in the foreground. It's not always about social class, and social class is always part of it.

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Pear Press.