According to most of the adults in our lives, openly talking about money is the rudest thing a person can possibly do—there’s a good chance we could only embarrass some of our parents more we you burped, farted, and swore in unison while seated at the president’s dinner table…and then asked how much he paid for his car. But we at Rookie don’t buy this “no money, no problems” attitude about what’s OK to talk about. There’s no better way to expand our perspectives than to try to understand what’s going on with other people, and there’s no better path to understanding than straight-up talking it out. Publicly discussing the actual factuals of class privilege isn’t bad manners—it’s a necessity if we want to support and educate one another, which I’m pretty sure we all do!
If we never discussed our backgrounds and the privileges and hardships they’ve granted us, we’d be willfully choosing to ignore the effects that culture and class have on people’s lives, which leads to some of the worst kinds of prejudice, oppression, and resentment. So we decided to have an open conversation on Rookie as a staff. Sure enough, we all learned a ton about not only the ways other people think about money, but the real-world implications of “class” in all its blatant and sneaky permutations. And guess what? No one said “HOW DARE YOU” or “I NEVER” even one time, even though we were talking about that paper!
We had this conversation over Facebook, where a few of us instigated new threads by asking questions (in bold in this post). We hope you find our not-so-master class on class as valuable and enriching as we did. —Amy Rose
AMY ROSE: Let’s start off with a very basic question: What class did you consider yourself growing up, and why? What class do you consider yourself now, and why? Growing up, I considered myself lower-middle-class, because while my family struggled financially, I was a white person growing up in a wealthy area, and I was able to go to school because of financial aid and scholarships. Now, though, I’m solidly middle class: I can take care of my bills, pay my rent, and have some semblance of a disposable income despite working in a creative field and living in an expensive city.
SUZY: It’s fluctuated so much throughout my life! Until I was in middle school, my family was low-income. Then we were middle-class for a while, then the recession hit and my parents had a hard time finding steady jobs, and we sank back down to where we’d been. Now that I’m on my own, though, because I have a full-time job, a college education, and an apartment in New York, I would consider myself middle-class.
CHANEL: I have had a similar trajectory: lower-middle-class until about middle school, then my mom went through a series of promotions at work and I would say we entered the middle class? Right now, though, if I had no help from my family, I would definitely be on the low end of the spectrum, because I barely make enough money to rent an apartment (I stay with my sister for this reason).
STEPHANIE: Same here! My parents are both college-educated nurses, but when I was younger, they were just beginning their careers and their jobs didn’t pay well. We lived in a working-class neighborhood in St. Louis. Then, when they were making a bit more money, we moved to a middle/upper-class suburb of Chicago. I could really tell the difference: They were able to buy a house, and suddenly I was asking my mother to buy me certain things to measure up to my peers at school. My mom didn’t understand why I needed them, and honestly neither did I, but I wanted them. She never bought me lots of status-y things, but to this day, when I can’t pay my student loans or my dentist bill, she helps me out. I know what a huge privilege that is, and that freedom probably defines my class status more than the amount of money I’m currently making.
ARABELLE: I think I’m probably somewhere in the middle class right now, because I don’t have to worry about too much. But once I graduate and have to live 100 percent on my own, it will likely be a different story!
RACHAEL: I had an inflated idea of my family’s class status when I was growing up (I thought we were upper-middle-class, but we were really lower-middle), because I was surrounded by a lot of people who were poorer than us; and now I think I have a deflated view of my class status (I’m probably technically middle-class, but I feel far below that) because I live in Washington, DC, where there are a lot of rich people, and I’m not one of them. I’m the sole earner in my household right now, and I’m supporting an unemployed sibling, so money is really tight and I feel poorer than I did growing up, even though in reality I have a really good standard of living. I know that everything could come crashing down at any moment, and that’s a fear I’ve never felt before.
ANAHEED: My parents moved to this country as immigrants in 1970, and for a long time my family was probably in the lower half of the middle-class, but they were both doctors, so pretty soon they were making good money and we had all the trappings of an upper-middle-class life. That’s where we were for most of my upbringing, and it gave me a sense of (material) safety and freedom and expectation that I think still defines me as upper-middle-class even though I personally do not make enough money to classify as such in a strictly financial sense.
DYLAN: I will probably always feel like I’m in the upper part of the middle class, for the same reasons as Anaheed: My family and how I grew up gave me the freedom to pursue a creative profession despite the lack of any guarantee of its ever “paying off.” Even when we were almost broke (when I was in college and working two jobs so I could stop stealing from Whole Foods and had my phone turned off), I still felt like we were upper-middle. My extended family was always there if I needed anything, and there was always the understanding that things were definitely going to get better. Whatever struggles any of us went through, they were considered a temporary dip in our normal quality if life. To me that’s the difference between poor and broke.
RACHAEL: I think that’s what I’ve been struggling with in my answer to this question. I’m frequently but temporarily broke—as in, having zero dollars—but only because I have a not-cheap apartment in an expensive city. But even when I’m penniless I don’t feel poor, because I go home to a fairly nice place and I eat pretty well, and, more important, I have a safety net.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, living paycheck to paycheck is way different from being poor.
SUZY: Yes, I think we need to reach some common understanding of what’s poor versus what’s broke.
DYLAN: I don’t remember where, but I’ve heard a definition of poverty that goes something like: Poverty is being so consumed with daily survival that one can’t begin to focus on the future. Poor is the place you go when all the safety nets have fallen through, or you don’t have the resources in place to stay afloat—like family who can help or schools with scholarships. Broke is when I had to live without my smartphone for a couple months. Poor is never having a damn smartphone! The difference is less about dollars and numbers and more about resources and access.
PIXIE: Right, I think it’s important to remember that class isn’t always synonymous with financial status; there are signifiers that allow people to maintain class privilege even when they’re struggling financially. Can you think of any such signs you’ve noticed? I’d agree with Dylan that access is a big one—particularly in the digital sense. Being able to have internet at home is a huge deal that a lot of people take for granted.
CAITLIN D.: Obvious ones: education and membership in any of the networks of rich white people who enjoy perpetuating themselves. (There is some overlap between these two things.)
ARABELLE: Access to libraries and public programs helped me prepare for college and stuff. I got farther along academically because I had amazing public school teachers and librarians. That accounts for a HUGE part of my privilege.
CHANEL: At my high school, if you were in AP classes and excelling, you were assumed to be higher-class. When I got into the University of Virginia, a lot of my classmates said they couldn’t possibly understand how I got in (while they were rejected), because I was black—which I think to them meant I was inherently lower-class and therefore could not be as smart or successful as them.
ANAHEED: Health insurance! I have had checkups, vaccinations, dental care, a gyno, birth control, an eye doctor, THERAPY, meds, etc., for my whole life, and I would be a completely different person, physically and psychologically, if I hadn’t.
PIXIE: Yeah, access to mental health care/medication is a big one.
ANAHEED: The way people speak is a huge indicator. Also cultural references. Also personal style.
JAMIA: No joke about speech! My cousins used to tease me for sounding “talking white” and I’d say, “Call me when you need someone to talk to the debt collectors.” They’d always laugh and be like, “Ooh, good idea!”
ESME: In England, there’s very much this idea of CULTURAL, rather than financial, capital determining your class status, and the lines between the classes are blurring a bit because people are increasingly categorized by the culture they’ve been exposed to rather than the money they have or grew up with. A lot of my friends who grew up in working-class homes point to me as a person of privilege because of the emphasis my parents put on “the arts.” They look at my life and are like, “Not everyone can just decide to be an illustrator and fuck off to New York,” as though such things came easily for me, when it was just as hard for my parents and me to make it work as it would be for them. But my buds still roll their eyes at anything I achieve and put it down to my “bougie” upbringing! And maybe I’m being obtuse, but I just find that so limiting! As if imagination and ambition are things that belong to “higher-class” people? Or, en plus, as if there’s something wrong or shameful about being the kind of person who just ISN’T very “cultured” in the hoity-toity sense and DOES just wanna stay in their hometown for the rest of forever? Idk!!!
SUZY: I also hate the idea that art is only a bourgeois endeavor; plenty of poor people (and people of color) are extremely artistic and are responsible for some highly influential work, like the blues, street art, etc. It’s wealthier people who have created barriers to that kind of expression and work—gatekeeping by means of language and access to space and resources. Now, pursuing the arts as a career is a totally different story—but being artistic or intellectual in general is not something only afforded to the upper classes.
JENNY: Something I noticed when I started at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was that in the three years I was there, there were ZERO black people in the poetry program, and it always bugged me. When I was in high school, my mom and I got into it so hard about me wanting to pursue writing. She said I was selfish and harming my future children and that she and my father didn’t even think about pursuing their passions, because that was something only the truly selfish who don’t care about providing for their nonexistent children would do. I realized later that it was a money thing. My dad came to the U.S. to get his PhD in linguistics, because back then in China you couldn’t choose your college major, it was given to you. He went through hell to get that degree, which he had to stop short of because he couldn’t pay for college and support his young family at the same time. By then we were living in a mostly white suburb in Long Island where following your dreams and passions was very much expected, and never questioned by the seemingly carefree kids whom I envied and wanted to emulate, so I didn’t really understand why my parents kept telling me that they would never support my writing ambitions. (My mom said she would call up Stanford, the college I went to, and tell them I was a convicted felon to get them to revoke my admission. She also threatened to go on a hunger strike until I agreed in writing that I would never try to be a writer!) But I get it now. I mean, what person who came up through a poor/working class background would choose, as a career goal, poetry—which literally is impossible to make a cent from? You’d need to already have a lot of financial stability, so that if you make zero dollars a year for the next 20 years off your poetry, you won’t end up in the gutter, because you already have something you can fall back on (e.g., family money).