Hugo Schwyzer does not want me to use ‘upper-class’ here.
I love my editors. But when my piece went up yesterday about class, the editors added this tag line You should always be proud of your family—even if they are preppy, upper-class, country club members.
The second adjective made me wince. Here’s why.
I teach at a small community college with an excellent theater department. A few years ago, I got an email announcing the spring production:
Follow a year in the lives of six upper-class friends through a series of holiday-themed parties as the Pasadena City College Performing and Communication Arts Division proudly presents “The Country Club” which opens on Friday, March 23, in PCC’s Sexson Auditorium.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy-drama tells the story of a young and charmingly neurotic woman who retreats from a failed marriage and decides to go back to her upper-class hometown in Pennsylvania. There, she finds love, friendships, and tragedies. The play consists of nine scenes and evolves around different holidays.
This dramady reflects the typical White Anglo-Saxon Protestant domain of the upper-class, said Duke Stroud, PCC professor and director of the play. “It’s a portrait of dysfunctional relationships, which are funny and dramatic at the same time.”
I knew nothing about the play, and as it turned out, didn’t get a chance to see it. But the press release got under my skin instantly. You see, I hate the use of the phrase “upper class” to describe American families.
I grew up in culture that described itself as “upper-middle class.” And in the WASP circles of my youth and my family background, I certainly encountered plenty of remarkably well-to-do people. I know the world of “clubs” fairly well, and though that world holds relatively little interest for me today, it’s still quite familiar. (Or as John Bradshaw would write it, family-ar). And here’s the thing: if there’s one maxim “our kind of people” all agreed on, it was that talking explicitly and publicly about class was prima facie evidence that you lacked it. Nothing could be more more NOKOP (“not our kind of people”) than to describe anything, be it a social gesture or a fashion accessory, as “classy.” Once, while at a family luncheon, I used the term “classy” to describe the play of one of John McEnroe’s opponents (we had just watched a Wimbledon match on television.) From the reaction of a few of my older relatives, you would think I had dropped the f-bomb. “I think you want to say that his behavior was ‘gentlemanly’, dear,” one of my elders advised me. Another suggested that “sporting” would have been an even more appropriate choice. I was about 14, and just starting to get the picture: we don’t talk about class.
And even worse than calling something “classy?” Referring to the existence of an American “upper-class.” I was raised to believe that the only authentic upper-class that exists is to be found in Europe. As one hired geneaologist famously told my great-aunt Carmen when she speculated that we had many aristocratic forebears, “Mrs. Starr, dukes don’t emigrate.” “Dukes don’t emigrate” became the standard bon mot we all used (and still do) whenever anyone speaks of an upper class in the United States. As far as we’re concerned, we maintain the satisfying fiction that almost all are middle class: there’s lower-middle, middle-middle, and upper-middle. And the less said specifically about these strata, the better.
To be really honest, I feel protective of the very sort of people the press release from our theater department seemed to disparage. Other than the cringe-inducing use of “upper class”, it wasn’t offensive. But here’s the really blunt truth: there are very few folks on my campus—faculty, staff, students—who come from a WASPy upper-middle class background. On at least one side of my family, I do. And when I read the press release, a big part of me felt as if this play (about which I knew zilch) was going to caricature a culture that I value —and that those doing the caricaturing on stage would, on this campus that is over 80% non-white, be those who know little or nothing about the culture they lampoon.
It’s embarrassing to cop to this. Frankly, I’m prepared to believe that there’s a certain element of both classism and racism in my response. And Lord knows, despite years and years of teaching at a diverse urban community college, despite living in a glorious, successful, interracial marriage, I still struggle with my own bigotry, my own elitism. I am not proud of it, and I continue to work spiritually and psychologically to overcome whatever vestiges of prejudice remain in my soul.
The “WASPy country-club set” don’t need me to defend them. Yes, I continue to maintain quite seriously that we don’t have an authentic “upper-class” in this country. I continue to feel uncomfortable when others discuss what sort of behaviors or clothing choices are “classy” or not. But my intellectual and political training tells me that there’s no point in defending those who have had the greatest access to power and privilege in our nation’s relatively brief history. My commitment to justice and equality tells me that there is much in what I call my heritage that is ugly, oppressive, elitist, emotionally stunted and whoppingly superficial.
There is also, I am absolutely convinced, much that is joyous, harmless, and good. And the true upper class (which is not the same as the very wealthy) is found in the aristocratic manors and castles of Europe. Not here.