Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Blue Collar

or, Coming To Terms With My SocioEconomic Status.

Race/Gender/Class. Over and over I have analyzed and deconstructed the intersections of these categories. I've discussed and read and banged my head against them. I've thrown in sexuality and religion and banged them around some more. I even decided against going to graduate school because I was sick of talking about race/gender/class and decided I wanted to DO something with my knowledge/experience/thoughts about race/gender/class. Here are my recent thoughts on race/gender/class and my job in Oakland.

I am a privileged white woman. I was raised in a solidly upper-middle class family by "white collar" parents. Both of my parents worked out of the home in business professions- in fact, they worked in professions that I'm still not quite sure I understand- "management" and "consulting" are words that are in my vocabulary but aren't really in my comprehension. One of those words you read all the time or say all the time but are just pronouncing accurately, not really grasping. "Blue collar" was one of those phrases, too. As a child, I knew people who worked jobs that weren't quite like my parents', and I understood that they made substantially less money than my parents. They were teachers, or waitresses, or other kinds of things that were more like "service industry" jobs. As a teenager I knew someone who's dad was a "chicken sexer" at a factory farm. Part of this is due to living in the city- there are public works jobs and construction jobs here, but no farm related jobs, and not a whole lot of factory jobs. But I didn't know any children of police officers or mail carriers, or really any city workers. Some definitions of blue collar workers discuss the regional nature of the work: there really aren't many mines in Oakland, or lots of car factories like in Detroit.

As I grew up, I had all the luxuries that my status as a white, upper-middle class person afforded me, and I carry those privleges with me today. I had a superior education and can speak two languages fluently (or none at all, depending on the day). I have a drivers' license, I have traveled to multiple places in and outside of the United States, and I have connections in various professional fields and I am able to support myself and my dog in the manner and city that I chose. And I have chosen a "blue collar" profession, in animal-related law enforcement. I literally wear a blue collar every day. (City law enforcement in California usually wears blue and county usually wears green/beige combos.) I perform labor that is often physical, and I am paid hourly. My job does not require a college degree (my sister likes to tease me about my useless degree- I don't blame her!), and I make a solidly middle-class income.

The privileged upbringing of mine carries with it some snobbery, of course. I think this snobbery falls mostly in the educational area- I'm pretty hard pressed to be gender-biased and although my peer group growing up was pretty economically uniform, I'm not blind to systemic failure that leads to poverty among my present-day peers. And although I truly believe there is no such thing as a complete lack of racism, I'm pretty honest with myself about working on anti-racist practice in my life. What is difficult for me is generally feeling "over-educated." Please don't lambast me here- I'm being honest about my experiences with race/gender/class and my current outfit (yuk yuk). I deal with people all day every day from all walks of life. I rarely find myself thinking "*insert racist/sexist/classist stereotype here* person is really a jerkwad," even in the tiniest part of my head. I do find myself thinking, and fighting myself for thinking it, I wish this person was a little more educated on x, y, z. This x, y, or z is often something like "how to get information." Intellectually I know the systemic problems that lead to poor/inadequate education (especially in Oakland), but on a gut level, in a blue collar setting, this is the place where I feel the rub of my new socioeconomic status the most. I learned how to learn, I learned how to find and access information, and I have the privilege of being able to use that knowledge. So many people that I deal with daily do not have this privilege.

It's my experience that city jobs are often a career path, or a step up for many people. They *are* relatively well paying (compare to service industry jobs, for example) and have good benefits. My job is a rewarding job, though hard. In an expensive area, these are good and difficult jobs to come by. Most people I went to college with either chose to 1) make the Big Bucks at private companies, or 2) went for advanced degrees and then went to private companies or academia or the professions, or 3) decided to Damn The Man and work at nonprofits for a pittance. This was often facilitated by some degree on dependence from their upper-middle class families, something I'm unwilling to do. So my initial peer group has chosen to stay on an "upwardly mobile" economic path, and my current peer group is on their own "upwardly mobile" economic path. I sometimes I feel like I have chosen the opposite of the "American Dream": I have chosen happiness over money. I have the best education money can buy, and instead of working to raise money to buy something else, I'm living to work. I'm working in a job that makes me happy and supports my life. I'm not upwardly mobile. I'm not going downhill anywhere, but I'm not going to own a big fancy house with 2 SUVs in the driveway. On the otherhand, I don't see foreclosure in my future, either.

It's an interesting space to be. I work with immigrants, first generation US citizens, mixed race people, transgendered people, people who's sexuality I will never know, parents, renters, home owners, etc. We are all (or almost all) members of a union, and we all wear a uniform (with a literal blue collar) that brings out strong emotions in people who encounter us. I am lucky to have the choice to be there. I could chose to go back to school. I could chose to work at a nonprofit for 1/2 of what I make now- I have done this before- assuming the job market has those jobs available right now. I could retire. Ok, I can't really retire.


KHB said...

we should talk about this some time. my feelings are very similar to yours, and i continuously wonder how we turned out the way we did. what made us different than many of our peers.

thb said...

Well, ah, er, gosh, maybe it had something to do with the awesome discussions had around the dinner table, where eating with your parental units (er, manager and consultant dinner meeting attendees) every night turned you into a well adjusted happy-go-lucky baseball-loving dog-friendly reading fanatic neat freak! Oh, and also gave you a great sense of humor and a love of brewskies...