Sunday, October 28, 2007

A God-Sized Wedge

I went to a F/friend's birthday party last weekend at the meeting house. The first person who talked to me was a young Friend (perhaps 15) and he said, "Where did you graduate from college?" This young person assumed that because I was an adult at a Quaker meeting, I have a college education. It colored my whole night. I withdrew. I was upset and crabby.

It makes me wonder what God is saying to me right now.

I am living my passion, and trying to live up to my Light. If I could do anything I wanted in the world, I would write. All the time. But my working class upbringing cuts against this effort. On a cellular level, I feel guilty just writing. Yet when I write, I blossom in ways I never thought I could. And people are moved by my writing.

Just not Quakers.

Before going back to school, I really thought I was a bad Quaker. I didn't say the right things in the right way. Being at school has taught me that I'm not a bad person or stupid. It's taught me that, in fact, I'm quite bright and what I have to say and do is valuable.

When Friends read my blog, they want to argue with me. They want me to hear how their experiences are exactly like mine when they're not (because they did not grow up working class). They want to use my experience to invalidate me. Supportive people email me privately but few post public comments.

In September, I blogged about Friends and education and where that fits in our testimonies. Someone at my school read my post (perhaps because I linked to my school's website) and it's spread through the campus like a virus. I've gotten a dozen emails from people about my blog. Several people I've never met want to meet and talk about class, including the president of the university. A sociology professor I've never had sent me an op-ed he wrote that affirms my experience of class.

And once again, school is providing affirmation and an outlet for my passion. Quakerism sure does look like it's providing a big fat wall. That or God's putting a wedge between me and Quakerism.

A God-sized wedge.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Class & Cool Whip Contempt

Tonight Liz and I went to see a presentation by Ahmad Hijazi from Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a village in Israel working toward a vision of peace. At one point, he talked about changing the paradigm of oppressor/oppressed to oppressor/obeyer (as in, allowing that the oppressed has some agency) and it spoke to my condition.

During dinner before the presentation, we were talking about pumpkin pie, which I love, and I told Liz that I love pumpkin pie with real vanilla ice cream. Then I remembered enjoying the Cool Whip my mother put on on pumpkin pie. She kept hers in the freezer and I'd eat it right out of the ice box, frozen like ice cream made from marshmallows. So light and sweet.

But at some point in my adult life, I learned that there was something wrong with me if I liked Cool Whip. So I began to disdain it as inferior to things like whipped cream and 'real' ice cream.

My mother and society taught me to hold in high esteem middle class culture and to scorn working class culture. And I bought into the system heart, mind and soul.

Agent. Obeyer.

When I came to Friends, I was ready, willing, and able to learn so much more disdain than I'd ever learned.

Here's a sampling of what I specifically learned from Friends to hold in contempt:

Not having at least an undergraduate degree
Not trying to get at least an undergraduate degree
Shopping at Wal-Mart or Sam's Club
Eating non-organic foods
Drinking tap-water
Drinking alcohol
Buying or wearing clothes made in sweat-shops
Driving a car that guzzles gas and emits pollution
Bringing fried chicken to potluck
Watching television
Joining the military
Buying books from instead of a local bookstore
Dressing up for Quaker events
Wearing deodorant with aluminum
Being angry
Telling the truth to someone's face
Speaking with 'broken' grammar
Writing with same

Now before you get all your undies in a bunch and think that I'm criticizing these beliefs, I'm not. I, in fact, drive a Prius and bike when I can. I wear natural deodorant. I'm getting a BA. I correct people when they say 'further' but they mean 'farther'.

Some might say a selection of the values above are specifically Quaker or come out of our testimonies. But I bet if you show this list to a Unitarian or any other lefty, they'd agree with it as a list of things to disdain; Unitarians and the left in general are also pretty middle- and owning-class homogeneous.

What exactly are we saying to a newcomer if we scowl at them when they ask if we watched the most recent Survivor episode? Or if we sneer when they invite us to a bar for a drink? Or if we tease someone who has dressed up for Meeting?

Perhaps it's our scorn for some of these things (and not the practice of simplifying our lives or making our lives match our values) that keeps our Meetings class-homogeneous.

I'd like to unlearn my scorn and learn how to value the gifts and culture of my working class upbringing. Essentially, I'd like to stop obeying.

I just don't know if I'll try Cool Whip again.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Guest Post: Bill Samuel

Bill Samuel added this in comments to my last post on education and I felt it important and relevant enough to post on its own (after getting permission from him). In part, I wanted to highlight his post because my next posts will be about my experience of class and culture in Meeting.

You can read more about Bill here and here.

From Bill Samuel:

The class homogeneity seems most acute among liberal unprogrammed Friends. Other varieties of Friends seem more diverse.

I remember one year when I visited the yearly meeting sessions of Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region. The Friends Action Board (their social concerns group) reported on a new Federal program to allow churches more involvement in training for those on public assistance. The differences between my home yearly meeting and Eastern Region were very evident when they presented it as a way to help people within their churches. In my or other liberal YMs, it would have been presented as a way to help "them" not us.

I have a theory that the class homogeneity among liberal Friends is related to their lack of a clear spiritual center. It has been my experience among Christ-centered Friends and other Christ-centered churches that class is less of an issue, because the uniting factor is Jesus Christ. Without a clear, explicit uniting factor other than something like class, a group tends to gravitate towards becoming a club more united by socioeconomic and cultural factors.

And in fact many are seeking that their meetings be such a club. When I have engaged in conversations with liberal Friends about the issues of lacking racial, educational and economic diversity, most of the time eventually something along the lines of "if have many of them come into the meeting, it will change the character of the meeting" comes out with the clear assumption that such change would be bad.

I belonged to a meeting that was in an area which had undergone significant demographic change since it started, but the meeting had not. There was a newspaper article which highlighted the issue for me. It focused on a couple of other churches in the same area. They had seen the change, done work to understand the needs of the people coming in, and changed to be a welcoming and helpful place for the new population. Both the other churches and Friends recognized changing the demographics in the congregation would mean deeper changes. The other churches embraced change; Friends rejected it.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Education Continued

Wow, this seems to have struck a cord with folks. Some good questions are being brought up. And some not-so-good questions too.

I want to hold up something quakermom said in my comments because I want to make sure folks see that I'm not the only one seeing these issues.
I have been thinking a lot about class in my meeting. We're in a university town, and there are many professors in our meeting. In addition, people seem to very uncritically value academic achievement and to buy into standard views of academic standards. i remember when one of the kids in our meeting was accepted to Smith, her mother announced it during Joys and Sorrows, and there was an audible, "Oooh, Smith" through the room. Things like that make me very uncomfortable--do we value less the young man who hasn't gone to college but is apprenticing in carpentry instead? I don't think, if asked, anyone would say so--but we act like we do, and I wonder how that affects our kids.

We're also in the process of building our meetinghouse, and this has brought issues of money and affluence into view. The number of families who have been able to give $10,000 or more to the meeting for our building has staggered me.

Even though I am a good fit for the meeting in terms of my own class background, current family income, and academic history, I am becoming less and less comfortable in it, in large part because of the way these issues seem largely unacknowledged and unexamined. I've been brining some of them into the light as way opens; we'll see what happens.
She asks how valuing one kind of education over another affects kids in the Meeting. And that question makes sense. She's a parent and blogs about being a Quaker parent.

I wonder, though, how it affects the adults in our Meeting who haven't/can't/don't meet such a standard of 'excellence'. I wonder how it portrays our values in contrast with what we say our values are. I wonder what the working-class first, second or third-time attender thought when everyone went "oooh." Did they keep coming?

I can tell you how it affects me. I feel shame. Embarassment. I feel like I'm not good enough. I want to hide.

Hysterywitch said:
I am therefore uncomfortable with the notion that the choice to work in a creative or intellectual field is an indication of classism.
I'm not saying that working in a creative or intellectual field is classist. I'm in school to get my BA in creative writing and intend to work in a creative field. And I don't think that act is inherently classist. I am, however, able to use my current financial privilege to do so. I don't know if I'd be able to do it if I didn't have such privilege. All I'm doing is acknowledging this privilege.

In fact, that's all these posts are asking Friends to do. Look at our individual and collective privilege. Let's make it transparent so that we can be in congruence with what we say we believe, that everyone is equal.

Let's not ooh and ahh over one young Friend's acceptance into Smith without ooh-ing and ahh-ing over another Friend's choice to learn a trade or go to a less elite institution. Let's not assume that every Friend we come into contact with has a college education, or even wants one.

Last but not least, lets figure out how to dismantle this system that favors the financially privileged.

Finally, Thee Hannah wrote:
Which begs the question: If you feel isolated at meeting because of your working-class background, what are you doing to educate the rest of us?
Hmmmm. That sure sounds like you're expecting me to undo a system I didn't create and a system that oppresses me but not you.

I'm writing this blog which is being read by lots and lots of people. But I'm just one person and one person has never been able change an oppressive system without allies.

So what are you doing to educate other Quakers who have privilege? How are you going to be an ally?