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.


earthfreak (Pam) said...

Dang, Jeanne, this is a great post!

And I just have to confess, I LOVE cool-whip, though I haven't had it in ages...

Reading your list brought out in me a response I'm seeing more and more, essentially,

"but that IS how it should be!"

As you say, I do see the value of an undergrad degree, organic food, efficient cars, etc, etc.

Which is radically different from being snobby about it.

I know I told you this in person, but I was interested by my horrified reaction to a friend who wore a "US Navy" t-shirt to a social event of liberals (more unitarians than quakers, actually, but you get the idea...) - her brother is in the navy, bascially cause he's always wanted to be a pilot and that was the way to do it, coming from his background, and she's proud of him.

And, wearing the shirt does not change anything about our country being at war, or how she thinks about war (she is, she says, "not a fan") or, especially, that she's a really lovely person.

Most of those things on your list many of us have really good, solid, centered reasons for valuing in our own lives, but there is no reason to wrinkle up your nose at someone, or assume that they are not interesting/kind/
smart/worthwhile if they do it differently.

again, wow, actually seeing that of god in everyone, and not just those who follow our rules, what a concept!

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Oh, except telling the truth to someone's face, I'm all for that. I've been trained out of it to a large extent, but I'm trying to reclaim it.

And I swear, and I'm okay with that :)

MartinK said...

It's funny how many of these are "aren't I special" kinds of life choices. Is gourmet ice cream really so different than Cool Whip? What does it mean to drive a Prius but then fly about the country three times a year? Sure I could drive fifty minutes to the Lands End department at the nearest Sears rather than the five to the Walmart but aren't I just getting the same sweatshop clothing? Organic fruit from thousand-acre industrial farms, trucked three thousands miles away or non-organic from a local farmer?

We should make as many informed choices as we can but I wonder what the bottom line is? How do we keep these choices from becoming opportunities for pride? How do we remember that we need to worry more about the logs in our own eyes rather than the specks in others, that there's more to authentically righteous living than tofu and organic ice cream?

A lot of these lifestyles are context-based. Who wouldn't want organic food if it were just as available, just as well marketed, just as affordable and just as justice-bound as the alternatives?

I remember helping a more-or-less homeless friend move about ten years ago. He was poor, uneducated and African American but he was sweet and a bit of a street poet so he always had a lot of friends in the white hipster community. I borrowed a car and all day we moved small bags from one dump of a squat to a slightly-less-dumpy room, both in bad North Philly neighborhoods ("bad" whatever your measurement, whatever your class). At the end of the day I paused to catch some breath on his new front stoop and there across the street and down a way was a McDonalds. It was bright, it was clean (comparatively), it was affordable and it was one of the few businesses that operated out here. I'm vegan, I'm local-friendly, anti-corporate, etc., etc. I know McDonalds destroys rainforests in Latin America and promotes unhealthy eating here but it was also clear that this McDonalds served as a kind of oasis. Odds are the franchise was minority-owned and that the kids working there would be hard put to find any kind of better jobs elsewhere.

Jeanne said...

Mmmmm. Feeling special. Having special knowledge that other people don't have.

I know when I feel that way, I feel better about myself.

Pam, your google group posts (that devolved into how to promote vegetarianism) inspired this one. I realized that when you brought up the same points I make here, people tried to justify their arrogance about a particular issue.

My issue isn't with vegetarianism. It's with our snobbery.

Martin, you so poignantly express this subtle, grey, complex class-bound world we live in. Thank you for posting!

Jeanne said...

Um, I'm posting again because I'd like to respond to someone who tried to post an anonymous comment to my blog. I'm not approving the comment first because it's anonymous (this is a new policy) and second because I didn't write this to argue the virtues of one particular value over another.

The anonymous poster whose message I'm not approving is right to point out that Unitarian's aren't the exact same as Quakers. I probably shouldn't have used them as an example. I should have just said "lefty elitists" and that would run the gamut: Jews to UCC's to Unitarians to atheists to humanists to Wiccans and probably lots who don't fit in those categories.

I'm not calling out Unitarians. I'm calling out classism in faith communities.

And I'd like to not have this devolve into an argument for or against (or a complaint about) particular values, but instead a conversation about class and how we unknowingly communicate our class values.

Julie said...

Amen and Amen.

For the record, I'm Martin's wife and I left Quakerism to return to the Catholic Church about 5 years ago after 11 in Qism. There were many, many reasons why I left, but the class issue was among them. I do love Cool Whip! And I too have been frowned upon after admitting this and other such things. My grandmother--may God bless her in heaven, I'm sure she's smiling down on me--always had Cool Whip around. That and Goldberg's Peanut Chews.

Ever had chilled Cool Whip on lime Jello? Delicious. (She also had a Jello drawer. OH the SHAME!)

I was raised in an Italian Catholic working class home. My dad (not Catholic) worked for a utility company for 30 years climbing telephone poles, etc. I am from South Jersey so we have our own way of "talkin." And at least half of my relatives on both sides had no college degrees. My grandfather didn't even have a high school degree. Ummm, not even a 7th grade "degree." He hated school. He married a school teacher!

I was taught by example to be direct (but charitable) and above all truthful. We watched plenty of tv and there was plenty of anger.

To say I was mystified among Friends at the cultural differences between us is an understatement, but it took me nearly 9 years to figure out that this was an issue. I thought it was a values thing, but it's not. It's culture clash and, absolutely, snobbery. We went yard sale-ing WAAAAAAAY before "thrift" was trendy. It was somewhat embarassing growing up even in my town to admit that some of my clothing came from yard sales.

I mean, in my world if there's an elephant in the middle of the room you say, "Hey! What the hell is THAT? It's big, it's ugly, and it stinks to high heavens. Get it the hell outta here."

(Except for on my dad's side where everybody just dances around the elephant using euphemisms for it like, "his little 'problem'". Yes even working class people can live in denial. But indeed, it is my opinion after studying Quaker history and culture that Quakers have made a fine art of it.)

So one of the many reasons I left was that I couldn't stand being the one always yelling about the elephant, stating the obvious, and eating the Cool Whip while everybody stared at me like I had twelve heads or, in some cases, lied to my face. At least at my parish now, when something sucks big ones, we're all free to say so, hissy fits and all. [Sigh of relief.] Guess ya hafta take the good with the bad, huh?

PS: I'm a vegetarian, eat organic much of the time, buy local, don't have cable, do have an MA, and like low gas emissions. HA! How's that for irony.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

MMm.... peanut chews

Maybe the thing I miss most about Philly....

(along with abundant crocuses in the spring and stone houses)

ok, but enough nostalgia

When I was a teenager my favorite fancy desert was basically cool whip mixed with lemon yogurt. It ends up being sort of like mousse. I made it all the time when we had people over.

Ok, maybe not quite enough nostalgia.

I've been thinking about this off and on - particularly openness. My Italian grandmother who dropped out of school in 9th grade was also the most reserved person I've known. I never saw her yell, and in college I wrote to her to ask if she loved me, because she'd never said, and she confirmed that she did, but man, you would have thought we were talking about yeast infections or something.....

But, she was also midwestern. My Italian/Irish NYC grandparents apparently had explosive fights every day, but my grandma, the only "upper class" person among my grandparents, was definitely more concerned with keeping up appearances than with pretty much anything else.

I adore quakers, and won't be leaving any time soon. but I recognize all these criticisms (and more!) as valid. Somehow Catholics manage to often seem more grounded, and true, even with all the external fanciness and ritual that I"m inclined to see as a barrier to that.

So, the question for me (or one of many) is how do we manage to be what we think we are?

Julie said...

Just a couple more things.

Pam, I was wondering if you could explain that last question. Just curious as to what you mean.

Next, I just finished listening to an interview on the Journey Home program that people might be interested in, from a cultural perspective. In case you're not familiar, the Journey Home is a program on EWTN in which former non-Catholics describe their journey into the Catholic Church and also receive questions from callers and emailers. I just finished listening to one with a [former] Anglican priest, Fr. Eric Bergman: Another excellent interview was with Joy Pinto, another former Anglican/Episcopalian and wife of a former Episcopalian priest. (Same link, scroll down.) I can pretty much guarantee you'll really love the interview with Joy! I mention these interviews not to plug TJH program or EWTN, but because some of the same cultural aspects apply in the Episcopal world as in the Quaker world, as you will notice studying Quaker history.

Fr. Bergman (now a Catholic priest) made a very interesting observation, and this is what struck a chord with me in recognizing similar things among Friends. I hope I'm quoting him correctly here. In answer to a question pertaining to how Episcopalians deal with the immorality of King Henry VIII and how do they view St. Thomas More, Fr. Bergman stated that the primary virtue among Episcopalians is that of COMPROMISE. They pass off the split with Rome as a political one and Henry as a primarily political figure, not a theological one. Therefore the great St. Thomas More, a man who STOOD UP and refused to compromise, is not an ideal sort of figure upon whom to look, from an Episcopalian perspective. In other words, it is looked upon favorably to find a way to "make nice" and not make too many strong, uncomfortable, "unreasonable," polarizing statements... Sound familiar? It did to me anyway.

Sorry for being so long! It just occurred to me that these interviews might be pertinent to the conversation as regards the parallels...

HysteryWitch said...

How does one determine if the lefty leftist is scornful of others? How do we outside a person's head test their motivations or the purity of their intent? Is there a difference between judging the action and judging the person performing the act? My mother would say, "I love you. I don't like what you are doing."

Jeanne said...

MmmmMmMmmMmmMMMmmMmM Peanut chews... (having grown up in New Castle, Delaware myself)

I'm so glad you stopped by Julie! I'm looking forward to listening to the interviews you suggest.

I'd love to have an email conversation with you about your decision to leave Quakerism. I was a seeker for a very long time before I came to Quakers and found the *practice* to be the best way for me to feel God's presence. Ritual and liturgy just doesn't work for me. Or I would have left Quakerism a long time ago.

If you're interested in emailing with me directly, I am at writeousness at gmail dot com.

Hystery--my experience isn't quantifiable. All I know is that I experience scorn (as do other working class folks like one person on the open Google group and Julie and George Lakey and my friend Sandy...) I think it's a cultural class difference. And one that's built-in to class stratification.

It's great that you don't experience it.

earthfreak (Pam) said...


Sometimes it's hard for me to remember what I was thinking when I wrote something, a few days later

But I think what I meant was that I was drawn initially to quakers because we seemed to have stripped away all sorts of symbol and trappings, and somehow were more grounded, more true, than religions that recited creeds or had fancy churches, or whatever.

But I find that in ways we're bound up in our own trappings, and they're harder to see as well.

So, how do we actually be grounded, without pretense or show, true to spirit,

Does that make any more sense? I know what I'm trying to say, but words fail...

earthfreak (Pam) said...


I don't think we're talking about trying to read people's minds.

I was cashiering at the coop a few months ago, and a little boy, maybe 5 years old, got really scared when I smiled at him, and told his mom I was mean and scary. She was really embarassed and apologized profusely, saying he did that a lot for no reason (weird!) - I'm pretty confident that I didn't actually do anything mean or scary, but he was scared. I did make an effort to avoid looking at him the rest of the time, so he'd be more comfortable.

Certainly it's possible that if Jeanne and others feel snubbed or judged in quaker circles, that is simply their own issue. But at some point, either because you care about the individual feeling snubbed, or because tehre are a lot of them, particularly if they all have something in common, you decide it's worth looking at, to see if you're actually doing something unfriendly, even if that wasn't your intent.

I don't ever (pretty much) consciously think, "wow, that person is a bricklayer, so he must be REALLY STUPID

prejudice is much more insidious than that.

In terms of race, I have noticed it when sharing a dark alley with an unknown person, a slight relaxing if I see that they're white (or especially, female) - not that I want to think that way, but I was taught to, subtlely. I bet that the other person can feel it too - or hear my breath catch or release just so. If he's a black man he's probably PARTICULARLY attuned to it, and hurt or pissed off (or both, not so far apart, really)

In terms of class it may manifest as being surprised that a bricklayer has read a certain book I like, where I would be less surprised if a lawyer had - again, I'm not gonna say "WOW! I didn't know you could READ!!" but the way my eyes move, just for a second, might reveal it, and again, in a person attuned to it, it won't be missed, and it will likely hurt.

Add to that the various assumptions

That you went to college
That you've travelled abroad
That you don't watch "survivor"
That you listen to NPR

None of which are cruelly intended, but all of which can probably sound like a constant refrain of "you don't really belong" to someone who is put in the position of having to explain it, or let it go, repeatedly.

Julie said...

I would be fine with an email correspondence, Jeanne. But I'm terrible at checking email lately...just too much to do with the kids. So if I don't respond don't be offended. Maybe I'll give you my phone # instead. I'm at julielizabet at yahoo dot com.

MaryM said...


I just read over your list again. The best fried chicken used to be served at Woodland meeting after Representative Body. Also the beans had pork in them. NCYM(C) has had a diverse population, with dairy farmers, peanut farmers, college professors, architects, housewives, school teachers, mailmen, realtor, artists and a stonemason. the most striking thing about the yearly meeting was that in over 20 years I still don't know what some people do for a living. I know who has strong vocal ministry, and who writes well and travels in public ministry. I know who have wonderful senses of humor. I have always felt valued for my attempt to live in Gospel order according to our faith and practice, not what my social class is. I do know that many are passionately involved in causes that are included on your list, but most are clear that they do so because a leading impells them.

We're not perfect, but class is less an issue with us.


Jeanne said...


That's nice to hear that Conservative Friends are different if that's indeed the case. I'm curious--what's your class background?

It's fine to have all the practice and beliefs be from a leading. I'm not quibbling with the practices. Just the scorn I experience (and other working class Friends experience) among Liberal Friends.

I think culture gets to the heart of why Friends aren't class diverse.

MaryM said...


Funny you should ask, I left that part out, as I thought my comment was long enough. I was born to a Roman Catholic family in a working class area of central New Jersey. My parents were pretty much hand to mouth with a large family, but had the distinction of both being college educated. Life circumstances made finishing my college degree a very low priorty, and I've worked part time in various fields as I've been led. I am married to a PHD in Philosophy with a similar background.

And I have always hated Jello and Cool Whip. but that's not a class thing. I just thought jello nasty, and anything with real butter fat or chocolate superior. (my waistline is my testimony)

I agree with most of the things on the list, but try not to be agressive or superior about them. I try to "let my live speak".


jeff said...

Being part of the whole Quaker thing (in technical terms, being a Member of the Religious Society of Friends)just wears me out. I am so TIRED of being good, I really am. I used to be a fairly traded, organic, bike riding, airflight deriding, scrupulously honest, upright Friend. Now I am kinda shifty, buy cheap in supermarkets, accept rides from all and sundry (and cry off if one isn't available), fly across the Atlantic frequently to see my boyfriend...oh and so much more. I have remembered that Christianity is not about being good but being loved...It is about grace. These days I try to be kind in small ways, to slowly wean myself away from judgement, to utterly not care what anyone thinks of me and don't try to
be mister ethical (see I even use the word 'mister' now!)It is as though I have had to go right back to my ABC and reclaim the foundation of it all i.e, a relationship with God. The other stuff might come back but in its own time and way...but I'm not holding my breath. I need to be a rogue, a rascal, to kick up my heels for a while...and maybe, just maybe, learn to love a little bit more!

Heather Madrone said...

Great post, Jeanne. Classism is an elephant that American culture wants to sweep under the rug.

When I watch French tv, I'm amazed at how much of the programming is about labor -- strikes, disputes, and issues that affect working people. The French attitude seems to be that everyone works and so society ought to put its energy into improving things for workers.

In American news, however, there's a lot about the rich and famous. There's also a lot of disdain for working and poor people, even though most of us are them. We hope we will become rich, though, that we'll win the lottery and benefit from tax cuts for the rich.

Anyway, a bit of Cool Whip irony: I'm allergic to milk and soy, and so I use coconut milk in place of ice cream or whipped cream. Someone told me that I could have Cool Whip, that it's made from coconut. I haven't checked the label on a tub of the white stuff yet,but I find this fact terrifically amusing.

Peter Bishop said...


First off, I want to say how grateful I am to see that people are beginning to write specifically about issues of class in Quakerism. I look around me at New England Yearly Meeting and I see that racism is a source of great pain for Friends, and the place of gays and lesbians in Friends’ organizations has had us teetering on the brink of schism for years, but issues of class remain almost invisible.

Second, I want to thank you for your bravery. You tell us, “I've been to Quaker events three times since Gathering and two of those times, I've wept, feeling my sense of isolation very deeply,” and yet you’re still here, and writing about your experiences openly. Welcome, Friend.

Some of what you’ve written (and some of what you’ve quoted from other writers) frustrates me to the point of wanting to bang my head against the wall, but that can be a good sign, showing that there’s a lot to be learned through dialogue. (Through “laboring together,” to use the Quakerese term.) Alas, grades close next week and I’ve got a briefcase bulging with student papers and lab reports and I’m not going to be able to even begin to engage with all of the substantive ideas you have shared. So let me just respond to one of them:

Please do go back and try the Cool Whip again. And I mean that in a profound spiritual sense as well as literally. You want to unlearn the scorn; you want to value the gifts and culture of your upbringing. To do that, you have to trust your own senses. Maybe you’ll find that you still really like Cool Whip, or maybe you’ll find it’s nowhere near as good as you remember, but there’s only one way to know.

And while we’re on the topic of trusting your own senses—if people at your Quaker meeting are “scowling” and “sneering” at you (or at anyone!) then why are you still there? Obviously, there’s something you get out of Quaker worship (and Quaker worship at that particular monthly meeting) that makes it worth all of the crap—all of the feelings of alienation that you’re dealing with. What is it? You’ve told us what Cool Whip tastes like; what does Quaker worship taste like?

When I was first applying for membership at Mt. Toby Friends Meeting, it was not entirely obvious to everyone that I belonged. My theology is pretty offbeat, even for a liberal Friend, but when I sit in the silence of the meeting, the Spirit that leads me to speak (whatever Its name) is clearly the same Spirit that covers the meeting as a whole. In the silence, I knew I belonged. If there had been any sniping or teasing in the social hour after worship, what was true in the silence would still have been true.

If there is such a thing as Quaker culture, it is based on the experience of G*d in silent waiting worship. If Quaker culture needs to be changed, it will be changed through the experience of G*d in worship. Bill Samuel was flat out wrong when he said that liberal Quakers lack a “clear spiritual center.” We lack a doctrine, but what we have is a profound experience of the presence of G*d in our meetings and in our lives.

If newcomers at your meeting are getting teased over the way they dress, and if you’re feeling like weighty Quakers at your meeting are lying to you, then it sounds like there is something really off-center in your meeting. So I ask again, leaving aside scorn and shame and internalized oppression, how does it taste?

Does your meeting help you to feel the presence of G*d? If it doesn’t, you should take Paul’s advice and shake the dust from your feet as you leave. If it does, then your meeting has in you an invaluable gift, because as you sit in meeting and hold the presence of the divine then G*d is that much more present to other worshippers who are really able to listen in the silence.

Allison said...

I'm increasingly a radical, but I'm just translating what I felt in the Light.

I don't believe in morality. One person's "good" will always be another person's "bad." Therefore, morality for morality's sake is a dead end.

The only thing there is is Love. Unconditional. It goes through all boundaries, socioeconomic or physical. It did strike me as I entered my first Quaker meeting that there were few obvious minorities in the room. And I'm struggling with that as I question everything - is there a difference between a friend and a Friend? What if I want to spend Sunday mornings "worshipping" and serving in action with those who aren't Quakers? I fail to see why service work with those who do not hold Quaker beliefs would be worth any less than sharing Sunday mornings with Quakers in meeting.

GrumblySeeker said...

I wish you would submit this blog entry of yours to various Quaker publications, so non-online people could read it (like to my local Meeting's monthly newsletter)-- I'd like to see more people get into being aware of these matters.

Jeanne said...


Thanks for stopping by. You're very welcome to share these items with others (like through your Meeting's newsletter) as long as you attribute it to this blog and N. Jeanne Burns.

This Is What a Feminist Looks Like said...

Someone pointed me at this post, and it made me think you might also appreciate this article by a UU about class and UU congregations from the vantage point of worldview and life experience.