Friday, January 30, 2009

Trading Places

My mother, one of seven children of an Appalachian coal miner, a woman who wore steel toe boots to work, a woman who lives off of not very much money because she can't work and doesn't have a retirement account outside of social security, sent me food shopping today. She listed some very specific things.

Zesta saltines
Hillshire Farms turkey (not honey)
Peter Pan peanut butter with no sugar
Bounty paper towels (one sheet, with print)
Charmin ultra strong mega rolls
Diet Sierra Mist (if it's on sale)
Diet Sunkist (if it's on sale)

I'm wandering around Publix knowing that she likes very specific brands, knowing not to look for something cheaper or "healthier", not even for something new to try.

Here's what I heard in my head as I sought through the unfamiliar aisles:

Why won't she try another brand that's cheaper? How about natural peanut butter or I wonder if the local Whole Foods has one of those machines to make your own peanut butter from peanuts like our new coop has? Why not unbleached paper towels? I wonder of that thick Charmin really breaks down in the sewer?

These are all things I learned from middle and owning class lefty liberals. And it struck me that it used to be the other way around:

Poor people ate brown bread and the money classes else ate white bread.

Now the liberal left well-to-do grow their own food (or pay someone to do so), make their own Christmas wrapping paper, use canvas bags when they shop, and eat brown bread.

The poor and working class eat white bread.

My mother, I think, likes name brand products because anything less makes her think she's poor once again. She grew up wearing homemade clothes, eating food she helped grow, doing any shopping that they got to do with reusable bags, buying an unbranded product because it was cheaper.

She's quite fond of telling people about her specific tastes and I can't help but wonder how someone like her would be received at a liberal Quaker Meeting (I say liberal because that's the group of Quakers I'm most familiar with). I know what we'd like to think about how we'd receive someone like her.

But imagine you're at my mother's church, where the women wear pantyhose and perfume and on Easter wear fancy hats to services. The men carry National Rifle Association cards in their wallets. They serve Jell-o and Spam and corn dogs at their church potlucks.

How do you think you'd* be received and welcomed? How would you like to be received and welcomed?**

*"You" means any lefty liberal.

**Many thanks to Red Cedar Friends who reminded me a couple of weeks ago that we all want to be welcomed as whole human beings, wherever we go.


Martin Kelley said...

There was a great article in the New Yorker recently (yes, lefty liberal read) that talked about the ever-shifting class politics around breast feeding. Fascinating stuff. But one line was fascinating so I looked up the online version and found it:

A brief history of food: when the rich eat white bread and buy formula, the poor eat brown bread and breast-feed; then they trade places.

Ain't it the truth? I've personally been wondering how long specialty coffees will have any allure ($5 for coffee and milk??) now that McDonalds is in the cappuccino business.

Jeanne said...

Wow! I have that New Yorker, and read a little bit of that article. I decided it wasn't in my demographic. I also had my own (apparently mistaken) judgments about it around social class. I know that breastfeeding right now is a big deal among middle and owning class people and that lots of poor and working class people feed babies formula. As I started to read the article, I thought of my mother who definitely thought of breastfeeding as something poor people did (her family did, therefore poor people did it).

You've also named a topic that I have a draft about. Those McDonalds commercials for their lattes and cappucinos are about social class. Mostly I relate to the relief of not having to conform to the trappings of middle class.

Some of the time anyway.

Lone Star Ma said...

That's a really good article in the NYT.

Hystery said...

Where I come from, wealthy folks tend to be more conservative and are less likely to buy organic foods and less likely to be lactivists. I get hassled about being liberal both by wealthier and poorer friends and relations.

I associate "lefty-liberalism" with those who are both informally or formally well-educated in the arts, liberal arts and humanities AND who are on the lower end of the middle-class occupying jobs and professions ranging from blue collar to professional. (A little historical note to others interested in patterns over time: such was also the pattern among abolitionist Friends and other associated denominations in the Burned Over District in the nineteenth century.)

I tend to think that the issue of social class and behavior must include discussion of sources of authority. It is fascinating to see changes in changes in behaviors of large groups of people over time. What motivates these changes in social groups? What motivates these changes in individuals? Glenna Matthews writes a fascinating book detailing how middle-class women's relationship to domesticity (including what foods they prepared for their families)changed over time based on their changing relationship to sources of authority and "expertise" first of the older women in their family then to government and media authority on "scientific progress."

As a lactivist/organic food eater, what are my motivations? What is my source of authority? How does my experience differ from my dear friends who make different choices? What is their source of authority?

Jeanne said...

You make interesting points, Hystery. And of course, they're about historical trends, which I find really fascinating.

As someone who talks about oppression, I prefer NOT to talk about an individual's source of authority unless it gets us to the source of oppression, the system that supports any individual action of oppression. Authority is often used to oppress.

Also, your questions get to only half of the question I'd like to ask. There is, of course, the individual's intention. But what about its impact? It's often never enough for people who are vegetarian or vegan to be satisfied with eating what they feel called to eat, but to judge others who don't do as they do.

Over and over and over again I was judged for drinking tap water, for eating processed foods, for eating non-organic foods. Middle class people were trying to impose on me their value system because they believed they had access to a higher authority.

The impact is that I don't feel welcomed as a whole human being into the church, and anyone who makes different choices won't be welcomed.

If we don't talk about both intention and impact, and if we do not both make a good faith intention to listen to each other, we miss our opportunity to grow.

Hystery said...


Pardon me for a rambling response below!

I'm not at all sure we're using the term "source of authority" in the same way. In my use, all people have a source (or sources) of authority. It may be parental, societal, biblical, theoretical, etc. This is the foundation of our seemingly instinctive reactions and tendencies. They vary with experience and change over time but they do have a lot to do with our backgrounds (what kinds of parenting style our folks used, what kind of educations we received, how our communities operated, our relationships to money and power, etc.) Often we are unaware of our source of authority or are dishonest about it. We may say that ethics is our source when really it is a need to please a mentor. We may say religion is our source when really it is humanist ethics. Really spending time to analyze why we believe what we believe is a good step toward becoming less judgmental toward others because it forces us to confront our own vulnerability. Lots of times our knee-jerk reaction against someone who disagrees with us is less about differences of opinion than it is a feeling of vulnerability and anger that someone is questioning our faith, our families, our beloved mentors or our parents. You see it clearly with little kids who fight because one child's mommy says one thing and the other child's daddy says something else. Grown-ups do the same thing but they often don't say "mommy" and "daddy" but things that sound like they're really smart and faithful like "Postmodernism" and "biblical authority". That stuff sounds good but we can all be immature and frightened children clinging to the people and ideas that make us feel the most safe.

Your thoughts regarding intention and impact are important. Here in rural Upstate NY where left-leaning liberals are in a minority, many times people have treated me with disdain and anger because of my choices. Since childhood I've had the "aren't you just so special, Little Miss Perfect?" attitude thrown at me because I refused to conform to what is standard behavior in these parts. I have come to believe that people get angry with me for just being me because they think that I am judging them for not making the same choices. This is difficult and has led to lots of tears. I must follow my beliefs. Sometimes that's pretty much all a person has. I provide information when asked but tend not to say anything otherwise. (My husband has had to be even more careful since admitting his feminism and vegetarianism has led to physical threats against him.) What should I do when someone offers me meat? I say "no thank you" as politely as I can and then if it seems socially required of me I explain that I am a vegan. Then I spend the rest of my meal being told how unhealthy my decision is or how the other person could never give up meat or how I'm probably harming my children. Believe me, I don't go looking for these conversations.

I wonder if feeling judged is more a product of whether or not we fall into a minority in our larger groups. Perhaps where you are, there are more liberals with power whereas where I am, there are more conservatives. I know that when I make the leftist decisions I make, I am sometimes in real danger (one of the reasons I don't use my real name here but that's another story). People who have unquestioned social power and dominance often judge those of us who do not possess it. Who has this power? Well, it seems to depend on where you are and with whom you associate.

I remember for instance getting into a real struggle when I took the side of an evangelical Christian in a doctoral seminar that was mostly populated by non-theists, Buddhists, and other very liberal folk. Now my beliefs were much closer to those of the other liberals but I was really horrified by how they worked together against this man and became bullies. On the other hand, I had a real hard time when I went to a Christian seminary as a non-Christian. In both examples, the people who were doing the bullying were people with good intention but they were judgmental, there were lots of them, and they did a good job of ending good conversations before they could get started. Why not? They already knew they were right and they had the majority. :(

Hystery said...

Not sure you'll want to post this with your blog but I wanted to share this with you anyway. I found this article that examines the history of social class and breastfeeding. I found it interesting because I'm a lactivist and because my great-grandfather (1860-1918) was a dairy farmer here in our little town who raised cows with milk that was supposed to be better for feeding infants than other cow's milk.

Interesting how social class leads to differences in experience even before birth.

Sarah Elizabeth said...

My mother grew up eating sandwiches on day-old reduced-price Wonderbread and canned tomato soup.

I grew up eating brown bread and a plethora of Ethnic Cuisine. I also know how to eat an artichoke. (A recent discussion in my sociology class of mine made me realize that knowing how to eat one nudges you towards the upper crust, in general.)

I still wonder how the class transition happened.