Friday, September 24, 2010

Class, Race, and Visibility

There is a great article by Henry Giroux on the topic of class and race. Giroux reflects on how these impacted him as he grew up in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1960s.

It got me thinking further about the old cliche of the middle class being "the class that won't speak its own name," a seemingly empty, normal identity. Giroux remembers how class affected every aspect of his upbringing (he was raised in a blue-collar family), yet no one ever talked about it. Instead, it was race that was openly discussed, affirmed, fought over, etc.

Giroux describes "working-class" and "white" not merely as adjectives, but as verbs -- the very means by which those in his neighbourhood related to the social world around them. This was often through conflict. He notes,

Most of the interactions we had with others were violent, fraught with anger and hatred. We viewed kids who were black or privileged from within the spaces and enclaves of a neighborhood ethos that was nourished by a legacy of racism, a dominant culture that condoned class and racial hatred, and a popular culture that rarely allowed blacks and whites to view each other as equals, except of course, in athletics. Everywhere we looked segregation was the order of the day. Community was defined within racial and class differences and functioned largely as spaces of exclusion - spaces that more often than not pitted racial and ethnic groups against one another.

In spite of living through the divisions of race and class, Giroux notes how there seemed to be no language to talk about it. The divisions were so naturalized that they were assumed to be differences arising out of human nature, rather than constructed social divisions.

Music played an interesting role in all of this: for the working-class white kids (of which Giroux was one), African-American popular music was acceptable for listening, even if fraternizing with actual black kids was taboo. Meanwhile, the feeling of difference from middle-class kids resulted from being segregated from them at school (they never took the same classes), their ways of speaking, and, of course, their taste in popular music. The richer kids liked the clean-cut, mushier music of Pat Boone and stars of his ilk, which became an icon of effette elitism to the working-class kids.

On popular culture, Giroux elaborates,

Popular culture provided the medium through which we learned how to negotiate our everyday lives, especially when it brought together elements of resistance found in Hollywood youth films such as "Blackboard Jungle" (1955) or the rock n' roll music of Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Etta James, and other artists. Moreover, working-class street culture provided its own set of unique events and tensions in which our bodies, identities and desires were both mobilized and constrained.

Giroux remembers how being working-class in the US at this time meant being valued (if at all) for your physicality -- your ability at athletics, or your ability to labor manually -- and remembers how more affluent kids seemed to live outside their physicality.

Giroux notes that much of his own work in cultural studies has been a kind of "memory work," learning to understand explicitly the things about his early social environment which were never talked about openly and only understood implicitly. The activism of the 1960s, he says, did much to open his mind critically to class and racial divisions. But, as he notes, the pressure to keep perceptions of social difference under the surface of daily discussion remains pervasive.

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