Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Class, Status, Race, Caste

Racism is more than just about skin color.

A reader writes in response to my posting about Dr. Seuss and The Sneetches:
I thought they were elitists; the star belly guys were like the cool kids who could afford the Izod alligator on their shirt; the plain bellies were the poor kids who had the exact same shirts as knockoffs from K-mart at one quarter the price, but without the alligator - point being, absent the stupid alligator, no one could tell the shirts, or the kids, apart.

Never read it as an "anti-racist" parable; but I was a really naive kid anyway; but even now, I still see it as "anti status symbol", because that's all the stupid star on the belly was.
He makes a good point. The Sneetches story wasn't just about racism, it is about how we let appearances and class status affect how we perceive people - and how we perceive ourselves.

There was a famous experiment back in the early 1970's - one that has been called into question on many levels.  Students were hired for the experiment and half were told they were prisoners and half were told they were guards.  The whole thing had to be called off in a hurry, as the "guards" started abusing the prisoners, but more alarmingly, the prisoners started acting, well, like prisoners, being passive as well as passive-aggressive.  A prison riot ensued.

Some criticize the test as unnecessarily cruel.  Others say it wasn't valid science, and that the subjects were just acting out.  Others say that no real conclusions can be drawn from it.  But I think there is something to it - we tend to act out the roles we are assigned in life, which often works to our detriment.

There was a movie in Netflix which sort of illustrates the point.  White Tiger is not a documentary about India - any more than Dirty Harry movies are a documentary about life in America.  But the central premise of the movie involves status and class.  A low-caste young man from a rural town moves to the big city to act as a driver and servant for a high-caste wealthy family.  He feels trapped in his station in life, even though he is of above-average intelligence.  If he steps out of line, he could be fired.  If he steals from his employer, his whole family might be murdered.  In the end, he murders his employer, steals millions of Rupees, and then moves to another city to start a cab company, bribing government officials to put other cab drivers out of business.

Like I said, I don't think it was meant to be a travelogue of India - if it was, well, Mr. Modi has a lot of work to do.  But the message was interesting - the young man wanted to change his fate, and in order to do so, he had to re-invent himself, estrange himself from his family background (and risk their being killed).

The other interesting aspect was that the discrimination he faced was based not necessarily on race, but social status, or as they call it there, caste.  I mentioned before how my family rose up from poverty to climb the social ladder in the United States.  Part of this was to marry into higher-caste families and part was to reinvent one's self.  My Father's family, for example, was divided into fairly recent Irish Catholic immigrants and Swiss Lutherans who came over here to work as servants on the Steinway estate on Long Island.

Social and economic progress in the US, however, was somewhat easier than in the White Tiger movie.   My Swiss ancestors met while working for the Steinways, got married, and saved enough money to buy 100 acres of land in Little Silver, New Jersey.  They later sold this land to developers and the local school system.

My Dad's Father was Irish Catholic, and his ancestors came over here during a time of anti-Irish sentiment.   The same sort of racial prejudices used against Blacks and Hispanics were applied to the Irish - although not nearly as badly.   Even years later, when such prejudices started to abate, my Dad found it convenient to posture that he was Protestant and Scottish or "Scotch-Irish" as there was still prejudice in the Boardroom against Catholics and the Irish.

My Mother's family was the same way.  While they were here a little longer than my Dad's clan, they fell on hard times, having to sell the family farm in what is now Park Slope, Brooklyn.  After her husband's scandalous suicide, my Great-Grandmother went into business, buying and selling second mortgages in order to put my Grandfather and his siblings through city college.  From poverty to law firm partner - and mayor of tony Larchmont, New York, in one generation.   But in order to get there, my Great-Grandmother commissioned a genealogy study to show that her children had roots in "proper" society and wash away the stain of her husband's suicide.   Class and status meant that much to her - it was a matter of basic survival.

So yea, this "White Tiger" movie made a lot of sense to me, as I saw this same struggle in my family, as they tried to rise above their caste.  But of course, it was much easier for them in America, on two counts.  People want to see you succeed, for one thing.  The Steinways actually gave my Swiss servant ancestors an upright piano as a wedding present when they left their employ.  Decent people, that.  The other thing was that it is a lot easier to "blend in" when you are white and "pass" for a higher caste in our society.   It is a lot harder for Blacks and Hispanics to do this, for obvious reasons.

But it illustrates that racism alone isn't the sole thing holding people back.  And in fact, "people of color" who got ahead in our society in the past (and indeed, even today) were often those who could "pass" either as white, or acted in a manner consistent with the ruling social caste.  "He's awfully articulate" folks would say about a person of color, which was a racist thing to say, but what they meant was, "He's acts just like one of us!"   Getting into the club isn't just a matter of race, it is also a matter of your background, your posture, grooming, behavior, accent, and whatnot.

I mentioned before a friend of mine who grew up in a trailer park in West Virginia. Raised by a loving single mother who drove big-rigs for a living, her future could have been very circumscribed.   But, she was a "White Tiger" and wanted more out of life, so she changed her name, went to design school, and moved to the big city and got a job as a high-end designer.  And part and parcel of this was to change her appearance, her dress, and her accent and mannerisms.    When she did that, they let her into their little club.

Of course, the problem with this model is, once they find out you aren't really a member, they will treat you differently.  So you constantly have to be on guard for being exposed and found out.  That is why Great-Grandmother Wiggins commissioned this somewhat specious genealogy study that went back several generations and then suddenly veered off to Charlemagne.   You have to prove your pedigree, or at least you did, back then.

So yes, my reader is right - and so was I.  The Sneetches is about race, but also about class and appearances.   The Izod shirt and khaki slacks and docksider shoes (worn without socks, natch) and the whole Lands End and L.L. Bean wardrobe was part and parcel of the preppy look.  You had to look as though you just came back from your weekend at the family compound in Kennebunkport, or stepped off your sailing yacht.  And yes, I went to prep school, and yes they threw me out when they sensed I wasn't one of them.

Of course, things are changing today - and then again, they aren't.  The emphasis on "old money" seems to be waning, as a new generation of Billionaires arises, most making their money in technology or Internet-related endeavors.  Of course, it still is a lot easier to rise above your caste if you are white and can more easily blend-in to the upper social strata.  And this is why for the most part, the "people of color" who you see succeeding are those who are "articulate" and smart - with the exception of professional athletes and rap-stars, whose product is tied in with their racial background, to some extent.

This is, of course, unfair, right?  We should be allowed to succeed on our merits in life, not based on our ancestry, background, caste, or social station. Condemning an entire caste of people to a life of servitude based on their ancestry or skin color is just wrong.  And one shouldn't have to pretend to be something they aren't, in order to succeed, right?

Well, that is the funny thing - the latter part.  I suspect that few, if any, of the people in the upper social castes do not actually feel like complete frauds.  I think they are all worried about being "found out" as trailer trash on any given moment's notice.   Perhaps that is why you see so many mental health issues among the ruling elite - the drug abuse, the alcohol abuse, the suicides, and whatnot.   At least, that is what I saw, as an outsider-looking-in on some wealthy enclaves I was brought up in (where my parents tried, but never quite succeeded, to be accepted).

It is why people strive for status symbols and symbols of success - and why the old money would cluck their tongues as such ostentatious displays of wealth.  Only the nouveau riche would be so gauche.   Of course, often that "old money" had run out of money, and their shying away from status symbols was not a matter of choice, but necessity.

It is the reason why the young Engineer, getting his first paycheck, goes down to the Acura dealer and leases a new SUV, why the rap star wears gold chains and buys expensive champagne.   Those who don't have status - but have some modicum of wealth - try to buy their way into the upper classes with the appearance of wealth.   It rarely works.   The upper classes are not impressed with your ability to borrow money.  But what's more, such ostentatious displays often end up in tears.   More than one professional athlete or rock star has ended up bankrupt, after squandering what they thought was an endless supply of money.

So what's the answer to all of this?  Beats the hell out of me.   But I think it means that there is more to this puzzle that just race, but also social status and caste involved.  I think also, it means that on a personal level, seeking status is a dead-end.  Not only will you squander a lot of money trying to get into their little club, odds are, they won't let you in.  There will always be discrimination based on social status, even if we were all of one race.

I think also, maybe, that it means that even if we can 100% overcome racism in this country, inequality will still exist, so long as people live up to - or down to - social expectations in life.  If you are born a prisoner or low-caste, it is very hard to shake those expectations, unless you re-invent yourself.  Inner-city ghetto or rural trailer park, the effect is the same - but one can at least overcome the racial hurdle more easily than the other.

On the other hand, it is possible to succeed in America, and even a middle-class or even lower-middle-class existence in this country is the envy of most of the rest of the world.  Just because you are not the next Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos doesn't mean you are an abject failure, or that there is some screaming injustice because we can't all be Billionaires.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader sends these two links about how class and status affect your prospects for a job interview.  The "airport test" seems kind of unfair to me, but then again, people who are popular and good-looking and easy to get along with, get ahead (How to win friends and influence people, right?  Nothing is really new in this world).   I guess the takeaway is, if you are going to be an asshole, your career options are limited, and there is not much that can be done about that!