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A Raised Working-Class Woman Thinks About the Middle Class—with Love

From the e-mail discussion list for RC Community members

Because I love and admire many middle-class Co-Counselors, I decided this past year to devote considerable counseling time to my relationships with middle-class people. For quite a time I discharged frustration at not being able to figure out how to get close. Because I seem to get close easily to raised-poor or working-class people, and sometimes to owning-class people, I thought the difficulty must involve something about middle-class patterns. After about a year, I had a surprising re-evaluation. It occurred to me that most people raised middle-class (more middle-class than I was) are more frightened than I am. At first this didn’t seem possible, because I so constantly feel terrified. But I think it is true.

From this different spot, I stepped out of frustration and realized my responsibility to think well about raised-middle-class Co-Counselors in their fight for liberation. I realized it is vital that middle-class Co-Counselors commit significant counseling time to liberation from the oppression of having been raised middle-class. Humans share much more in common than is reflected in class differences. We are all hurt, in slightly different ways, by the oppressive class-based society. But these relatively minor differences sometimes interfere with forming the deep, safe connections we all long for.

WHAT THE OPPRESSION LOOKS LIKE

The whole society pretends that everything is wonderful for middle-class people. It says over and over: You are so lucky to have been born into the middle class. The truth is that it is remarkably hurtful in a number of ways to have been raised in the middle class. Society acts as though you should be happy, but you find yourself not happy; so you reason that there must be something wrong with you. That pattern forms early. It is the basic feeling beneath all oppression, and the hook that allows people to be vulnerable to “mental health” oppression—that is, trying to appear “normal.”

I have heard that middle-class people carry pretense, but I don’t think that is accurate or useful to repeat. What is true is that every institution in society, and all you read, hear and see, reflects the idea that you should be happy to be middle-class. It is the oppressive society that pretends. People can get confused, and possibly stuck, in trying to act happy for fear of looking out of line. As a middle-class person, you are not full of pretense, never were, but you might have developed a pattern that looks that way to others because you were hurt in this way.

Being raised middle-class is a set-up in another way. You know you have material advantages that working-class and poor people do not have. You may feel less lovable because you think you have more than your share: a feeling that attaches to that early feeling of having something wrong with you because you are not happy all the time. Many middle-class people give generously from modest resources to help working-class and poor people but find it harder to organize for social change. I’m sure it is never lack of wanting change, but more a feeling of powerlessness, or a feeling of not knowing how to, of not feeling connected enough, or a feeling of not having time given all the pressures of life.

Middle-class people often find “helping” jobs in health care, teaching, social work, and so on (all systems that exploit both middle-class workers and poor and working-class people).

Being raised middle-class is also an experience of being frightened of being “too” anything: too loud, too outspoken, too direct, too active, too different, too creative, too gregarious, even too happy! Let me emphasize this point. This conditioning is deeply and profoundly confining and destructive to human beings. It deserves attention for discharge. Middle-class folks find many ways to hold on to and express their humanity, but there is no doubt that they are badly hurt by being expected to stay in line. This is harsh conditioning.

The main societal role assigned to the middle class is to see to it that the rules that maintain the status quo are obeyed. Middle-class people get stuck maintaining rules without being able to think about them clearly because those rules were imposed when they were quite young. The pattern often contains self-righteousness: “I have to follow the rules; so you better too.” Terrorizing has to happen to install that distress recording. It is what most schools have done best, to teach middle-class children that rules are a priority over everything else. “Order must be maintained.” “You are a bad person if you don’t go along with the rules or if you get angry about them.” Some of us working-class and poor children followed the rules in school, but because we figured we could never do well enough anyway, we tended to maintain some secret disregard for rules. We may even have had some support at home for not getting too concerned about rules. It would be interesting to hear from others, especially owning-class people, on this point.

Middle-class conditioning looks harsh, confining, terrifying, and isolating. I think that is accurate. If you are middle-class, go back and read that again. To be oppressed, but convinced routinely that you are advantaged, can undermine your trust in your own mind—which is, in some ways, the ultimate terror. My working-class folks routinely said that things were not fair, that life was tough. But if you grew up middle-class, there is a good chance that no one told you that you were being oppressed. No one told you that some folks were making off with the big money. No one told you how terrified your parents were that they could lose their jobs. But you absorbed the fear just the same. You were told again and again and again to obey the rules and that you were fortunate.

THE PROBLEM OF SOCIETAL DENIAL

Many middle-class people do not know they have been oppressed, and when they get a glimpse of that reality, they find it hard to remember it for long. I am reminded how easily women forget that our own liberation is important and that we get to make it a priority for rigorous and regular discharge. Middle-class people, whether raised middle-class or, like me, upwardly mobile, are oppressed. That is real. It is in the interest of all classes to hold out that truth. It makes sense to devote most of our time to liberation work.

It also makes sense to free ourselves by discharging the oppressor side of the equation. Putting to use the good tools of discharging white racism will be helpful here: “You are good. Your people were good. You have real economic benefits based on other people being hurt. None of this was your idea. It is not a personal problem, but a societal one. You are good. You are good. You are good.” Middle-class Co-Counselors have a right to a well-organized, rigorous, systematic, persistent program of liberation from both the confusing experience of having been raised middle-class (the oppression) and the confusing, hurtful experience of having been conditioned to be agents of oppression.

SUMMARY

Feeling like something is wrong with you because you are not happy; feeling unlovable or guilty for having more than your share; and terror of getting out of line—all these hurt middle-class people in ways they find difficult to notice. If you identify as middle-class, set up support to discharge your class conditioning this week. It is easy to forget. Set up a support group or a triad that will devote time to discharging these hurts. You will gradually develop more awareness of your own oppression and need for each other. Once you have a group that can remember to do this work and back each other in discharging how badly you have been hurt, you will have deep connections that will change your life. Co-Counselors who were raised in the middle class have allies from other class backgrounds. We love you. Your experience looks a bit different than ours, but it looks like oppression. We will be happy to remind you that your liberation is important.

Some ideas for counseling on being raised middle-class are listed below. There are many others in the RC literature.

1. “I was raised as a middle-class USer (for instance)which gave me the right to pursue happiness, but the truth is I have not been all that happy!” Tell your life story, repeating this line every minute or so.

2. “I know I am sort of lucky to have been raised middle-class, but I claim the right (at least in sessions) to feel very sorry for myself now and then. My life has not been that great!” Expand on this point. Repeat this line every minute or so.

3. “I belong to the working class, to the part they call ‘middle-class.’ They tried to fool us into believing we were better than other workers. I gladly pledge my total unity with all working people, everywhere. And this means. . . .”

4. In what ways do you sometimes judge and criticize working-class people? What has to discharge (what judgments came at you?) so you would not feel this any longer?

5. What do you admire about people raised working-class or poor? What does this suggest that you had to give up in yourself? And what do you need to discharge to reclaim and enjoy such traits in yourself again?

6. Jump up and down, waving your arms, and shout for joy about these: how glad you are to be alive; how proud you are of yourself; how completely lovable you are; your unity with all people on Earth. Dare to get out of line here. Be “too much” in every way you can imagine as you celebrate the truth about yourself.

7. Admit that you are really angry about something that confines your life. Feel free to cuss, swear, growl, scream and shout about it, and push or punch all you want to. Or whisper quietly that you are “pissed as hell” about something, pushing your index finger gently against your counselor—OH, I AM JUST SOOOO FURIOUS! (very quietly).

Anne Mackie
Cary, North Carolina, USA

Some responses:

Thanks Anne for such wonderful thinking. It was great to see so much of the struggle clearly articulated. A direction I’ve used, personally and with others, to get at the terror that underlies the feeling that everything was supposed to be okay: “It wasn’t nice; it was a nightmare.”

Kathy Miller
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

 

Anne, thank you so much for the work you have done thinking and discharging about getting close to middle-class people. For me, that a working-class woman would do this for us (for me) is a contradiction—that you believe our oppression is real; that you think working on this oppression is important for everyone.

In my nine years of working on middle-class oppression, these directions have worked:

“I’m a member of the working class cruelly [be melodramatic] separated at birth from my people.”

“Middle-class people are not boring—it’s the oppression that’s boring.” I yell this loudly. (From Seán Ruth.)

Both sides of the “happy” direction: “I’m not happy” contradicts the face we were taught to present to the world. “I’m happy” contradicts having been told to “tone it down” and not be “too” exuberant.

Phyllis Beardsley
Vernon, British Columbia, Canada

 

Anne, intrigued by your thinking, I initiated a topic group for members of the middle class in an International workshop in Israel. I thought we would joyfully discharge on our “everything is great” pretence pattern, using the directions you had proposed and the middle-class commitment.*

I briefly reviewed theory on classism. I read aloud the commitment and explained about never going silent again. This information provoked strong feelings. The group seemed to feel that I was describing their lives, without criticizing them for having such lives. I never got to offer your directions; the people would not let me. They were so anxious to tell their stories that it did not seem useful to interfere. They realized that I was not going to shut them up by saying that they should be thankful for being so privileged.

For the group, middle-class oppression intersected with oppressions of Jews, parents, and young adults. I think the theory of middle-class liberation brought up distresses that are seldom addressed in other topic groups, and the safety in our group allowed discharge.

Yohai Ben-Ami
Raanana, Israel

 

As an owning-class woman I didn’t have anything to add to this discussion until class Monday night. There, experienced white counselors of varied backgrounds work on racism from a perspective of getting connected across our own differences. On Monday, we listened to two middle-class Protestant women. The sessions went well, but also highlighted ways in which these clients struggle to work deeply where they most need to.

Yohai Ben-Ami’s posting noted how the mere invitation to middle-class people to be listened to freely was a contradiction. I suspect it may be the biggest contradiction of all, precisely because so many of us cannot stand to listen to middle-class people as client. When that is true, it doesn’t matter how good the directions offered are, because the underlying “drones” (the sustained  foundation  tones underlying a bagpipe melody that Harvey describes in “The Counselor as Bagpiper”) are not there. As our class discussion confirmed, when we are listening to a middle-class person discharge, we often experience an underlying impatience, frustration, and irritation. As seasoned Co-Counselors, we reach to think beyond this restimulation. We offer “good” directions, and the “good” middle-class client works with us as best he or she can. But decisive work is hard, maybe impossible, to achieve or sustain, because the client still senses our underlying attitude, even if we, the counselor, do not consciously notice it—which often we do not.

If the client were not middle-class, but had a strong “surface identity” as a member of an oppressed group, it is likely that as counselors we would recognize, acknowledge, and deal with our own restimulation far more directly. I suspect that almost all of us carry “anti-middle-class distress,” which we miss taking on because it is as pervasive and seems as “normal” as the conditioning that creates middle-class patterns in the first place.

For myself, a good direction has turned out to be “I will listen, and stay, and like you completely, no matter what.”

Ellen Deacon
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

 

Seán Ruth has joked with us at workshops about how neither working-class, raised-poor, nor owning-class folks can stand middle-class internalized oppression. I remember him saying that it seems to be easier for those groups to reach across class barriers and like each other—but somehow middle-class patterns are always too uncomfortably “close to home” for people of any class. And of course, we middle-class folks, likewise, can’t stand to see the internalized oppression on each other until we’ve had a good chance to discharge on it ourselves.

I find it makes a difference to name it “internalized oppression” rather than just “middle-class patterns” to remind me that it has nothing to do with me personally, that I and my people are not to blame, that in struggling against this stuff I am in solidarity with everyone else in the battle to end classism.

I go through a lot of sessions mostly counseling myself—a useful skill, but limited. It has always made a re-emergent difference for me when I could tell that someone could see my struggles and nevertheless liked me and was pleased with me for myself. My own internalized expectation of being disliked, or written off (rejected) as useless because of my oppressor roles, is strong enough that it takes considerable gentle persistence for me to believe that someone might actually be pleased with me.

As Ellen noted, urgency never helps. I have at times, out of my own urgency, tried to “jump over” this struggle to connect with someone. I have also been pushed by counselors to take directions that amount to ignoring that struggle in the name of “putting attention on reality.” But sooner or later, it always comes back around to be dealt with, and I have lost relationships when either I or my Co-Counselor simply couldn’t face, and choose to take on, the struggle to connect. It is true that our distress is not an accurate picture of reality. But it is also true that our distress is real; it really exists. Choosing to take a different perspective and to act outside distress is not the same as pretending that distress does not exist. One would not try to climb a mountain by pretending that it was flat, but by believing that the climb was possible, gathering the needed supplies and support, and proceeding to put one foot in front of the other.

Nancy Wygant
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

 

I appreciate Ellen Deacon’s description of the “drones.” I find them to be the primary contradiction no matter what I’m working on. As a middle-class client, I have felt that my distress is ickier to my counselors (and, of course, to myself). I think it’s because some of middle-class distress is a bit like the brown-noser, brownie-point, teacher’s pet,  collaborator, stool pigeon, squealer, informer patterns [the first three are servile, approval-seeking patterns; the last three are informer pattens—ed.] that many people grow to hate in elementary school. Just more brilliant (distressed) ways to survive.

Catherine Carter
Seattle, Washington, USA

 

Ellen, thanks for this good addition to our thinking. I found that deciding to devote counseling time to my feelings about middle-class people was helpful. I needed to discharge frustration, which came out as anger, from quite early in my life as my mother was trying so hard to push me into the middle class. Finally came the re-evaluation that fear was operating big time in middle-class people. My mother passed on to me both the fear and a good bit of courage and daring (she was bravely assuming her right to have nice things, learn about good music, wear pretty clothes, and be with the “best” people). It is vital that we decide that since middle-class people are vital to our whole project, for our own re-emergence as working-class or owning-class people we need to discharge all negative feelings related to middle-class people.

Anne Mackie

 


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00