As Angela Reitsma Bick noted in a recent editorial (“An Other Perspective,” CC Jan. 27), it’s distressingly easy to fall into facile “us vs. them” assumptions; and in our present cultural moment, a lot of these assumptions have to do with class distinctions.
During my university years, I worked as an intern for the U.S. federal government in my home state of Alabama, a job which required me to carry an ID card. One day after work, I dropped off a package at the post office near our house, only to discover that my card was no longer in my pockets, or, as it turned out, anywhere in my car.
Shortly afterwards a middle-aged woman dressed in a t-shirt and jeans emerged from the post office and noticed me – wearing a coat and tie – frantically scouring the parking lot.
She snorted. “What’s the matter,” she asked, “lost your millions?”
This was my first conscious experience of being treated as a stereotype based on socioeconomic class – that it was so mild, and so late in life, is the result of my growing up solidly middle-class. I was hardly free from class prejudice myself. I mentally and often verbally applied the term “redneck,” and not in any affectionate way, to a large group of white people – those who engaged in some combination of using profanity like it was going out of style, chewing tobacco, racing souped-up trucks on the road near our house and flying Confederate flags in their front yards. They were why Alabama was a national punchline.
At home one evening, I made some derogatory quip about “rednecks.” My dad shook his head and laughed. “Good grief, David,” he said, “that’s where you come from.” Although we were using the term in somewhat different ways, Dad’s point is that my ancestors, who came from rural and blue-collar backgrounds in various Southern states, were surely looked down upon by the middle-class of their day.
Mistrust and stereotypes, however, can begin to dissipate with even a brief moment of real contact. Case in point: after the woman had made her “millions” comment, I explained the situation to her. She immediately softened and even offered to help me look for the card. In the space of a few seconds, I had gone from entitled snob to real person.
Even so, genuine relationships between members of different socioeconomic classes are not easy to achieve. A 2015 study cited by the BBC reported that primary-school age children – and their parents – were more likely to have interracial than interclass friendships. The study names “social awkwardness” as the key culprit. Similarly, a 2014 New York Times op-ed by psychologists Michael Kraus and Stéphane Côté notes that participants in a social experiment “laughed less, and displayed nongenuine smiles more, when listening to someone from a different class.”
In a 2019 article for Maclean’s, Shannon Proudfoot gives a firsthand account of the discomfort of first-generation university students coming from working class backgrounds. “Given the way we evade, erase and ignore socio-economic class in Canada,” Proudfoot explains, “my background feels like an invisible fact that shapes everything, but is acknowledged nowhere.” She mentions other first-generation students on the cusp of graduation who report feeling like “dual-citizens” straddling the working- and middle-classes, but not quite fitting into either.
Despite the inherent difficulty and awkwardness, however, it’s worthwhile for Christians to intentionally pursue friendships across class divides. I recently had the privilege of leading a Bible study at a Christian halfway house for ex-cons, most of whom are white. To a man, they hail from working-class backgrounds, and they all have stories of struggle and deprivation that are a world away from my own upbringing. Even so, we have forged a real connection through our mutual interest in the Bible, and they have graciously put up with my ignorant questions about their lives. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in years.
More importantly, our efforts to reach across class (and racial, political) lines bears powerful witness to the reconciling power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter how great the traditional barriers that divide human beings, Christ is greater still.