Your Unique Cultural Lens: A Guide To Cultural Competence

Layer 10: Social Class – Example 3


I still remember the first time someone called me white trash in the workplace.

I was 22 and it was my first “real” job after college – a large non-profit in the outskirts of Boston. They paid me a modest hourly wage with no benefits, but it was the year after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, so frankly I was just happy to do something besides waitressing. Sure, occasionally when grocery money was tight I would skimp on milk and put water on my cereal, but I worked in an office and I went to meetings.

One Friday, towards the end of the day, I was chatting with my friend at the front desk, swapping stories from our past. She had grown up in rural Washington and I had grown up in rural Wisconsin. We both moved to Boston for undergrad and we were boasting of how our big city indoctrination had successfully replaced our Americana accents and country-bumpkin habits.

“No one would ever know I’m from Wisconsin unless I explicitly told them,” I said with a laugh. “They’d have to know I put Cheetos in my yogurt as a kid before they would suspect anything.”

Unbeknownst to me, one of the organization’s vice presidents had just walked up as I was saying that.

“Cheetos in your yogurt?!” He said, joining our laughter, “Sounds like white trash to me!”

I smiled, but my cheeks burned and my palms felt sweaty.

It was a few months after that a friend in Human Resources approached me about how I dressed. To me, this friend was the epitome of style. Every day she would walk into the office perfectly put together in the latest fashion with tallest heels. I knew girls like her from growing up: classy, sophisticated, and rich enough to view shopping as a leisure activity. Which was exactly why I initially had no interest in getting to know her. I assumed she was a posh, snooty white girl whose daddy got her a job. I may have envied her wardrobe, but I at least I had worked for my bargain buys.

But, slowly she became my friend anyway. And I realized we had the same lowbrow humor and passion for cheap iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. Which is why one day, as we were walking back to the office with our post-lunch coffee drinks, she finally told me straight what she really thought.

“Girl, we’ve got to get you some new clothes.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, taken aback and nervously smoothing down my Target button-up, “I think what I have is fine.”

“Not if you want to work in an office!” She said laughed with friendly incredulity. “Listen, I work in HR. I know you are barely making enough to buy toilet paper, but you’ve got to dress for the role you want, not the role you have! I swear there are ways to shop and be affordable. Let me help you.”

I considered her for a moment, looking at her beautifully tailored dress, smartly cropped jacket and bright pink shoes. To me, she looked like a head of a department, not just a junior associate.

“Ok,” I responded, “Help me.”

A year later, when I moved to Washington, D.C. for a job that paid me so much money it made me dizzy, I walked into the office my first day dressed in the latest fashion with the tallest heels. No one will ever call me white trash again. I thought to myself.

And no one has.

I grew up in a small town tucked between sparsely populated farmlands in Wisconsin. My father was a pastor at one of the local churches and my mother was a professor at a small Catholic college for women, about an hour’s drive away. While at the time, we would have been considered on the low end of middle class, my parents’ education and my father’s position in the community kept us firmly in the middle and upper class social circles. Further, the church provided our house so we lived in a nice part of town, comfortable in a two-story home with a large backyard and two-car garage. Sure, I was always working odd jobs to have spending money, but I never felt different from my friends around me.

But then, when I entered high school, my father lost his job and my parents got divorced. The church booted us out of our home and suddenly my mother was looking at units in the trailer park. I was mortified. I had no idea our finances had been so precarious.

To my relief, my mother managed to find a tiny, dilapidated little house for rent while my father lodged himself in a small one-bedroom near the high school. Although we had managed to keep ourselves out of the trailer park, the financial hit from that year was undeniable. We started shopping exclusively at Good Will for clothing and my mother began to accumulate debt. It was like a hole had opened up and no matter what we threw in it, it needed more and more and more.

I knew my only way out was a highbrow education. I had seen first-hand the passport my parents’ education had given them into well-heeled society, so I set my sights on well-known private schools on the East Coast and got into Boston University. Yes, I would have to take out student loans, but I saw it as my ticket to success.

And in many ways it was. Although even today I am still paying down my loans (augmented by a second private university Masters degree), I wouldn’t have landed that barely-paid position after the financial crisis if it hadn’t have been for my education, persistence and a couple kind-hearted and well connected professors.

And it was the same combination of things that led me to receive the well-paid job in Washington, D.C., where I suddenly found myself with leisure income. I could go shopping on weekends! I could go to fancy dinners and splurge on post-work Happy Hours. I could take weekend trips and start a savings account. And, perhaps most importantly, I could send money home. Which is exactly what I did.

I sent money to my mother, who was now in a debt management program and living in an apartment next to a gas station. I sent money to my younger brother, who was perpetually without stable work and unable to pay for all his school expenses. I even sent money to my older sister, who was working two jobs and always running from past-due notices and collectors. The only person I didn’t send money to was my father, who had found new work and moved back into a proper house.

I realize that as I write this now, it seems I knew exactly how my socio-economic background was shaping my experience while it happened, but I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even realize I had a “socio-economic” background until I took Enrique’s class in grad school and completed the UCL exercise. I will always remember that day in the classroom, when he put up a graph showing U.S. class breakdowns by income and I realized my family was at the bottom and I – with my well-paid job in D.C. – had managed to catapult myself up two brackets.

I gaped in shock. My cheeks burned and my palms felt sweaty.

In the months that followed that realization, I began to peel back the layers and see all the ways this aspect of my background was shaping my choices, everything from the job I didn’t like, but felt dependent on to the men I chose to date and the image of myself I projected to the world.  It wasn’t long before I knew I had to prove to myself that I wasn’t controlled by this element of my story. So I quit my job. I walked away from a comfortable salary and into the future with only a small amount of savings to my name.

Now, five years later, I look back on that choice with amused disbelief and awe. I had no idea how critical that moment would be to the trajectory of my life. Since then, I have twice more walked away from the “financially wise” option on matters of principle and personal happiness. These choice points have been true struggles for me, as when they present themselves they touch on some of the most innate fears I have at a subconscious level. But at least now I know to listen carefully when I hear myself begin to frame things in the language of having money or doing what feels true. I have to attend extra carefully to ensure I am listening to me as an adult, not me as a pre-teen terrified of living in the trailer park.

Today – as I write this – I am at my home in Rome, Italy, where I work for an international organization. Technically, I am making less than I did for that first high-paying job that brought me to Washington, D.C., but I am working for a cause I believe in and I am living my life fully. And I even still have enough “leisure” income to buy the occasional latest fashion or tall pair of heels. In fact, one of my coworkers – who I have come to know very well – recently told me:

“You know, if I didn’t know anything about you I would just assume you are some rich posh girl whose daddy got her a job.”

His comment stung and I thought back to my friend in HR who taught me to dress and how unfairly I had judged her. It’s amazing how our blindness to ourselves can make us completely blind to others.

Although my cheeks burned and my palms felt sweaty, I simply smiled at him and rolled my eyes.

“Yes,” I retorted, “but you know the truth. You know I used to put Cheetos in my yogurt.”