Covering the topic of class struggle as someone who grew up in Vancouver, BC, is a bit of a mind screw. While we have a substantial working-class and working-poor population, the average income of individual Vancouverites puts many in the global one per cent both in terms of wealth and educational opportunities. However, almost no one within my generation will ever own property here, we’re home to one of the poorest postal codes in North America (Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside), and many post-secondary students are carrying the weight of crippling debt. I grew up in the suburbs of Vancouver as the daughter of a teacher and a part-time nurse — two professions that landed our family smack dab in the middle class. (Keep in mind that while the wages of teachers Canada-wide are more than liveable, in Vancouver they’re paid considerably less — not much more than garbage collectors and automotive mechanics.)
While I acknowledge my relative privilege, as someone who also lives in the second most expensive city in the world, a location which is rapidly accumulating the world’s mega-rich, I find myself relating to Joanna Kadi in her essay “Stupidity ‘Deconstructed.'”
Kadi, who was born into a family of factory line workers in a General Motors town in Ontario, describes how class started to permeate her academic experience from a young age:
Test results are read out loud — no surprises. Top marks for me, the Johnson twins, Brian Kingsley, Jonathan Woodley, Amanda Britain. Their label: brain. Mine: jock and party-er. Their parents: doctor, lawyer, psychiatrist, executive. Mine: line worker. Mr. Smythe advised the Johnson twins to apply to Waterloo or Toronto but not McMaster, and the intricacies of differences between these universities went way over my head: our guidance counselor poured over pamphlets and reference books with Brian once a week […] I got wrecked every Friday and Saturday night and cruised around in cars driven by boys as stoned and drunk as me.
And then she gets to the central theme, a myth that many of us have unknowingly internalized — rich equals smart, poor equals stupid.
Vancouver’s fiscal libertarian political climate is the perfect breeding ground for the idea that rich equals smart and poor equals stupid (or lazy), or in other words, that the world is fair and we get what we deserve. While British Columbia has a reputation for being socially progressive, we’re home (or property bank) to some of the wealthiest individuals on the planet, yet we have some of the lowest property taxes in the country. Among provinces that collect either both GST and PST or HST, we have the second lowest rate. For the past 25 years, British Columbians have voted for politicians that — regardless of the fact that our middle class has been evaporating for several decades — have the “trickle-down” theory embedded like a diseased tick in their economic policy. We have a deeply entrenched rich is smart/hardworking and poor is stupid/lazy belief in our culture and it disproportionately sucks for women who not only get paid less for work of equal value, but also earn less due to the fact that we chronically underpay in fields traditionally occupied by women. The reigning attitude here is you-do-you and I’ll-do-me.
Where does the myth come from that we earn our relative wealth through intelligence and hard work? Kadi explains:
For the capitalist system to continue ruthlessly grinding on (or for the capitalist system to “succeed,” as you would say) those of us bred for stupid and/or dangerous work must believe we’re not as smart as the people who boss us around. It’s critical. Capitalism needs simple explanations about why poor people with lousy jobs take orders from men in suits. Lack of brains fits the bill.
This is reinforced, Kadi says, by the education system in which we use language, theories, and attitudes that are passed down from rich parent to rich child without even thinking about it, alienating students who haven’t spent their lives steeped in privilege.
I’m familiar with this. Soon after graduating high school — where I learned (despite being labeled “bright”– translation: smart-lazy) that my interests and skill set were about as valuable as the Canadian penny — I went into a certificate program where I was trained to care-give for people with special needs. I grew up care-giving for people with special needs in my family so this seemed a natural fit. My first career involved doing toileting with teenagers (which is a completely valuable and honourable job that I believe should be paid far more than it is). When my friends and acquaintances discussed studying for GMATs and LSATs at parties or fretted about the differences between a wine glass and a water goblet, I made a point of informing them that I wiped bottoms for a living. For the most part I liked the job and it paid the rent for rat-infested basement suites and shoe-box apartments.
When I married into a situation that promised slightly improved “financial security” I went back to university, partially to test out the theory that I might have a brain, even while I was literally cleaning up feces for stagnant wages off the sticky floor of the BC economy. I’ve got a decade on most of my classmates, many of whom have a free ride through university, have known the difference between a GMAT and an LSAT since the second grade, and can recognize a water goblet from a wine glass when they see it. I’m not talking about going to a prestigious university. Former ass-wipers don’t end up at Oxford. I’m enrolled in community college.
What does Kadi suggest we do about class inequality?
I propose the establishment of new institutions. I want Working Class Studies set up. I want working-class and working-poor histories, cultures, ideologies, theories, languages studied. I want the many worthy individuals who spent their lives working for social justice studied and examined. I want us teaching each other, want the labor halls and community centers filled with janitors, secretaries, house cleaners, garbage men, lineworkers, want us in charge of curriculum and reading lists and teaching. I envision us at the center; I don’t want “experts” explaining our lives to us, standing behind a lectern and pontificating for two hours on proletarians.
I want this too, and I want it to be accessible. I’m sick of spending an hour and a half on the bus and walking past a parking lot full of Mercedes and BMWs to sit in a classroom full of kids who are there for no other reason than their parents are paying for it.
Most importantly, if we were to develop a less neanderthal understanding of class, what exactly would change? What would happen if we abandoned the belief that rich equals smart/hardworking and poor equals stupid/lazy? Kadi addresses those who benefit from class privilege when she answers that question:
Maybe you’ll lose privileges and status. Maybe you’ll have to learn to clean up your own messes. Maybe we’ll find fulfilling work and the drudge work will be shared equally. Maybe we’ll remove your feet from our necks.
If we can develop a class that teaches that, you can bet your ass that I’ll be enrolling.