Guess what song I have stuck in my head this morning!
The other day, Emily Drabinski tweeted about dealing with class mobility.
I'm somebody who stepped up in econ class & now find myself raising a child whose privilege triggers my class rage. Support group, anyone?
— Emily Drabinski (@edrabinski) March 24, 2016
Seeing that and some of the responses has class at the front of my mind, which is probably why I’m thinking about Red Lobster.
I grew up poor. Not the poverty of people stuck in Normandy or Riverview Gardens school districts – though I did go to Riverview Gardens for 1st & 2nd grade. We were able to get out, but everything went into keeping us in better school districts than my dad could really afford, so every month was a balancing act of how to keep the utilities on and pay enough of the rent to avoid being evicted. And it’s not like we were out in West County, the region of St. Louis where all the richy rich people lived. We were still in North County, a heavily blue collar working class area, just following the rear line of white flight – benefitting from the lowered property values from the first wave of whites fleeing but getting in while there was still some property tax base left to fund the schools. We bounced around a lot, but stayed in the Hazelwood Central school district for 7th grade through my high school graduation.
The narrative the whole time I was growing up was “go to college so you don’t wind up struggling like me”… But did I go to college right after graduation? Nah. I moved in with a boyfriend and got a job as a hostess at a restaurant. I broke up with that boyfriend, went to University of Missouri – St Louis the next year, but then moved in with a new boyfriend and dropped out after two semesters. After a few years of doing this and that, I eventually went back to school, this time at University of Missouri at Columbia (aka Mizzou).
When I read articles about the struggles first generation college students face, so many of them hit home. As a white woman, I looked like I could belong, but my clothes didn’t really. And the way I reacted to conflict really didn’t fit. And I had no idea what I was supposed to say or do in a lot of situations. It also didn’t help that I was older than most of my classmates – I was just 22 when I started at Mizzou, but those few years of struggling to support myself in “the real world” made it seem like there was a huge gulf between me and my 18 or 19 year old classmates.
In my second year at Mizzou, I declared a major and started hanging out with the Anthropology Students Association. That’s where I met the man who would become my ex-husband. We became friends over the course of the year, and started officially dating the following summer. He was so completely different from any of the guys I had dated before – he was in the PhD program, which was a huge difference from most of the people I knew before then. He wasn’t macho, didn’t talk a lot of shit… In a lot of ways, spending time with him was more like spending time with female friends – which those macho dudes I used to hang out with would take as emasculating, but with him it was just the quiet confidence of a guy who didn’t need to prove his masculinity to anyone.
I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t wound up falling for him, because I learned so much about how to become middle class from him. We had fights over the way I mouthed off to someone who had disrespected me – I had the more macho reaction in that situation, can’t let that b get away with that shit! While he was upset at the open confrontation, preferring to handle it in a more outwardly “nice” way. And I remember freaking out at times when visiting his family – they were more solidly middle class, but had friends from the wealthy end of the spectrum… We went over to his mom’s friends house once, and I felt so out of place. The thing that stands out in my mind is that this woman had a platter of petit fours set out for guests – like, who does that? There was more to it than that, but there were all these tiny little things that rich people take for granted as normal that stood out as completely foreign to me. But I learned. Spending time with him and learning to argue productively with him taught me to interact with other middle class people more effectively. More exposure to these things that higher class people take for granted made them seem more normal to me, too. Of course, it wasn’t all him – going to UVA for grad school was another set of culture shocks that I adjusted to, and just going through so many years of higher education meant more exposure to this strange new culture.
But I remember the time when Red Lobster went from a fancy expensive restaurant to a mediocre chain restaurant in my mind. OK, I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but it was in Columbia, MO after I had started dating my now ex-husband. I hadn’t gone in a long time because, well, it’s expensive. It wasn’t the best place I had ever been for seafood, because that honor was reserved for places in Galveston, TX that we had gone to when I was visiting my grandpa in Baytown, TX. But where could you get better seafood in Missouri than Red Lobster?
My ex didn’t like seafood, but this was a special dinner – I don’t remember if it was my birthday, or celebrating some achievement, or what. The Red Lobster in Columbia was not in the “nice” part of town – it was along the access road facing Interstate 70… But so were the other national chains like Olive Garden, which we both enjoyed going to. My memory of it marks it as an older building – not a lot of natural light, well-worn carpeting, and so on. Since he didn’t like seafood, my ex ordered steak… And was very disappointed by it. I don’t remember anything about my meal, but I remember his disdain for the place – all the little things he noticed and commented on that made it seem mediocre instead of fancy, including the dingy appearance of the older building.
I haven’t been to a Red Lobster since.
After a solid decade as a full time student (undergrad, MA, 2 years in a PhD program, second MA) and 8.5 years with this ex (dating, living together, married), I’ve internalized a lot of the middle class norms that helped me seem like a good “fit” for a tenure track library faculty gig. Now that I have that, if I want seafood, I can go somewhere that makes Red Lobster look and taste mediocre at best.
When my dad comes to visit and neither of us feels like cooking, we tend to go out to the restaurants that my friends don’t seem to care for or just do take-out. When we go to a restaurant that I consider fine, nothing fancy, and that I go to regularly with friends, Dad will sometimes get really uncomfortable, worried that he’s under-dressed. I’ve gotten to the point where I feel fine walking into a place like that whenever I want – dressed nicely, dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, or anywhere in between – but he still sees all of the class based cues that I now take for granted as normal. The fact that now I can go somewhere better than Red Lobster when I want seafood is not just about having a salary that lets me afford that – it’s the class privilege of being able to feel comfortable, to feel like I belong, in those spaces.
Of course this all intersects with race, so I don’t mean to discount that. It’s a lot easier for a white woman to claim this class privilege in this town where I regularly see hateful people driving around with confederate flags flying from their gas-guzzlers. But, while there is a lot about Formation that is not for me, this line has me thinking this morning.
PostScript – Lest I leave the impression that my friends are snobs or something, there’s another intersection of privilege to consider here. I don’t even suggest some of the places my dad feels comfortable to my friend who is a trans woman – those places would not seem so safe for her. Even if the people in those nicer restaurants are equally likely to discriminate (not trying to cast shade on anyone as more likely to be bigots), the social norms require them to be “nicer” about it in a polite restaurant. Having people keep their distance from you seems easier to deal with than having people say offensive things at you.
I haven’t tried taking my dad to the one place in town that is friendliest to those of us who don’t fit the mold of straight white Christian Southern society. It’s a weird little place with a decor that seems like it’s trying to be a dive, but that uses locally grown organic beef for their burgers and charges more for mixed drinks than anywhere else on the square. The place that hosts occasional drag shows is probably not the place bigots are going to want to go… But it attracts people from across the economic spectrum. That might be a place where Dad would be as comfortable as my friends.