In my other writing for Feminism and Religion, I’ve discussed how a key focus of my spiritual path involves dancing within the tension of opposites, finding ways to move mindfully and freely inside the orbit of sacred circularities in which every curve leads into and out of its inverse, with infinite shades in between. Two areas of my life in which this tension has informed my lived experience are socioeconomic class and education. I’m only two generations away from factory workers and electricians, and three generations removed from a long line of poor farmers. Both of my grandparents on my mom’s side – with whom I lived as a child and whose influence on my life is felt every day – dropped out of school to work on their families’ farms.
And yet I was the little nerd in the gifted program, in two grades at once, through most of my childhood, even as my parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. By the time I left for college, I’d worked hard to rid myself of my Southern accent, not wanting to be flagged as uneducated or backwoods.
Whatever the markers for “poor” or working class in any given region – accent or dress or dialect – they frequently are coded as less intelligent. The impacts of these assumptions are felt early, as children from low-income or minority families are often overlooked for and underrepresented in gifted education programs, and the impacts are later reflected in graduation rates and college attendance statistics by demographic. Even as colleges work to provide opportunities for lower-income kids to attend, the dialogue typically focuses on how access to a specific, Western model of education can raise up underprivileged kids, and not on how getting smart kids from a diversity of backgrounds into the university system can expand the very boundaries of how a field understands itself and the framework within which it conducts its research.
I recently spent a few days visiting with a much-loved friend who is a doctoral student at an Ivy League university. Before leaving this past summer, he’d mentioned that it felt weird knowing his baby wouldn’t have a Southern accent. Upon hearing his now-toddler say a few words during our visit, I asked how he felt about the possibility of his baby having a thick Boston accent. His response? “I’ve realized that’s how the workers here talk. If my son talks that way, I’m okay with that.”
This guy – the kind of kid who grew up in a low-income, working class, single mother family, who got overlooked for school honors and struggled academically, who worked as a dishwasher for a good chunk of his adult life – is now studying the racism inherent in the practices of his chosen field and this racism’s real-life consequences for those it serves and studies. I’m probably biased because I think this particular friend is one of the most compassionate, insightful, brilliant, hilarious, humble, and real people I’ve ever met, but I suspect that he will help his field reach into and better understand populations it once neglected. You can’t think or theorize your way into understanding an experience or culture that is not your own without meaningful engagement, personal interest, and a willingness to be (and see others as) fully human.
Skin color is typically immediately apparent; other markers can be masked. Those of us whose lips drip with the drawls of our Southern ancestors, whose walks and movements and habits manifest the mannerisms of our working class families, have to decide when we enter academic, intellectual, or “cultured” spaces how much of our backgrounds we reveal. For a time, I tried concealing mine under layers of acceptable speech, stifled enthusiasm, and words carefully chosen to express only my highest ideals. As part of my journey of self-acceptance and spiritual growth, I’ve made a practice of loving and embracing the parts of me that are intellectual as well as the facets that are playful, those that are refined as well as those that are lowbrow, those that have placed me among the elite and those that have cultivated in me a personal awareness of how poverty, abuse, and marginalization make bright futures hard to envision. Finding the sacred in the tension of opposites means loving the me who writes papers and gets a rush from reading social anthropology as well as the me who struggles in formal situations and laughs uncontrollably, in spite of my best efforts, at well-placed “that’s what she said” jokes.
This is a challenge for those of us who come from rural, working class, or minority backgrounds. How do we navigate divergent social and professional circles with widely varying expectations while still remaining legible to our families of origin and cultural groups? Do we bring our full and authentic selves into the work that we do, and if so, how? How much of our selves? In what contexts or ways?
The challenge goes both ways. How do we, as intellectuals, researchers, leaders, and academics, continue to develop theories, models, and frameworks for understanding the world around us without losing our ability to be fully, meaningfully, and compassionately present in it? Are we able to explain what we’re studying in ways that remain accessible to the general population, or are we content to blow off “Tumblr feminists” and armchair theorists while failing to acknowledge the real and profound ways that access – the accessibility of education, of journals and academic texts, and of our very words and arguments – impacts popular assumptions about culture and attitudes towards intellectuals? How do we respectfully integrate new insights from those whose voices have, on the whole, not played a role in the development of our bodies of knowledge, in ways that honor and expand the integrity of our research and the clarity of our thought?
These are questions that keep coming up for me as I re-enter academic study and encounter both the thrill of learning and soul-level ache of isolation, misunderstanding, and condescension – questions I bring with me into my contemplative practices of compassion, inclusion, and presence.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She is a graduate student whose current liberal studies program has focused on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, priestess, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.