Intellectual Circles, Authenticity, Legibility, and Working Class Roots by Christy Croft


IMG_0754In 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.”

Professors who've made a significant contribution to their field. Three walls, two-deep of white men.

Professors who’ve made a significant contribution to their field in a conference room. Three walls, two-deep, lined with portraits of mostly middle or upper class white men.

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.

A picture of the author as a small child with her grandma.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.

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Categories: Academics, Academy, Education, Poverty

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19 replies

  1. At Yale being from California was a stigma, at Stanford having a father who sold insurance was. And now I can barely talk to my fathers and brothers and that is sad. Siggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh And yes it was my own hard work COMBINED with incredible luck and public and private support for higher education that enabled me to get to two places where I did not “belong.”

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    • And I’m so glad that you did get into those places, seeing now what you’ve brought and are bringing to the field of feminist spirituality. That magic combination of hard work (and natural ability?) with luck and educational support makes a difference.

      I had a conversation the other day with a different acquaintance who has an Ivy League graduate degree and has worked in college admissions, and it was the first time I’ve heard anyone frame diversity in admissions as “creating the (school name) of the future” — reflecting the intentional shift toward diversity as a means of improving the university itself. Maybe they’re serious about shifting what it means to “belong.” Let’s hope.

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  2. Great points about the difference between theory and engagement 😀! Nice piece!

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    • Thanks, Darryl. The engagement piece is so important for me, and my ability to turn around and explain things I’m learning to folks who aren’t in or haven’t had the classes I’m taking is a way for me to check how well I understand it. Sometimes, I post quotes from my Feminist Theory reading to my social media, and my little brother (25, hasn’t been to college, lives in a small, Southern, conservative, rural town) messages or calls me to ask what it means. Getting to explain Spivak and Weheliye to him, in everyday language, sometimes stretches my own understanding of the material. Hearing him repeat it back to me, in ways that shows he got the idea, is immensely rewarding.

      Thanks for reading!

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      • Absolutely. Boiling down some of the “high/abstract” theories into more simple language is very important. If we cannot explain it in basic language, we do not know it very well! I try to weave in the names and ideas of scholars in my work as well.

        Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Thank you for articulating so well my own struggles. I want to honor the Midwestern values and those I love who still are there even as I carve my niche in & around academics and honor the intellectual enterprise. Tension is an excellent word to use. The search for authenticity can too often be stifling to one’s growth by the gatekeeping functions of the systems of privelege. Sigh! (And I find it difficult to talk to my family as well.)

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    • Gatekeeping functions of systems of privilege — that’s a good way of putting it. Even if you have the credibility/luck/academic background to get in, the system is not typically designed for you to bring your full self in, and that’s unfortunate. I love seeing when people make tiny pieces of resistance to that norm. We shouldn’t have to hide our humanity to be taken seriously as thinkers — that’s one of the things I love about the approach Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow set in Goddess and God in the world — it interwove their stories with their theories in a way that increased the reach of their theories by giving them context. That’s a skill, as well as a bold act.

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  4. I love your phrase “bodies of knowledge” in the context of what you’ve written here. If only we could always embrace our bodies of knowledge, our bodies’ knowledge! Thanks for this thoughtful post!

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  5. Oh my, you’ve touched a nerve here for me, both personally and professionally. On the personal side, I lost my family – not only because I’m queer – but because I pursued higher education, which was a grave threat to my mother’s working class Detroit roots. We don’t talk about this nearly enough, and my liberal friends have always been more interested in the homophobic elements of our estrangement.

    Secondly, throughout this horrid election cycle, I’ve been keenly aware of our cultural silos. The emotional handwringing of those who just don’t understand the Trump phenomenon beyond its racism and, further, dismiss an entire class of Americans who will still be here no matter how the election turns out disturbs me. It is the liberal counterpart of conservative whites who hide their terror of interacting with black people behind hoary inquiries like “But why do they burn up their own neighborhoods?” Sarah Schulman recently said that if a person is not willing to engage with another in conflict (and possibly have one’s assumptions challenged) that person is not really interested in the truth. This is an important point.

    I read an last week about how the Democratic “Watergate Babies” (The Clintons, Gary Hart, et al) reacted against the Vietnam-era draft via education and leaving the working-class elements of the party behind. It was the genesis of the neo-liberalist strain we see in the Democratic Party today. Yes, it works for civil rights for minorities, women, LGBTQ folks, etc., but at the same time it looks down upon the uneducated. This is a problem that calls for deep introspection and actual rubbing up against the great unwashed if we are to move forward as a nation.

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  6. Thanks for posing these important questions and for sharing your own experience. Right on, write on!

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  7. Wonderful post… I remember being discriminated against in high school because my last name was Italian (Pottetti). Italians were looked down upon in this upper middle class neighborhood that my father worked so hard to become a part of. I took on that shame. From the time I entered school I was also singled out and called Princess Rainwater by kids that thought I was “Indian” (Native American). Both identities were real and true… Trying to blend into the culture rather than standing up for who I was stripped me of my own identity… it seems that I have been a whole lifetime recovering the pieces of myself. The most painful part of this process is understanding what I did to myself. My point is that it isn’t just what others do to us, it’s what we do to ourselves…

    It has also been my experience that my body has always known the truth…

    Carol and Judith’s new book weaves the thread of the personal is political so seamlessly that personal stories, theory and context merge…

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    • It’s very much also what we do to ourselves, and I’m so glad you brought that up. Nobody told me to lose the Southern accent before I went to college — it was a matter of who I wanted to present myself to be, and maybe even who I wanted to be. Since moving back into the Carolinas, though, the accent is back, and it’s stronger when I’m excited about something (which is frequently, because the world is amazing).

      Recovering the pieces of ourselves… That is an apt description of a complex process. Figuring out what might go into raising up a generation that has fewer lost pieces to recover? I’m still working on that one as well.

      Thanks for your comments.

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  8. Such a courageous piece! Thank you! Because America is idealized as a supposedly class-less society, in which anyone with gumption can be anything they want to be, the existence of these socio-economic glass ceilings and undertows is often denied or unacknowledged. As you point out, it is more subtle than racial bias, and this makes it harder to demonstrate that it is real, and easier to believe that it is an individual deficiency that is responsible for what one is experiencing. I have been interviewed for church positions in which it was clear that I was being vetted around my socio-economic credentials in the informal “get-to-know-you” conversation — did I golf? belong to a country club? sail? attend Ivy League schools? I have heard mothers in an Ivy League town, talk as if it was the end of the world because their college-bound son had no interest in applying to an Ivy League school, and God forbid that they would end up at a second or third tier institution!

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    • Thank you, Susan. I think a frustrating part of this is how many people fall into internalizing others’ assumptions of their individual deficiency into their own self-understanding, and thus hesitate to pursue the realization of fuller potential in their lives.

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  9. In Australia also, education focuses on uniformity, not diversity, with clear definitions on how why and what uniformity is. Difference is being erased everywhere. So called white heterosexual middle class culture including language is a uniform to be donned. Pun intended. Lol I grieve for the losses that entails.

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