I’m insulted when I see Facebook posts by snobs who imply that people who work in offices don’t work hard, love their families, or care about their fellow man. How utterly pompous! These memes accuse white-collar executives, physicians, lawyers and the like, of not being “real men” who don’t deserve the money they make, because they (supposedly) don’t work very hard. Congressmen are chastised for making more money than soldiers. CEOs are criticized for making more money than their employees. Professional football players are held in contempt for making more money than just about anybody.
And it’s not just about the money. Power and education can castrate a “real man” in the minds of the public. Beauty can disable a woman in the eyes of other women. I can’t understand why it is “bad” to be successful! I remember when successful people garnered admiration and leaders were role models; when another person’s success inspired. People went to school to better themselves and create a better living for their families, and that was admirable. People who made a lot of money showed us what was possible for ourselves. Now, the successful are suspect simply for being successful.
My grandfather died when my father was young, and my dad and his four siblings were raised by my grandmother (a single mother), who was a high school English teacher. My dad graduated from junior college and put himself through the University of Michigan engineering school. After WWII, he brought his bride (my mother) home to Michigan, took the helm of a commercial construction company and began to raise his family. He was very successful, and he brought it all upon himself. My father taught me that it is more blessed to give than to receive, that honesty and integrity are everything, that generosity is crucial, and that only your character can make you more than or less than anyone else. My dad was no snob.
My mother and her two little brothers were raised by her grandmother, her mother and her two maiden aunts, after her father abandoned the family when she was three years old. My mother’s mother died when she was thirteen. Mother graduated high school, went to a year of etiquette school, and worked as a secretary until she met my dad during the war. She became successful, because her choice was to “marry well.” My mother had no advanced degrees, but she made it her business to educate herself. It was my mother who taught me to speak my mind, to mind my vocabulary, to write stories, to take care of myself, to appreciate nice things, and to value education and music and art and flowers. She taught me to knit and to needlepoint. She taught me how to set a proper table, write a proper thank you note and that good grammar is important. She taught me to love to read. My mother was beautiful and elegant, but she was not a snob.
My parents were white-collar, upper-middle-class country clubbers who lived a good life. They had two late-model cars, theatre tickets, a savings account, and college funds for their kids. My mother had a mink wrap, but not a mink coat. They socialized with some of the movers and shakers of the community, were active in and generous to their church, and volunteered in their community. They worked hard, lived within their means, and lived well. Neither of my parents came from much, but they made much of themselves and they never lorded it over anyone.
During the time my parents were working to build a good life, I attended Woodside Elementary School. Woodside sat smack on the border of two neighborhoods that were large and disparate. The school drew half of its students from a middle/upper middle-class mostly white neighborhood. The other half of the population was relatively poor and mostly black. In third grade, my best friend at Woodside School was Susan Cole. I envied her freckles and her blonde hair. I admired her mother, who was a seamstress for a department store and could make wedding dresses, when my mother didn’t work outside the home at all. Susan often came over to play and to spend the night (I didn’t go there, because I wasn’t invited). Our fathers knew one another, but I didn’t know that; I just liked playing with Susan Cole.
I attribute to my friend Susan, two third grade episodes that wised me up and broke my heart – two episodes that heralded the beginning of the end of my innocence and the beginning of my awareness of discrimination and snobbery.
One day on the playground, Susan and I were arguing about our teacher, when Susan got personal. Suddenly emotional, she fired at me, “You may be rich, but at least we have love in our family!” It stopped me cold. Of course, we had love in our family! My third-grade brain couldn’t process the slight, but I sure felt it. I cried all the way home from school.
Another time, Susan got mad at me because I had to cancel my plans with her. She pointed an accusing finger at me and yelled, “You’re so rich you have red carpets!” I had no understanding of her shaming, but again, I felt it. It was partially true. We did have red carpeting, but in third grade I had no knowledge of castles and mansions with velvet wallpaper and elegant red carpeting. (Our carpeting was red only because my mother liked red carpeting.) Again, I ran home in tears.
I will always remember my mother telling me that Susan’s shaming was a case of reverse-snobbery. This happened, she said, when somebody decided they were better than you, because they were jealous of you and didn’t know it. My mother said that maybe Susan envied my nice house, or maybe she resented that her dad worked for my dad. Maybe she somehow blamed me for the things I had that she wanted. Maybe somehow putting me down built her up. I was so young that I hardly knew what my mother was talking about, but it impacted me all the same.
Susan and I began to drift apart, because conflict in relationships can never be resolved if it can’t be discussed. In every disagreement Susan would eventually get emotional and as soon as she did, she would accuse me of some transgression I could not understand: a toy, a dress, our car, even the fact that my cotton anklets had lace around the tops. She saw these things as shortcomings. She resented me and blamed me for what she saw as my good fortune, and she shamed me for it. Susan was a snob – a reverse snob. She held me in contempt for what she thought she lacked. She broke my heart.
My parents were by no means rich, but they knew some wealthy people and they didn’t admire or disdain them. They knew that you don’t have to have money to have class, and that there is nothing wrong with having money or not having money. They knew that success is desirable, and is determined by the effort, discipline and tenacity with which you approach a task. They taught me that wealthy or not, I have a responsibility to be generous, to behave, and to present my best self. If success brings me power, I should wield it responsibly. Education is a good thing. Admire those who have it, because the more one learns, the more one can see his choices.
My parents taught me to respect people for working hard and being good at their jobs, whatever those jobs entailed. My dad could read specs, estimate construction projects and submit bids, but he couldn’t wield the hammer or lay the bricks and he knew it. My parents taught me to know my place when in the company of someone with skills or knowledge I don’t have. They taught me to respect others – to defer to them – whether their skills included performing delicate surgeries, grilling steaks, or gutting deer.
I saw a condescending Facebook post pointing out that members of Congress, the President, a physician, etc. make 10-100 times more than a soldier, “shame on them.” That post doesn’t even make sense. Salaries are determined by education and skills, experience, location and level of responsibility. Much is made of the disparity between the salaries of soldiers and the salaries of CEOs. It takes a high school diploma to be a soldier, and the “company” will train at no cost. It takes no experience to be a soldier, and supervisors have all the responsibility. Cost of living in your geographic area influences salary, but the armed services will relocate you, free of cost, and when you are all done you can go to college and get a degree to become a politician or a doctor or professor or anything you want, at no cost. And if the soldier gets sick? Who will take care of him? The physician. A doctor isn’t better than a soldier and a soldier isn’t better than a doctor; they are different. They are different in levels of education, levels of responsibility, skills and salaries. Both made their own choices; they just made different choices. The army may make a real man, but college doesn’t and neither does a factory. A soldier isn’t a great person just because she’s a soldier, and a politician isn’t a bad person just because she’s a politician, any more than a black person is suspect or admirable just because she’s black . There is no competition. Doctors have skills that welders don’t have and vice-versa. We need one another. A lot. We can’t afford to be snobs.
Many of the people I know of middle, lower-middle and lower economic status assume that people who are economically successful or educated or powerful, or even attractive, are worthy of contempt. I can’t imagine anything more pretentious. Some of these people are friends of mine and they feel entitled to steal from their employers, collect disability for more years than they worked, or lie for benefits. I know people who clean houses to earn their living, but resent their employers for not cleaning their own homes. They are reverse-snobs who dislike and are disrespectful to people, based on what those have, instead of what they don’t have. They are guilty of the same kinds of snobbishness they renounce, and it’s ridiculous. If a maintenance worker graduates from college would it erase her ability to fix a car engine? Would she naturally stop loving her family? Stop caring about her fellow citizens? If you won the lottery, would you cease to like yourself?
I could never convince Susan Cole, but I know that worth is not about how much education people have, how much power they wield or how much money they make. There are snobs in every walk of life. There are assholes everywhere.
If you chose not to go to college or trade school or join the armed forces, that’s on you. If you have become a card-carrying electrician, good for you, but you shouldn’t start discriminating against people who made career choices you like better. If you chose a career with limited income possibilities, stop whining about it. If you neglected to control your own fertility as a teen or young adult, you limited yourself, and you shouldn’t discriminate against people who made choices that made it easier for them to get an education. Or a job. Or a savings account. If you look down on people who have done “better” than you, you are a reverse-snob.
Susan Cole couldn’t have understood what my mother called reverse-snobbery, any more than I could at that age. Somebody taught her resentment, and it’s hard to accept that her father taught her to resent mine, when my father clearly held hers in high esteem.
If you feel insecure about your own income, education, social status, or looks, that doesn’t give you license to be snooty about my master’s degree, or the fact that I am conscientious about my appearance. I didn’t grow up rich and I didn’t grow up entitled, any more than you did. Just maybe, the assumptions you make about me aren’t right. It could be that you thinking I think I’m better than you, is your way of thinking you’re better than I. Don’t belittle me because I have a nice home. Don’t be arrogant about my belief in the communicative value of good grammar. Don’t dare have the audacity to belittle me just because I don’t consider “comfortable” and “slovenly” to be synonyms. Just maybe I accept you exactly the way you think I should, and want to be accepted by you, too. I can respect you no matter what you do to earn your keep and no matter how much money or education or status you have or have not achieved. I can guarantee that I will never look down on you for anything except dishonesty or irresponsibility or filth, because I can’t abide a snob – or a reverse.