Journalist Alfred Lumbrano calls middle-class people from blue-collar backgrounds “straddlers,” not completely fitting within either the working or middle class worlds. As the son of a gardener and with both sides of my family having rural backgrounds both in the States and Japan, I can completely relate to this. Beginning in college and through my experience with the working world, it’s been a constant process of learning and acclimation, despite the fact that I was born and raised in Los Angeles.
I’ve been middle class for decades now, and it’s mostly second-nature, but every so often I am aware of an experiential difference between myself and the people around me. It’s often difficult to trace the source. Is it the whiteness or middle classness of an environment that makes me an ill-fit? Or is it just something innate within me? At times, I feel I get only a partial read of a situation; some sort of mild social illiteracy, or perhaps dyslexia.
Further, much of what I always thought were intrinsic parts of my character turn out to be common straddler characteristics, according to Lubrano in his book “Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams”; a vague distrust of talkative or smiley people, distain and/or discomfort with workplace politics, a dislike of meetings, and on and on.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that despite the fact that I’ve been solidly middle class for most of my adult life, my background shapes a worldview that is in some ways indelible. Sometimes, when I’ve had a drink or two, my speech reverts to the clipped cadence of my formerly blue-collar neighborhood near Mar Vista; blunt, faint hint of Chicano caló word choice, with a dash of a surfer twang and diction.
Still, I’ve internalized enough middle-class privilege to raise a stink, not accept things as they are. I question why things are so, ask to speak to the manager, write letters to the editor, and to some degree try to remake the world to fit who I am. In many ways, this is counter to how I was raised, where the limited offerings were accepted without much overt complaint, a double helping of fatalism from my blue-collar and Japanese American backgrounds.
I suppose my life can be seen as an example of social mobility, but I often wonder about my other classmates, the ones who didn’t go on to college, who with each year of middle and high school gained an added hardness to their expressions, coldness of manner, until I lost track of them and found out years later that they had been in gangs, jailed, or were dead.
It makes me think that individuals transcend class not because of our society’s structure, but in spite of it. My situation isn’t unique, but outside of Lubrano’s book, I haven’t read much about this straddler experience, and I suppose this is part of the fire that drives this blog.
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