I’ve been meaning to write a post or two related to class and/or classism. It seems that class does not receive the same sustained attention in our “social justice” conversations as other identity categories like sexual orientation, gender, or race, although you could argue that widespread economic impoverishment, modern income inequality, and loss of good paying jobs are all topics that receive frequent media coverage, especially recently. But good luck finding pieces about class culture, subjectivity, or identity—they’re out there, but you have to look hard. As sociologist Beverley Skeggs writes, class “affect” is a “highly recognizable but little discussed aspect of class relationships; fear, anxiety, and disgust have filled categorizations of class.”1
I think that, overall, we do not tend to view class oppression as a formative, deeply felt experience of social discrimination. Perhaps it’s because we don’t think of it as something stable: class is often ignored because it’s not the type of prejudice to which people are supposed to endure for long. And while many individuals do escape class oppression, the system itself is eternally reproduced. Capitalist societies, while they continue to create and perpetuate class-based oppression, exempt themselves from this particular injustice because they ideologically support working-poor/class people in their quest for social mobility. This benevolent invitation to escape your class position—a deeply classist line of thinking—creates the widespread perception that class oppression is optional, temporary, or even freely chosen if endured for the entire span of one’s life. The notable exception to all this, of course, is the recent U.S. election with its never-ending rhetoric about “white working class” economic anxiety. This supposedly sympathetic narrative is riddled with racism, factual inaccuracies, and the guilt of the political and cultured class, which makes it extremely difficult to count this discourse as part of any genuine anti-classist agenda.
Again, however, note the exclusive attention to the economic angle—rampant poverty, loss of good paying manufacturing jobs, etc.—that is fairly indicative of most class-focused analysis. This is why, even though it was many months ago, Adele’s anti-acceptance speech at this year’s Grammy awards stuck out to me. It was unscripted, impromptu and, strangely, politely defiant. It was also, in my opinion, an overt display of class affect. You can read many think pieces about Adele’s acceptance speech, Adele’s uncensored speech after her acceptance speech, Adele’s breaking her Grammy to concretely demonstrate her belief that Lemonade deserved the award for Album of the Year. As far as I know, there is only one column by Michaela Coel (go read it) that connects Adele’s actions with her class background. Because Adele made her speech largely about Beyoncé, we cannot talk about it in the usual manner. What Adele did was unusual, and something tells me she was just the person to do it.
It’s not a secret that Adele hails from a working-class background, but it’s also not an integral part of her celebrity persona: “working class” is not something we tend to think of immediately whenever we think of Adele (even though Adele herself alludes to her “humble origins” in songs like “Hometown Glory”). This scarce attention to Adele’s class identity in all of the post-Grammy hot takes got me thinking about why we are reluctant to connect language, mannerisms, beliefs, etc. to class origin whenever a public figure achieves any measurable degree of social mobility and/or celebrity. Class inferiority is never really real in our culture: it becomes nothing more that a brief, episodic stint certain people are fated to endure but encouraged to escape. Even though class markers are technically malleable, the capitalist myth that class can be totally transcended isn’t right either. This myth claims that folks who manage to enter the upper classes have achieved total assimilation; their former self is dissolved, an ontological skin which has simply been shed. Why does class work this way? Why are working-class people not permitted (or perhaps unwilling) to retain the markers of their class once they capitulate to the project of social mobility? Why do the middle and upper classes automatically consider members of lower classes as part of their own socioeconomic category, once they have climbed the class ladder?
Can we rather read Adele’s “anti-acceptance” speech not only as an altruistic gesture towards Beyoncé, but also as an instinctive, transgressive refusal to conform to award show etiquette? Take Adele’s candor earlier in the night, when she swore on live television, interrupted the orchestra, and started her David Bowie tribute over again—were these moments merely manifestations of her sassy personality? I would be cautious to assert some kind of direct causal relationship between Adele’s class and Adele’s actions at the Grammys, but neither can we ignore the comparison altogether. The standard line that class pertains only to personal wealth and has no influence on who we are as people is untenable nonsense.
As I’ve said, class activism is often very wedded to concrete economic emancipation efforts; this is as it should be. Yet, I wonder how much of our reluctance to talk about class affect or culture stems from the unconscious assumption that working-class people don’t have culture, or that their culture is undesirable and repulsive. And I worry that not enough attention is paid to the entire spectrum of classist discrimination in the mainstream media because anti-classist rhetoric focuses too narrowly on jobs and money. Furthermore, because liberation movements in North America currently gain their traction by way of representational, identity-based politics, we miss the class angle very often. We think of class not so much in terms of identity but condition. I’m aware that constructing something like a class “identity” might transfer the emphasis away from economic oppression, and that it contradicts the materialist heart of Marxist philosophy. However, a class-based identity could help combat the misconception that class only affects one’s finances, that it has no bearing on other aspects of one’s personhood (such as speech, attitudes toward work, family traditions, psyche, personal comportment, and epistemological preferences). That said, I’m not necessarily sold on this construal of class as an identity category, so what can we propose as a viable working-class “cultural politic,” one that is broadly inclusive of all minority groups, and not beholden to the emblematic image of the white male factory worker? I confess I have no answers for this. As a start, it might help to simply become more aware that class norms are always in operation—alongside the usual supremacist systems—regardless of whether or not we are talking about the economy or the working poor/class explicitly. When it comes to Adele, we may want to think more consciously about how her class background automatically displaced her from the “highbrow cultural norms” (to borrow Coel’s phrasing) and positioned her to more easily challenge the decision of the voting committee regarding her victory over Beyoncé.
It might be hard for some to conceive of Adele’s Grammy speech as transgressive. But my point is not to praise or critique the actual substance of Adele’s anti-speech or to argue that it sufficiently remediated the injustice of Beyoncé losing out on her Album of the Year award. Nor is my point to argue that Adele is deserving of additional accolades for doing what she did. Instead, what I am arguing is that the move itself was made possible by the outsider status Adele possesses by virtue of her (former) working-class position. I realize this “class” perspective only works if we deliberately “class” Adele’s behavior, but why shouldn’t we? When we can, we should work to resist the uncritical incorporation of all working-class people into upper class society, which only makes their experience of class assimilation invisible. To access the powerful institutions which working-class people must become apart of in order to flourish is not a “choice”—it is a necessity.
- See “Feeling Class: Affect and Culture in the Making of Class Relations” by Beverley Skeggs in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Sociology (Wiley Blackwell, 2012).