Holly Genovese on the difficulties of an academic career when you come from a “White Trash” background:
I bought The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky, a terrifying book full of blunt (and much needed advice) about navigating the academic job market. While the author gives outspoken advice about the struggles of the job market, particularly for women, she also implicitly argues for the importance of hiding one’s class. She wrote about clothing and makeup and speaking patterns in women. Around the time I read this book, I realized that I, for a lack of a better term, code “white trash.” I have bad teeth, frequently say “ya’ll” and “how come,” and have a habit of running around South Philadelphia in a Dale Earnhardt Jr. t-shirt. It is one thing to have your hometown judged by your peers, but it is quite another to realize that qualities you possess, habits born of a lifetime that you don’t even realize you have, make you read as unqualified or unfit for your chosen profession.
But you can’t go home either, as they say. The more formal education I acquired, the larger the gap between my family and I became. My parents are incredibly proud of me and have never been anything other than supportive. But everyone from cousins to former employers have insinuated that I am arrogant because I left my small town for the city and enrolled in a Ph.D program. Why couldn’t I get a real job in the Harley Factory? What could you even do with a history Ph.D anyway? And most common of all, was I ever coming home? Slowly I realized the answer to that question had to be no.
Coming home still feels like a relief, a break from a life of pretending. But very gradually, my life has become very different from that of my family and old friends. We no longer watch the same TV or drink the same beer or read the same books. It takes a good week to get acclimated to the Folgers coffee my mom still buys. And many of my friends have no frame of reference for my chosen career, having never gone to college or even finished high school themselves. And sometimes my liberal and quasi-socialist opinions run up against those of the people in my hometown. How can I contest their sometimes racist, homophobic, or anti-intellectual opinions without confirming their stereotypes about who I have become, an elitist snob from the city?
H/T to Rick McGinnis for the link. “Except for the use of the voguish word “microaggression,” this resonates strongly with what I’ve seen (and lived.) That in-between feeling, of never quite fitting in where you’ve come from or where you are now. Class is a powerful thing, and in my experience Americans have a hard time talking about it. (And Canadians only marginally less so.)”