Nothing Gold

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay. -Robert Frost

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Location: Arlington, Virginia, United States

I am a white American middle class suburban housewife trying desperately to tell herself that that is not who she is. One time I was a glowing young ruffian. Oh my God it was a million years ago.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

On Class

When my family and I first moved out here to the D.C. area, one of the first things that we noticed was the terrible service to be found at nearly all stores and restaurants. Back in the Northwest, if someone said "Thank you, have a nice day" with no smile on her face, one thought, "Wow, what's her problem, she must be having a really bad day."
Here, one feels lucky to escape the store without being growled at. An affable service worker is rarer than a four-leaf clover and finding one is even more likely to brighten your day.
We also noticed that a disproportionate amount of service workers are minorities and that there is more racial tension than we were used to . We chalked this up to being so near the south. I am coming to realize that these phenomema are very interrelated.
I'm not sure whether I can state my thoughts on this very clearly, but I am going to try. Please let me know whether or not you understand/agree with what I'm saying.
The culture is similar with regards to class/racial lines in Washington, Oregon, California etc, so I feel safe saying West Coast for purposes of my comparison. I'm not sure what the rest of the East Coast, or Southeast is like, so I will be only talking about the Washington DC area for the other side of my comparison.
On the West Coast, there is very little importance placed on class/job level. Sure, parents would rather see their children grow up to be doctors or lawyers than mechanics or janitors, but it is purely based on wanting a higher quality of life for them. It has little or nothing to do with social status or self-worth. If a person is asked what he/she does, there is no embarrassment in answering "I work at Blockbuster." Lawyers are allowed to be close friends with waiters or lawn-mowers or cashiers. People who work at Safeway usually live near Safeway, in the next-over, smaller scale neighborhood from their doctor and lawyer friends. People with money show off, of course. They want bigger houses and bigger cars and bigger boats then their neighbors, but the things they buy ostensibly raise their quality of life somehow. One sees very few Burberry suits or Marc Jacob handbags. They do not buy expensive things in order to show that they are aristocrats. Less importance is placed on where (or if) one went to college. Educated people work alongside uneducated people. A degree earns you a higher starting salary, but it does not guarantee that your uneducated colleague will not be promoted above you if he is better at his job.
In the DC area, what one does for a living is very important to one's social status and even to one's self-worth. It would be embarrassing to many people if their children grew up to work in service positions. It is a very educated city (a good thing) and a lot of importance is placed on where (or if) one went to college (a bad thing in my opinion). There is an abundance of jobs for educated people, but they do not work alongside uneducated people. Jobs that are available for the uneducated are considered less worthwhile. There is no pride/self-satisfaction to be gained from doing a service job well. The jobs are considered demeaning, and if one has no degree, he will most likely never be promoted. It would be very demoralizing to work a job like this. Especially when the people you are serving believe that they are more valuable than you because they are more educated/affluent than you. Not only are the service people very unlikely to be friends with the professionals, they also most likely live nowhere near them. In the rather affluent neighborhood that I live in in Northwest DC, there is a bus that goes to Anacostia that stops near my home. I am not going to explore the reasons here, but most of the people that live in Anacostia are black and most of the people that live in my neighborhood are white. This means that many of the people who scan my groceries, cook my fast food and mow my neighborhood lawns got up early this morning to ride the bus from their dangerous, run-down neighborhoods where the schools are terrible and the hospitals are nonexistant to my well-manicured, safe, white neighborhood, in order to wait on people who believe that they are not worth as much. Even if our country did not have the sad history it has with regard to black americans, this would not be a wonderful way to foster good race relations. So, now I understand why the service is so bad and it makes me sad. I'm not sure what can be done to fix the problem. If anyone has any thoughts on this I'd love to hear them.


Blogger Mike said...

Great post, Maggie. I think you are right on to add 'class' to the discussion, alongside 'race'. They are both present, and very real, but they are distinct, as well.
And I love your insight about the West Coast. Now that you mention it, moving there from the midwest (esp. Chicago)was a great education for me. People of diverse classes lived together, and worked together. And that subtle shame which people 'back East' display when they talk about their service job was joyfully absent.
Getting things to change is, as you suggest, painfully difficult. The lines of race and class are clear, and the economic segregation of the city is very deeply rooted. Not to mention some very disparate views of life and the world. For example, people across the country were incredulous at the election and reelection of Mayor Berry, but it is not hard to find his staunch supporters in DC even today.

8:13 AM  
Blogger PACE SLC said...

Your comments are very interesting to me. I am always eager to hear about experiences outside of the west coast, it being nearly all that I know with the exception of 99% white Salt Lake City.
Your post leaves me feeling confused about whether I should take the time to ponder the inequalities and once again embrace the disturbing realizations that I came to when taking a few eye opening classes in college, in which I was finally a minority and was there to keep my mouth shut and listen to the truth. But if I do think, I just feel guilty and helpless.. as I sit in the comfort of the majority, pretending like it's all good.
Well another thing to consider is that the west coast may be just as bad, it's just under the surface. And we white folks feel so good about it.. everyone gets along, and marries one another, and goes to the same school. Those bad attitudes that are present from minorties in DC may be hidden under smiles in Seattle because it is not acceptable to show them, when in reality they are suffering even more. Maybe? Suffering because we say (and believe) that we are equal when we aren't! Anyway... I'm rambling

11:19 PM  
Blogger Maggie said...

some very good points. I do honestly believe that it is worse out here, but it is a sad fact that it is hidden out there. I grew up thinking that racism isn't that much of a problem, and that people were being too sensitive. I now see that I was incredibly ignorant and that racism is a huge problem and that even if it weren't, sensitivity would be understandable because of our history. I definately think that there needs to be more education on the issue out there, but I still believe that it is better to try and get along then to segregate ourselves or even act with open hostility to one another. A black child out west can grow up thinking that she is just as good as everyone else. Perhaps she will become frustrated as she gets older and learns about her heritage and encounters biases and prejudices, but at least she will have a clear sense of herself as just as good as anyone else. Out here, black culture is one of bravado, seeming self-pride, but oppression and segregation are a part of the culture and there is a lot of resentment. I seem to be rambling also, and I'm not sure I got my point across.

11:19 AM  
Blogger kate said...

I have a lot of thoughts about this... And have noticed a lot of similar things in the seven years I've been here.
I, too, grew up on the West Coast, and saw almost no minorities, really my entire life until moving here. I mean, in a daily interaction way. When I first moved here, I took note of the black/white balance on the metro when I got on. And, well, just NOTICED all this. But when my mom visited me for the first time, she noted how many middle-class black people she saw. She was really impressed with that. Expected only affluent whites and impoverished minorities, I suppose. It might be an uneasy mix (most of the time?), and for darned sure, minorities of all stripes are doing most (all?) of the service/demeaning jobs here, but at least we ARE mixing and interacting. I had a lot of very, if you pardon the phrase, black and white opinions about race before moving here. Now I realize some stereotypes are in fact often true, but there's lots of murky, difficult ground that I never knew about or thought about before. That's all to say, I feel like I've gained by observing things here.
Other thoughts: I'm with you on the 'degree/college don't mean a thing in the West.' I don't think I ever met an Ivy-Leaguer back there. And I'm SO with you on the smiling, the graciousness, the laid-backness that is usually so absent here. That's a daily irritation. I think it's especially prevalent in D.C. -- a word I think about a lot here is ENTITLEMENT. Self-importance. People are too busy, important, full of themselves. Rude. Yet, some of the nicest people I've ever known, I've met here, too.
As far as minorities go, though, as I've visited 'home' in Washington state, I've noticed that it's changing a lot. "Our" (West) minority is Mexicans, both legal and illegal. They've always been doing the really crappy grunt work -- I've worked next to them during summer jobs in fields, in nasty factories, in the late '80s and early '90s -- places I was desperate to escape from so I could get back to the high life in college or whatever. They're there, too -- doing our dirty work. And, willingly doing it. Not, "because I have to, and I hate it," but seemingly incredibly grateful for the opportunity. I guess that's a huge difference -- not a block of people displaced for our forefathers' sinful convenience, which has created huge, long-lasting effects for their descendants, but a group seeking a better life for themselves.
Hm. Sorry to plug up your comments board. Just had to chime in!

11:21 AM  
Blogger Maggie said...

I grew up in eastern washington and there are more minorities in Yakima than in Seattle. Now that I think about it, Seattle is alarmingly white and asian. I also worked alongside mexican immigrants in the cherry industry summers. I guess the difference that strikes me is that I was friends with them, even though their english wasn't great and my spanish was worse. Also, many of the foremen were immigrants that worked hard and were promoted, even though they had no degrees.

1:13 PM  

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