Since coming to the US, I noticed that class, as defined by my 26 years in the UK, is different here. Unlike the UK, class here (in the West) isn’t defined by your accent, your clothes, your elementary schooling or your proximity to the royal family.. but it does exist. Just here its based on one thing.
In the UK, your class is defined from birth. It largely defines where you’ll end up – financially and social status wise. Where you’ll live, how you’ll live, how many kids you’ll have and what class they’ll be.. its all pretty much laid out from the day you are born. Imagine knowing that you’ll probably only move 30 miles from where you are, have 4 kids, max out your earnings at $45K and visit Mexico a few times at the age of 6. That’s how pervasive class is in the UK. It takes a lot of effort to break out of your class and its inherent expectations. Like moving to the US.
By the time I hit elementary school I knew I lived in the lower class area and by extension, must be lower class. Not ‘wrong side of the tracks’ class, but, you know.. not rich. Our house was a duplex and single story. Single family homes with stairs were ‘posh’. Our school was referred to as ‘the one behind the chip shop’ and we shopped at the cheapest grocery store, not the new fancy one with the shiny floors, price scanners and new paint smell. We had a series of new second hand cars, fixed and maintained by my dad, oiled to the elbows, through endless Sunday afternoons. No Angela’s Ashes here (there was food) – but as a Brit, my future was pretty cemented by society before I even hit middle school. Regardless of all my A’s.
Sure, you might get lucky, win the lottery, get hit by a car, inherit something from a long lost aunt, but largely in the UK, your class wins out over any money you can acquire. You might be a squillionaire, but in the UK that Newcastle accent means you’re always low classy.
You can claw yourself a scholarship at a good redbrick university and don a ball gown once a year but one mention of your dad’s boiler suited factory job means you’re undoubtedly shunned by your higher class peers until you graduate.
You can climb a class through focused hard work – change your accent, study hard, get the right job, wear the right clothes, affect the correct mannerisms, live in the right area and keep your head down – maybe rising to a new class by the time you’re 50. By 26, I saw that no matter how much I tried, there were jobs, locales, friends and experiences I’d never reach by virtue of my parents, the location of my birth and my early schooling.
No, I’m not kidding.
So I came to America. The land of opportunity that many American’s themselves don’t really understand. Since arriving in America not a single person has asked me what my parents do. Where I went to elementary school or where we ‘summered’ as kids. There has never been any assumption or judgement about my skiing ability, my accent or the clothes I wore. I’ve never been disinvited to a party on account of my parents jobs and I don’t think anyone gives a shit about whether I’m related to anyone who owns Downton Abby. All American’s really judge is money and whether you’re a nice person.
Sure if your vehicle is a shopping cart and you’ve not showered since the Bush administration, you’re probably not on the guest list anywhere in the US, but socialization based on parental employment or your vacation destination… its just not done here. Promotions based on schooling? Are you kidding? In America, where you’re going is based on brains, moxie and your ability to make people do your bidding… something the logo on your t shirt probably isn’t going to affect. Its all on you.
That you grow up in a Detroit project doesn’t mean you can’t be or do anything you want. Not your parents, your school, your lineage or even your cashmere sweater will limit your ability to be successful. To think so would be downright un-American.
Which makes me wonder why American’s are often referred to as crass and impolite by the Brits. I’ve never had my legitimacy questioned here.
And that’s classy.