Thursday, July 13, 2017

Sandwiches and "capital"

So, David Brooks wrote a column on how those with "privilege" (a term I have grown to heartily hate*) are "hogging it all" and not allowing people from "below" them to move into their classes.

(*"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." In many ways, I grew up privileged, but my growing-up years were not uniformly easy - I was bullied in school, I KNOW I didn't fit in, I was an anxious kid, some of the time I was pretty unhappy)

Anyway, he used the extended metaphor of taking one of his "less-educated" friends to a sandwich shop that had fancy Italian deli meats, and it didn't go well:

"Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican."

Um. Yeah. It's also possible she didn't like cured meat. (I might be a hard person to take out to a restaurant, given my specific dietary restrictions.)

A lot of people are rightfully mocking the fact that he writes a column on the "hoarding of privilege" and then goes on to come off very tone-deaf here: "The un-educated, they just don't understand fancy Italian meat, so we probably better just plan on eating fast food"

And I don't know. I realize that this is a different thing (because "privilege" is not a two-way street) but say Brooks had an African-American colleague whose roots were very much in the American South. And said colleague finds out that a new "soul food" restaurant that is super-authentic has opened up. So he takes Brooks with him. I can guarantee you that most Euro-Americans would probably be somewhat baffled by soul food of some forms (pig-ear sandwiches) and would probably find some of it unappealing. Or, say, Brooks had an Afro-Caribbean colleague: he might not even recognize some of the foods his colleague knew.

Also: I know food pretty well, and I think Brooks would regard me as well-educated. But there are some food traditions where I'd be lost. (The first time I went to a Thai restaurant, luckily it was with a Thai person, and she was able to steer me towards something I would like). Sushi restaurants. Very old-skool delis, whether Jewish or Italian. Danish Smorgasbord. And there are some things I don't like: I don't care for the high-style "traditional" French food with its heavy sauces and the like.

(A little story: I remember my mom telling me - I was a kid at the time - about the eldest daughter of one of the neighbor families, how she went out on a date with a guy, and they went to a very fancy French place, the heavy sauces and everything, and on the way home, she threw up in his car. The moral my mom wanted to convey being, "Fancy food isn't always the best food" though now as an adult, I wonder if maybe "adult beverages" were also involved, seeing as the daughter was over 18 at the time and this was before Ohio changed its legal drinking age to 21).

But yeah - we all have blind spots about things. I know what a pasty is (the food kind, I mean - not the part-of-a-burlesque-dancer's-kit kind). And I know what pierogis are. And what paczki are. All of that by virtue of family background or where I grew up. (Pasties - they are very, very common in the UP of Michigan, where my mom grew up. There are pasty stands kind of like some places have taco trucks. In fact, things being what they are, I wouldn't be surprised to learn someone now has a pasty food truck. Which actually would be an awesome business idea - you could have the traditional kind, and a vegetarian kind, and maybe a few weird variants like smoked salmon for people who want the weird stuff). And I know a lot of the various UK foods, partly from background, partly from interest. And I probably know more German foods than many of my peers because of my heritage.

The thing is, does this convey me any privilege? I kind of doubt it. Actually, I think the food-as-status-marker thing has kind of lessened recently, though I know there are some pockets of folks who still do food-as-virtue-signalling and have things like micturational combat over how "locally" they eat. But we also all know that tiresome person who goes on and on about whatever food he or she finds "downmarket" and that doesn't enhance that person's status in my eyes at all.

The thing is: we all have areas where we can manage in the flow of life, and other areas where our "faces freeze up" because we're awkward or uncomfortable or don't know how things go.

The one and only time I ate at a country club, I felt that way - "I don't belong here" - and I wanted to get done with the dinner and get out as fast as I could because I knew I didn't fit in, I knew I was an impostor, and I was one laugh-snort or misfiring joke away from being outed as a total impostor.

And yes, there is one thing Brooks gets right: it's probably incumbent on people who ask someone somewhere to make sure their guest is comfortable. One of my favorite stories illustrating the difference between "manners" and "politeness" comes from "Say Please, Say Thank You" (which I know I've referred to before). The story is probably apocryphal, but: A diplomat, who had been raised very much in the ways of proper etiquette and manners, who always knew what fork to use, was at a fancy dinner somewhere. One of the guests was an individual from a more-rural, or perceived-as-more-backwards country, and for one course, the fellow picked up the "wrong" fork. The diplomat saw that, and decided to do the same - first, so the man (his guest) would not feel awkward or uncomfortable if he spotted others using a different fork, but also so no one could say "Ha! Did you see that hick? He used the dessert fork for the fish course!" (And yes, people ARE that petty)

But anyway. There are all times where we are "tourists" who don't know the lingo, and are surrounded by people who have the "privilege" of knowing it. I remember feeling that a lot growing up - my parents put fairly tight restrictions on what media we were allowed (and the way things worked where I grew up, there was no being able to sneak into an R movie - to go to the movies one had to be driven to the mall by parents) and so I didn't know much of the pop culture my friends and colleagues were marinated in, and it made me feel weird and uncomfortable and yes, it gave them another way to make fun of me.

I still have a lot of pop-cultural blind spots: I pretend to know "The Godfather" because I'm familiar with a few of the tropes (the horse head in the bed) and the lines ("Take the gun, leave the cannoli") but I have *never actually seen the movie.* And I don't feel a strong need to see it. 

And yes, I came from a fairly "privileged" (there's that word again) background. Granted, what I look back on now as things I was lucky to have (I think that's a better term) are maybe not material things:
 - my brother and I were "wanted" and loved kids
 - our parents valued education and wanted us to work hard and do well
 - our parents didn't put their own personal wants over the needs of the family (the more I see of the local news, the more I realize this was a huge thing)
 - they did stuff to "enrich" us - to use another word I dislike - they took us to the public library every week and encouraged us to check out as many books as we could carry, they took us to National Parks on vacation, they took us hiking in the local Metroparks and the Cuyahoga National Recreation Area.
 - they didn't regard the picture-perfection of their house as the be-all and end-all: regularly there were paintings my brother or I had done drying on the dining room table, or they let us build epic Lego structures in the family room, and we had aquariums with turtles and tadpoles and stuff in the house. I was kind of shocked going over to a new friend's house for the first time and learning she was not allowed to take her toys out of her bedroom because her mom "didn't want the house messed up"

Did any of that give me "social capital"? Heck if I know. It did help me in school - using the library prepared me for doing stuff like searching for journal articles as an adult. And all the parks and the tadpoles kept me interested in science even during that 11-13 age period when it wasn't "cool" for girls to like science or even be particularly smart. But I didn't fit in with my peers. And I sometimes still feel I don't fit in. Any fancy boutique I've ever walked in to - I feel that way doubly in those - first, because I have no experience shopping like that (Von Maur is probably the absolute limit of "fanciness" I can tolerate) but secondly because many of those places stop at a size 10 or so (Years ago, I remember a woman in a store looking at me and sniffing, "Honey, we don't have anything in YOUR size" - and that was more than 20 years ago, when I was a bit closer to a 10 than I am now)

I guess the argument I am making is, there are different types of social capital. There are different ways of knowing stuff. The kind of B-school stuff that Brooks seems to be talking about - like being comfortable in a swanky Italian deli - would not be that useful to me, not here, where getting something like soppressata for a recipe requires a special trip and a lot of driving. But being able to talk to a diversity of people and not look down your nose at them - that is more valuable. Or knowing "what kind of bee is that?" In fact, I think I've impressed more people - and come across as "useful" to a wider range of people - through knowing plants and animals** and being able to identify them and tell people if a particular bug was dangerous (to them or their trees or their garden) or not.

(**And that is not necessarily something requiring an advanced education; there was a retired farmer who used to volunteer at the CVNRA who know all KINDS of stuff. I have no idea what his educational background was but it didn't really matter because he had the experience and knew the area)

There's not just one way to be. Knowing what fork to use, or what kind of jewelry is appropriate at what age, or what mortadella is, isn't that useful in some areas of farm country. And it wouldn't be useful in rural Asia, or deep in the rainforest. Those places, you need more practical knowledge....and maybe the idea that "capital" comes in the form of recognizing fancy deli meats tells us how far we have got from the actual and practical.

(I will also end, with "on the 'hogging' of privilege" - that I have seen students from my university move up the economic ladder by virtue of their education here - that they learn to write better, and how to research, and they learn stuff like lab techniques that can be parlayed into a more-secure and generally-better-paying job. Maybe it's hard to break into the 1%, and that's what Brooks is saying, I don't know. But I don't think I'd want to be part of the 1%; from what I've seen of it, the air seems awfully thin and there's not a lot of room to be kind of weird and nerdy like I am. I'm happier being somewhere in the vague upper 50%, where my needs are met but there's less pressure on me to conform.)

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