Wandering in Redondo Beach While Wondering About Social Class/Privilege: PART ONE
While on vacation in California I watched so many movies you would have thought I would have gotten burnt out. However, it was my return to the North Country of NY where, with an engaging woman named Elise, I watched Denzel Washington’s academy award nominated performance as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in “The Hurricane.” The movie inspired a discussion about just how subtly our unearned social class privilege can go unnoticed. In a scene from the movie the head of the correctional officers calls the rebellious Carter (who refuses to wear the inmate uniforms) Mr. Carter in all their interactions. Now, the film only shows this specific officer interacting with Carter and no other inmates. However, it was hard to not notice that the officer continually gave Carter respect in a fashion that benefitted him considerations beyond those afforded the general inmate population. Unquestionably Carter had earned some of the privilege that accompanied his title, but preferential treatment over other inmates has nothing to do with the earned privilege of a championship boxer does it? Was it fair for Carter to receive preferential treatment? Is this type of status, this type of social class privilege, fair? What are some other social class privileges unfairly extended to some just because of their social class/status?
Later that night I found myself reflecting on my vacation, which basically was my first trip back to the Los Angeles/Southern California area with my doctorate completed. In many ways it was somewhat refreshing that my family processed it as nothing special. Some of my friends who have had their doctorates for years acknowledged mine, but my paranoia had me seeing their thought bubbles filled with thoughts like what took me so long. One of my closest friends, now a Vice President for a major music company, seemed to be proud of me though I couldn’t shake the feeling he probably thought I should have had it years before. Another friend, an Executive Vice President for a major film studio, who was one of my mentees at the graduate school I attended on the West Coast—though he had completed his doctorate before me— was congratulatory in a manner that was somewhat matter of fact. I didn’t expect a ticker tape parade, but where was the love? On the other hand, this is what happens when your college crew was populated by people who were serious about making it happen. I get my respect from my crew because of the type of work that I do. But most of my college friends make six figure salaries; have large homes, and prestigious positions. So this hard to impress group of peers is mostly surprised at my accomplishments because they couldn’t have projected that I would be teaching and consulting on diversity and social justice. Who knew?
However, it was the older family members that were eager to introduce me as Dr. J.W. Wiley. You could hear the excitement in their voices, and/or see the emotion in their eyes. One of my best friend’s fathers, whom I hadn’t spoken to in over 15 years, called me to acknowledge my accomplishment. Often it was quite emotional how much the accomplishment meant to them.
I can’t help but wonder if we live in a society that grants too much respect on titles, or not enough? Are the director or chair of an academic department, the president of a college, superintendents/principals, publisher of a paper, captain of a police department, millionaire business owner, state investigator, etc. more important in the grand scheme of things than our sanitation workers, custodial workers, teachers, bank tellers, retail clerks, etc.? Are certain people in our society valued more because of their income, their monetary worth, or is their monetary worth simply a symbol of their value in society? Do we devalue the voices of the so-called less educated and perhaps give too much respect to those with book sense and financial cents over others with common sense?
When I drove around Southern California in my sister’s modest four door vehicle, why was I subconsciously struggling with the image of me in this low profile vehicle as opposed to those moments in her high profile vehicle where everyone was looking and I imagined wondering who I was? Why are we more validated when we have box seats, or our seats at the sporting event are in the front row?
These are the preliminary questions I want you to consider and respond to before we get into the meat of Wiley’s recent wanderings in So Cal.