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Book Review: Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

Workboots sit under a bright blue sky.Summary:
What do you call the approximately 1 out of 5 working class American kids who go to college and move into the white collar world?  Journalist Alfred Lubrano calls them Straddlers, and the world they live in Limbo.  Through interviewing experts on social mobility and class, therapists, and Straddlers themselves, Lubrano seeks to establish the unique challenges and triumphs of moving up the social ladder from blue to white in America.

Review:
I picked this up because I happen to be one of the Straddlers Lubrano is talking about, and I was curious to know both what about my experiences are common among all Straddlers and pieces of advice on navigating the interesting experience of being a Straddler.  The book brings to light the often overlooked issue of how changing classes impacts a person’s life, as well as real cultural differences among the blue-collar and white-collar classes in America.

Lubrano begins his book by defining blue and white collar.  A blue collar person can make more money than a white collar person (think of a successful plumber versus a struggling journalist).  Blue versus white collar isn’t about how much income a person generates, according to Lubrano.  What really makes the difference is 1) education level and 2) type of work.  The blue collar person may have an associate’s degree or a trade degree or certification.  The white collar person will have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.  The blue collar person generally works with their hands or in service industries.  The white collar person works in an office or on a computer.  Thus, what generally begins the change from blue to white collar is attending a four-year college.

The book next establishes the blue collar background the Straddler comes from, as well as establishing statistics on class mobility and class differences.  By establishing firmly the blue collar background the Straddler comes from and how that affects their thought patterns and approaches, Lubrano lays the groundwork for highlighting the unique struggles Straddlers go through in college and later at their white collar jobs and in their white collar surroundings.  The blue collar class elements Lubrano highlights include: being taught that working hard will get you what you want (the ideal of a meritocracy at all levels of society), distrust of the boss/upper-levels of management, intense loyalty to community and fellow workers, high value on obedience and conformity to community, patriotism, straight talking, and emotions being close to the surface and easily erupting.

The next section deals with the blue collar kid starting college.  Both blue collar families that push college and those that degrade it are discussed, as well as the reasons for both reactions by blue collar parents to college.  On the one hand, there are the parents who view college as a straight-shot meritocracy to a better job, better life, and better ability to live your dreams.  On the other hand, there are the parents who are afraid that they will lose standing in their own home if their child outsmarts or outshines them.  By and large, however, most blue collar parents fall in the former category.  Lubrano points out that blue collar parents don’t intimately know or understand the white collar world they are sending their children into, and thus unknowingly often give them bad information or false hopes.  To the blue collar parent, a college degree is a golden ticket, and so the blue collar child is pushed into a culture they are unprepared for.

Straddlers’ parents have such plans for their kids. With strong hopes but scant information, many push their progeny toward the vague realm of Something Better–the glorious middle class. Imbued with these dreams, Straddlers lurch awkwardly out of sheltering enclaves into unknown realms. On their sometimes troubled way, they become educated and awaken to class differences between the past and their would-be future. Priorities shift. Some values change, while some remain constant. Unlike many they meet in the new, white-collar world, these people are hybrids. That duality is their strength and their struggle, and will comfort and vex them throughout their days. (loc 611)

Next, the book tackles the blue collar / white collar culture clash that begins to occur when a blue collar person attends college and will continue throughout their life as a Straddler.  Lubrano does an eloquent job of addressing both how the Straddler struggles to understand the white collar world she now inhabits, as well as how the Straddler starts to change and no longer fits in among her family and blue collar people she grew up with.  The changes that often make a Straddler no longer fit in among her family include: language, leaving religion, and dietary choices.  College makes the blue collar kids change, and often their families are not expecting that.  Suddenly, the child speaks like a stranger, eats like a stranger, and no longer feels attached to the family religion. The culture clash between the working class college student and her new peers is perhaps a bit more obvious.  The monetary differences are clear immediately.  Peers often don’t understand the need to work or the high value of a dollar to their blue collar classmate.  More subtle and far-reaching than the different approaches to money, though, are the different approaches to life.  White collar kids are raised with self-esteem and feelings of entitlement that blue collar kids never knew existed.  They navigate campus with a sureness of belonging, and that surety will aid them throughout their careers.

The book next tackles how these class differences affect the Straddler’s career.  This is the most fascinating part of the book.  Most people probably expect that a blue collar kid going to college will experience some culture clashes and struggles with the family, but the idea that these struggles will continue past college is not obvious.  College is supposed to prep everyone for a career, but the fact is, oftentimes colleges leave the Straddler student floundering on their own. There are generally no classes on how to be white collar, you’re just supposed to know.  And it’s not always easy for the Straddler to just pick this up on their own.  Lubrano highlights the key areas in which the blue collar culture the Straddler was raised with clashes with the expectations of a white collar job and can hurt a career.

If you come from the working class, you haven’t got a clue how to conduct yourself when you first land in an office. You’re lost if you can’t navigate the landscape–if you follow blue-collar mores and speak your mind, directly challenging authority. Without tact and subtlety, without the ability to practice politics amongst the cubicles, an executive with a blue-collar background will not rise. (loc 2473)

Among the issues Lubrano highlights as frequently arising for Straddlers are a tendency to be lacking in tact, an innate disgust for and inability to handle the inauthenticity demanded by office politics, and a lack of understanding of the manner of dress expected in white collar jobs.  Additionally, blue collar homes often denigrate the boss or the man, demanding only loyalty to fellow workers.  White collar culture, on the other hand, demands loyalty to firm, not your coworkers, as well as an expectation that you will automatically desire to rise up the ladder and become the man.  Perhaps the most difficult skill for Straddlers to learn and appreciate is networking.  Blue collar homes teach you to leave work at work.  Family time is a sacred space.  White collar jobs expect extraneous socializing in the form of networking, additionally they expect the white collar workers’ whole family to participate in their career, when needed.  (Think of a networking dinner in the worker’s home).  This entire concept rubs the Straddler the wrong way.  Networking feels inauthentic and wrong, and the family space feels violated.  Additionally, the Straddler was raised believing hard work advances you, not who you know.  The idea that you advance farther by networking than by working hard can often sicken a Straddler.

I didn’t realize that doing a job well is no guarantee of advancement and opportunity. There are ways to get ahead that have nothing to do with hard work. But blue-collar people are taught that that’s a person’s only currency–you sell your labor and give the boss an honest eight hours….Along with blatant kissing up, networking and socializing with bosses and colleagues also are dirty words to some Straddlers. It all smacks of phoniness and is antithetical to their blue-collar backgrounds, which emphasize honesty in human relations–”real” relationships. (loc 2735)

The book next discusses Straddler’s romantic lives and experiences parenting their own white collar children.  Unless a Straddler dates another Straddler, they will end up dating someone who does not communicate the same way they do.  If they date a blue collar person, the same issues they have with their own family arise.  If they date a white collar (born and raised) person, then issues in communication similar to the ones they experience at work come up.  If the Straddler marries a blue collar person, that person will often feel threatened by their academic interests.  If the Straddler marries a white collar person, communication is often an issue.  White collar people are taught to manage their emotions and shut down when upset.  The Straddler was raised with emotions at the surface in a passionate manner.  This can freak out the white collar person, and in turn, the relative calm of the white collar partner can drive the Straddler crazy.

When it comes to kids, most Straddlers talk a lot about trying to keep their kids from having a sense of entitlement.  They want them to connect to their blue collar roots, to appreciate blue collar work, and to have blue collar values.  The Straddler wants their child to have to struggle, because they value the personal growth they themselves got out of it.

The book closes out with a discussion of what makes a successful Straddler.  Ideally, the Straddler will become bicultural.  Able to navigate both blue and white collar worlds, and appreciate the positive in both. Unashamed of where they came from and unashamed of where they ended up.

The more successful Straddlers–and by this I mean people who are comfortable with their lives–embrace their middle-class reality while honoring their blue-collar roots. Though they live in limbo, they choose to concentrate on the upside and what makes them unique. (loc 4175)

The book addresses a topic that badly needs to be addressed.  If one in five working class kids becomes a Straddler, that’s a huge sociological group that is often not discussed.  However, there are some weak points in the book.  Although Lubrano acknowledges that Straddlers can come from the city or rural areas, since he grew up in Brooklyn, he tends to focus in on those who come from the city.  He could have sought out more Straddlers to interview who grew up rural poor to get a firmer grasp on what their life experiences are like.  There are some subtle differences between city and rural blue collar.  Similarly, Lubrano mostly interviews people of the same generation as himself.  He conducts one series of interviews with three people from a younger generation, but primarily he interviews people from the same age-range.  Although it’s obvious these issues are consistent across generations, it would be a stronger book with multiple generation’s voices.  Similarly, the book came out in 2005, and an updated edition would be nice.

Overall, this is an engaging read that addresses the sociological issue of moving from blue collar to white collar class.  Interviews with both Straddlers and experts brighten and enlighten the text, although the book would benefit from a bit more variety in the Straddlers interviewed.  Recommended to anyone who is a Straddler themselves, as well as those who may educate or work with Straddlers and those with an interest in class differences.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (Series, #1) (The Real Help Reading Project)

January 28, 2012 4 comments

Black woman standing in front of house with hand on hip.Summary:
Blanche’s employers failed to pay her on time, and now she has some bad checks.  She had no idea that bouncing a few checks would land her with a 30 day jail sentence, though, so when she gets the chance, Blanche goes on the lam.  She decides to take a temporary job she had originally decided against as a way to hide out.  She’s going to be the help for a family on a week-long vacation in the countryside.  Naturally, things can never be simple, and Blanche starts to suspect one of the family members is a murderer.

Review:
It’s hard to believe Amy and I are on our penultimate book for the project, not to mention the final fiction book on the list.  And what a book!  If I had to pick one of the fiction books we read to hand to fans of The Help to get a much more real representation of black women in domestic service, this is definitely the book I would hand them.

Somehow this tiny mystery novel (called a Kriminalroman in German, which I think sounds much better) manages to cover pretty much every aspect of black female domestic workers’ lives that we’ve discussed throughout the project.  Blanche faces: police and criminal justice prejudice, stinginess on the part of wealthy employers, rape at the hands of a white male employer, classism, employers’ racist attempts to control her body, non-traditional family structure, and much much more.  Yet facing all of those odds, Blanche remains determined and strong.  She is not someone who needs OR wants a white woman (or man) to come along and rescue her.  I think Blanche’s personality is best summed-up here:

She always returned to domestic work. For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she was really her own boss, and her clients knew it. She was the expert. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around. She told them when they had to be out of the way, when she would work, and when she wouldn’t. (page 86)

That’s one of the wonderful things about this book.  It turns the whole white woman saving the help thing from The Help on its head.  Blanche is the one who saves the white family in this book, and then she refuses to accept help from them in return, beyond clearing up her ridiculously unfair legal troubles.  Instead of taking a cushy job with them, she leaves, because she is her own woman.

Now, all of that said, I was personally a bit distracted from the race and class issues in this book due to the presence of the character Mumsfield.  Mumsfield is the cousin of the sinister family members, and he has Down’s Syndrome.  I don’t think all of my readers know this, but my niece has Down’s, so I certainly am a bit sensitive to the portrayal of it in literature.  Knowing and loving a person with Down’s removes a lot of the misperceptions of it that exist in the world.  At first, I was concerned that Neely had fallen for these things.  Mumsfield at first seems too trusting, too caring, a real simpleton.  But by the end of the book, Blanche realizes that she hadn’t really listened to what Mumsfield was actually saying earlier in the week.  If she had, she would have realized that while Mumsfield is kind and giving, he’s not stupid.  Knowing Mumsfield also helps Blanche see that her experiences as a black woman in America have made her racist against white people, when not all of them are bad.  Thus, I am pleased to report that Mumsfield is actually an accurate and positive portrayal of people with Down’s.

Now, I will say, personally I’m not generally into the typical mystery novel.  I like to get my genre reading from urban fantasy, pnr, and cozies.  I am well aware, though, that a lot of people love this kind of book, and it is definitely well-done.  It has all of the well-loved aspects of the genre, plus manages to address race, class, and even Down’s Syndrome.  It is absolutely a worthwhile read.

Source: Public Library

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Discussion Questions:

  • How do you feel about Blanche’s initial jail sentence and her decision to go on the lam?
  • Blanche sees Mumsfield as an exception to the rule when it comes to white people, aka it’s unusual for them to be kind.  Do you think this is an unfair assessment?
  • Blanche assesses her caring for Mumsfield as a symptom of “Darkies Disease” aka when the help start acting like the idealized Mammies.  What do you think of this assessment?

Book Review: How to Be a Hepburn in a Hilton World: The Art of Living with Style, Class, and Grace by Jordan Christy

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Little black dress with pearls.Summary:
This book is a call to action for intelligent American women to start addressing our current image problem.  Increasingly, women are willing to give away all the self-respect our suffragette fore-mothers fought for in return for their quick 15 minutes of fame or even 15 minutes of attention from that one dude.  Christy calls on women to appreciate the relatively recent freedom we now have as a gender by pursuing knowledge, class, and dignity in lieu of late-night dancing on stripper poles at clubs.  The book serves not only as a call to action, but also as a how to guide, featuring chapters on classy dress for every personality, good friends, dating, body image, and more.

Review:
I admit that I largely bought this book because the women of classic cinema–from Audrey Hepburn to Katherine Hepburn–are my heroes.  They exuded femininity and strength simultaneously.  What’s more attractive than that?  Overall, though, I think this book is a bit behind where I am in my personal growth as a woman, although that doesn’t make the message any less important.

For instance, I really didn’t need Christy to tell me to love and accept my body and eat healthily.  I already do both those things.  On the other hand, I know some women who would really need that chapter, so I certainly didn’t mind it being in the book.  Similarly, I’m a nerd.  I don’t need to be told not to be a Stupid Girl (as those hoo-ha flashing reality tv stars are often called).  I suppose if I was a bit younger or raised a bit differently though I might be intrigued by this book if for no other reason than the idea that class and intelligence are actually more attractive than that kind of behavior.

The two chapters on style were actually quite useful.  Fashion sense that’s practical and attractive simultaneously while reflecting my personality is something I struggle with.  I found the quizzes to help you determine your style and colors that work best for you to be truly enlightening.  Christy offers up sample core items for the various personality types, and I immediately wanted to acquire the ones that suited my own.  It was worth reading the book for the fashion sense alone.

Overall, I appreciate a book calling on women to respect themselves and behave like intelligent human beings.  To pursue the goals and passions or fore-mothers fought so hard for.  I definitely think those who would benefit the most from this book might be the ones least likely to read it–like oh think of the Jersey Shore female cast members.  On the other hand, everyone has moments when they get tired of the partying lifestyle.  Having a book like this out there for them to grasp onto with such an attractive cover to boot is definitely a good thing.  I’d recommend giving it a go if you’re an intelligent woman seeking for encouragement in your pursuit of class and goals or if you’re a partier thinking about changing your lifestyle.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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