Let’s be honest. Very few of us are members of this unexotic underclass. Very few of us even know anyone who’s in it. There’s no shame in that. That we have sailed on a yacht of good fortune most of our lives — supportive generous families, a stable peaceful democracy, excellent schooling, prestigious careers and companies, relatively good health – is nothing to be ashamed of. Consider yourselves remarkably blessed.
I was reading a very interesting and astute article today, The Unexotic Underclass, by C.Z. Nnaemeka in the Entrepreneurship Review. The quote above jumped out at me because it related to the point I was making yesterday about the dangers of having a publishing system that relies on writers who are either independently wealthy (do not need to make a living from their work) or writing as a hobby. What starts to happen is that the people who comment on society start to get an idea of who “we” are that does not include most of America. The media, news, popular culture, fine arts all speak to “people like us.”
To be fair, in this case, the authors assumptions about who “we” are are shaped by the publication. “We” are the readers of the Entrepreneurship Review. But assumptions about who “we” are pop up all of the time.
The authors of the book Love the Sin (Jakobsen and Pellegrini) analyzed the headline “Is AIDS a threat to the general public?” and wrote: “Now if the ‘general public’ includes everyone, this question would be meaningless.” The framing of the question shows that “we” as in “the mainstream American public” does not include the victims of AIDS, for example homosexuals and IV drug users.
The “we” of business stories are generally assumed to be either consumers or management, not labor. When we talk about immigration reform “we” are not the immigrants. When we talk about family values “we” are not single mothers, gays, or non-Christians. All the lifestyle pieces in magazines (12 Things to Do Today to Make Your Life Better!) assume that “we” are upper middle class and that buying a new fragrance to spritz on will be an impulse not a major financial hardship.
Eventually even those of us who are not part of this “we” start to write as if we were. Female writers talk about “female voters,” for example, assuming the default voter is male. Writers who are working for free and who may not know if they will have enough money for food that week churn out those lifestyle pieces about red being the new black and how to maximize your investments and what the hottest new tech gadget is. We write to the “we”– a reader who we picture as middle class, white, Protestant until proven otherwise.