See the thing is, I have my father's manners and my momma's attitude. Middle class attitudes about professional workplace behavior (from my upper-middle class White father) coupled with a sassy, damn-the-man, management is management, work sucks and then you die, outlook on employment (from my poor mixed-ethnic mother).

Employers never know what they are going to get with me, or what to make of me. I know that. They sense that beneath my manners and my smile lie something else. Contempt. Maybe even hatred. I can see it in their eyes. And they are right. Because I do have my fathers 'good' manners, all but one. I have my mother's smile. The simpering smile and words that say, 'Yes, sir, No sir' in all the right ways, but something is amiss. There is something in that smile that says, "I'm going to do what you say and work this measly job because I need it to survive, but don't think for one minute that I like it, or that I respect you and don't you dare insinuate that I should be grateful. This smile is a reminder of the power imbalance between us that while unspoken, we both know is here, and I won't pretend it's not, and I won't let you play pretend either." I know that smile, and I know the rage I feel when I’m on the receiving end of it.

I'm tempted to reach out and shake the person and say, "Don't you know who you are talking to? I know that smile! I give that smile! How dare you give it to one of your own?" and then I feel a wave of shame. At who I am, who I have become and that I am unrecognizable to my own people. My mother married out of her class, married up they call it. She raised me with a deadly fear of slipping back into the poverty that she grew up with, and a push toward a more middle class existence like my father. Always in the back of demands to get good grades and go to college was the threat, her life as the example, of what I might become if I didn't "shape up and get my shit together."

"I'm never going to be like you!" I would scream when I was angry at her, at her need for me, at her lack of ability to understand how we were different. And instead of reprimanding me for disrespecting her, my mother would get silent for a moment and look down in shame. Then she would say, "That's right, don't grow up to be like me. Go to college and have a different life. I know you are going to have a different life than me."

And just like after being on the receiving end of the simpering smile, I would wash my rage down with shame. My mother pushed me to forget my roots. She told me that the world would reward me if I did. But she never told me what I would lose. What it would cost. And how confusing it would be.

So I did what she said. I went to the private school that my father's parents paid for. Fulfilling all their dreams and trying to find a way to squeeze mine in there too. Then I went to graduate school at a University on the east coast, thinking that was another way to fulfill both their dreams and mine. And when I was scared that I would flunk out and be a failure, my mother would tell me that she always knew how smart I was, and that my life would be one filled with books, and to remember, that she cleaned toilets so that I could go to school and be smart someday, and she just knew I was going to make it.

Do my parents know the kind of pressure they put on me? Did they know how alone I felt? How alone I still feel? I wasn't prepared for the world I was confronted with. People who took my accent and my femininity as a sign that I was stupid. People who expected me to come from a wealthy family, to have things I didn't have, to understand jokes and customs that were completely foreign to me. Grad school was a whole 'nother world that I didn't believe existed. I read about people like this in sociology classes, but I didn't think they were real. As trite as it sounds, I kept remembering that line about class from Dirty Dancing when classism would smack me in the face on a regular basis in ways I wasn't used to, "I know these people Baby, they're rich and they're mean."

It would enrage me, when taking a look at my pale skin and blue eyes the wealthy students of my school would assume so many things about me and my life. That I was just like them. Of course not all of them did. Some of them, schooled in the subtle signifiers of class would take note of the lack of tailoring to my clothes, the lack of expensive highlights in my hair or designer accessories and simply sneer. I wasn't prepared for the way it made me feel. Low. Dirty. No good. My mother always taught me that my intelligence and my education would allow me to jump my class if I just acted right. She didn't teach me that people would hate me because of who I was and where I came from and how to deal with that. So full of self-loathing herself, her way of dealing with classism was to pretend that it could be dealt with easily, and was not anything I needed to pay any mind to. Do people know what it's like to grow up as the product of a mixed-class marriage? How to deal with such different world views, both presented as truth, but with so much left unsaid? I wish I could find other people talking about it. I know they have to exist. I know I can't be the only one.

For my father, there was no question that I would go to college and succeed, like he had. I was certainly not going to disappoint him or anyone else in his family. I would live up to their expectations because that was simply how things were done. I could not disappoint or disgrace anyone in the family. My mother's expectation was also that I would go to college and succeed, but not because I was carrying on a family tradition. It was to break tradition, break new ground, not end up drunk or drug addicted with a shit job and children and a no-good alcoholic father who either beat them or didn't take care for them like the rest of the women in my family. I wasn't going to be like that. My mother was going to show them that she could make it and so would her children. We would live to vindicate her. To show the world that she really wasn't mixed-race trash. That she was better than that. I sure as hell better not let her down. The life that awaited me if I didn't 'make it' would be punishment enough.

All these things go through my head when I try to navigate financial decisions. Where will I work? What will I do? How will I pay my bills? What can I afford? I am never without the weight of my family's history. Their expectations and my own. When I don't live up to my own expectations of success I hear my mother screaming about getting my act together, I see my father shaking his head and disappointment, and I hear my father's parents asking me questions about my life with a sneer. They didn't want my father to marry my mother. Thought she was a whore and told her so to her face. I am never without that thought when they talk to me, their voice equal parts suspicion and hope. I know they want to know, will I turn out like my mother? Or will I be the granddaughter they want, expect and invested time and money in? Will the schooling they paid for pay off? Or will I disgrace them just like they thought, because what do you expect coming from that kind of mother?

Oh momma. I want to put your fears to rest. Dad, grandpa and grandma, I want to make you proud. I want to not care about what I know and what I don't know. What I was taught as a child, and what I've learned as an adult. I want it not to matter. I want to believe that middle-class dream my father dreams and wakes up to, which is that with the right education, will come the right job. He left out that it helps to be white, male, and upper-middle class (or higher) for this dream to come true. He's a banker’s son, and he wants to believe that this is the land of opportunity. I want to believe that my mom's admonishons were right, that if I did right, the world would do right by me. I want not to believe her rantings that would say just the opposite, that the world was shit, and would find a way to fuck me over any way it could because that's how it is, and don't nobody give a damn about me so I better get used to it.

I want the American dream. A full time job that I enjoy, am good at, that has a good benefits package - health insurance, vacation and sick days, a job with a wage that allows me to support myself and do things I've always wanted to do, like treat my chronic fatigue, get sick without fear and anxiety, join a gym, eat healthy, maybe even have a house someday, get money back on my taxes. I'm doing my best to act right and get my reward, but sometimes it feels like it's such a long time coming, that I fear it isn't coming at all.

Creative Commons License