May 06, 2010

Rain and Class Privilege

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

Rain seems like an equal opportunity phenomenon. Moisture condenses, and then it falls, regardless of the income level of the people below. But I recently received a first-hand lesson in how even something like rain can reveal the often hidden privileges of class.

A little back story: I love walking in the cities I visit for conferences. Not only do I need some fresh air now and then after being in windowless meeting rooms, but walking through a city makes me feel like I’m really experiencing the tempo of daily life, much like I blogged about a couple of years ago. This year’s Pacific Sociological Association (PSA) meeting was in Oakland, and nearby San Francisco is one of my absolute favorite cities to walk through. Not only is the architecture interesting, but the views of the bay make for great photos. Plus climbing its many hills is a great workout.

Now back to the rain. I had planned to leave the Bay Area several hours after the conference ended in order to spend some time walking around, but alas, the forecast called for rain. I contemplated skipping my walk, but I would have been really disappointed and would have several hours of just sitting around in the clip_image004hotel or airport. I had an umbrella and decided I’d go anyway. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad.

It really wasn’t—at first. The rain was steady but light, and my umbrella kept me dry. I walked about fifteen minutes and it started to come down more. I saw dozens of fans wearing San Francisco Giants jerseys leaving the nearby baseball stadium as the game went into a rain delay. I decided to duck into the Ferry Building Marketplace for a while before venturing out again. I walked another 15 minutes before the rain came down hard, my umbrella no longer protection against the wind-driven downpour.clip_image002

This isn’t fun anymore, I thought to myself, disappointed that my plan was ruined. I had been looking forward to walking around for the entire weekend and felt at the mercy of Mother Nature.

By then the back of my jeans were getting soggy, and it was cold. I had a GPS device and looked to see what was nearby, maybe a restaurant or café I might go to dry off.

I headed towards shelter and noticed a homeless man hovering in a doorway, holding a sign that said “Homeless Veteran: Hungry. Please Help.” That was when I recognized that I had many more choices than this homeless man did, and that my class privilege could protect me from the rain in ways that his could not. My thoughts turned to the PSA Presidential address just given by Michael Messner on class privilege, in which he applied women's studies professor Peggy McIntosh's now classic 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to his own privilege as a white, male, tenured professor.

How was my class privilege helping me in the rain? I was soaking wet as I realized the following:

  1. I had the money to hail a cab or board a bus at any time.
  2. Restaurants and shops would welcome me inside as a potential paying customer; I could buy something just to get out of the rain.
  3. Since I had showered and put on fresh clothes that day, I could enter a public place like the Ferry Building without enduring dirty looks (or worse) from others.
  4. Although the clothes I was wearing were all wet, I had dry clothes and shoes waiting for me at the hotel, and most of my possessions were not outside.
  5. I chose to be outside; unlike the homeless people on the street I made the decision to go for a walk even though the forecast called for rain.

While it might seem that the homeless people I saw could have gone to a shelter, a recent story details how the city of San Francisco—like many others—is facing a rise in its homeless population while donations for shelters are down, causing some to close their doors. Many shelters don’t allow people to stay during the day either.

Even a sociologist can forget their class privileges sometimes. Privilege by nature can be invisible, and seem natural and inevitable. We can even feel entitled to them—here in southern California we sometimes feel entitled to endless sunshine and dry weather—and feel angry when they are made visible or taken away.

What other class privileges might be taken for granted?


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I complete understand what you said: when i was little i used to live in a rainy-windy island in the south of Chile. I've always loved the sound of the raind in the roof, and to feel the wind outside while i was cumphy and warm at my bed ready to get some sleep.
But, i could't forget, while i was enjoying the weather, and my warm little bed, that outside my nice house there were probably a lot of people who were suffering that nights: homeless or people who the wind had pulled out the roof of their houses, or that didn't had a nice stove to get warm.

I'm a sociology student now, and considering your question about privileges taken for granted, i can't stop thinking about Bourdieu's famous book: "Distintion" (i'm not so sure that's the exact title in english), and thinking about the great privilege that i have being able to enjoy certain kind of music, or a special type of food, for example.

I think that the case of the rain, that is, when it's raining eventyally you can't avoid getting wet, seems to be similar to the case of eventually dead. If you have to walk down the rain, you will always, no matter what is your social condition, get wet, but your social condition definitely determines the options that you have to avoid a cold after that. Neither of us can't avoid dead, but, certaintly we have very different social conditionated ways of having it.

(sorry about the defficient english, i hope that my ideas were, besides it, clear enough)

Rain comes from clouds which has water in the form of water vapour. This water vapour condenses due to low temperature in the atmosphere and come to earth as rain or in any other way of precipitation.

Thanks for telling where rain comes from.

Is rain a social construct?

So, let me get this straight. You spent X amount of years in university pursuing a degree in sociology so that one day you could come to the realization that you have more choices than a homeless man?

There is a reason why sociology is called a social science. It is because it is not real science. For example, this morning when I went to the bathroom, I observed that my urine was a healthy shade of yellow. It is because of my healthy diet. I admit, I felt grateful for the fortune of living in a wealthy nation. However, this is not pure knowledge.

Is urine a social construct? Is rain heteronormative? Did you ask the homeless man if he was cis-gendered?

This article is entertaining and requires you to look at the things around you and put them into a sociological perspective. Sometimes you have to judge yourself before you can judge someone else.

@Tim - Since you're so into the biological sciences, maybe you ought to visit a doctor to seek treatment for your Obvious Trolling Behavior Disorder (OTBD). I hear it's manageable now through medication and lifestyle changes, such as taking a chill-pill and getting out from behind the computer once in a while.

This wasn't intended as a rigorous examination of a sociological construct, but rather as a personal reflection on the nature of social privilege and how its existence can sneak up on even those who study it for a living. If you're looking for sociological studies, I recommend looking in the peer-reviewed literature rather than a blog which is written as a series of casual reflections on social issues (hell, the name itself states that it's about "Everyday Sociology").

It makes sense that the author of this blog post is trying to make us think about the bigger picture when we do even the most common and irrelevant things. She connects even the most routine things, like walking around cities, and weather to social classes. I think that this was a good way to approach the topic of sociological imagination, because everyone experiences rain and weather. Although at these times we are mainly thinking about ourselves, and how to stay out of the cold. She makes some valid points that she as a citizen with money options has many more opportunities than a homeless person, and if we think about everything in this way, we might try to change the way our social classes are structured, and try to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

I find it interesting that as a society we often don’t realize the disadvantages many people face, until we are faced with the inconvenience of experiencing something we would prefer not to (i.e. getting caught out in the rain). In today’s modern cities, there are countless masses of people walking or driving from here to there, but unless something is affecting us, we couldn’t give thoughts about others or occurrences around us the time of day. I really like how the author approached this from both sides, where as a citizen with privileges and then from the standpoint of the homeless man with limited or no options. I was intrigued how she related social inequality to something as simple as the rain. It is interesting to see what the weather does to people, as many will deviate from their normal behavior and conform to the masses. The author, while still in an attempt to get out of the rain, took the time to notice a homeless man and then went on to further examine the situation and what we think of as an everyday occurrence or requirement is something that is unattainable to others.

I feel like I completely agree with you had to say. It is pretty amazing just how much we can take for granted and in what forms as well. Especially when it comes to class privilege, one doesn’t really think much about even the most basic of privileges we have even one such as the choice to be somewhere. While I feel like this is not something necessarily new to me because, growing up, my family had constantly reminded me to be thankful for what I have (and they would give specific reasons as to why, one such as this) it is always good to be reminded of where we stand and what we have. I find this to be a good mirror of what our world does look like at times. To have the blessing of privileges such as choice, ability, money, technology, etc. is definitely something we easily forget we have because of, more or less, how available it is to us.
This is a very clear example of the social stratification that occurs in society. As defined by The Real World 2nd Edition social stratification is “the division of society into groups arranged in a social hierarchy” the reason for this usually being social inequality – “the unequal distribution of wealth, power, or prestige among members of society” (Ferris and Stein 211). In this case, the social inequality is illustrated in the way that you had the money, ability, and means to get yourself out of that situation. As you said, you could have paid for a taxi, you were presentable enough to be welcomed into an establishment, you even had the technology to find yourself a nearby establishment quickly and with much ease (GPS); all of which drew a contrast to show the absolute deprivation (“objective measure of poverty, defined by the inability to meet minimal standards”) of the homeless man (229). All the privileges you had were at least one step above the “minimal standards” for you to survive a simple rain. You had money to get you a car, presentable clothes to allow you access into a dry place, and technology to aid your search for a dry place; while the homeless man probably nothing more than the clothes on his back and a sign to plead others to offer him some money so that he may hopefully enter a dry place with justification.
This column acts as a great reminder of what others in our society face daily. For a brief second, some light is shed on a situation that probably happens every day but goes completely unnoticed unless pointed out. It provides a great example of, sociologically, what our society is comprised of and unfortunately how commonplace it can be.

I have grown up in a privileged society and I cannot help but notice how people in my community have taken several basic things for granted. My friends have never been cold or judged because they could not afford warm and presentable clothing. People in my community can walk into places and not get judged where as people who cannot afford new cloths or do not have the ability to constantly keep themselves presentable, are always being judged when they walk into a building or sit down on a park bench to get away from the sun.

In society today, it is hard to recognize the inequalities that surround us. I think this blog is a simple reminder that in our day to day life, we must think sociologically, because there are many things going under our radars that need to be addressed in order for our society, and our own personal lives, to improve.

I liked the article because it give you a different perspective on things. I myself live in a small town so we don't see any homeless people, but I have the advantage of being able to travel allot so I have seem most of the east coast to know that there is more out there than one can imagine and that we can all help each other out with what we all have in abundance.

This article was very interesting. Really made me think. Itd be nice and refreshing if everyone just starting helping people less fortunate. That being said i dont think it will happen.

I have always gotten what I have wanted because i was daddys little girl. I have not realized taht i live in a very privilaged for where i grew up in. The small town where there isnt alot of ways you an be judged. It is weird to see when we go somewhere bigger per-say the mall, how people look down at us because they are not confident with themselves. I can go to the mall is what i wore to practice and still be confident. I think people think this way because they want to be classified as socially acceptable. This article will change how many people will think of people who aer less fortunate then others and maybe want to do something to help them. Like a soup kitchen. I have worked there before and to see the joy people get by just having a warm meal for the night is a joy to yourself.

I totally agree with this post. I never think about the privileges I have unless something or someone reminds me of them. I’ve never been judged because I couldn’t afford the ‘better’ clothes or the nicer shoes. I’ve never had to worry about how I’ll be able to afford dinner tonight. I’ve never been followed around by a security guard or sales associate at a store until I requested it.
We didn’t really talk about this in my sociology class. I guess it kind of related to the advantages of being white and having lighter skin. Read the "Lightness and Whiteness" article by the same author.

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