November 18, 2019

Seeing People like Us in People Like Us

author photoBy Colby King

This week I screened People Like Us: Social Class in America, in my Introduction to Sociology class, as I have done just about every semester since I started teaching. Although the film is now about 20 years old, I’m still finding lots of reasons to use it.

People Like Us directly examines something we often have difficulty talking about: social class. As any student of sociology knows, the social categories we work with, like class, or race, or gender, can be difficult to discuss in both informal and academic settings. All of these categories are meaningful, shape patterns of social inequality, and are perpetually being contested and renegotiated in our everyday social interactions.

Social class can be uniquely difficult to talk about for lots of reasons. Much of American culture is reluctant to recognize the importance of money, or to acknowledge that inequality exists. Social class can also be a little more difficult to pin down than some other social identities because a person might move between different class positions throughout their life, and it can be (relatively) easy to pass as belonging to a different class position, by changing the way you dress or speak. Additionally, even in spaces where people are working specifically to strengthen diversity and inclusion of people representing many social categories, social class is often overlooked. Debbie Warnock illustrated this issue well in her essay on social class in higher education in Rhizomes.

One thing People Like Us does pretty well is illustrate what life is like for people living in a variety of class positions. We hear a variety of people talk about the different ways in which they are aware of and concerned about their class position. Bill Bear, a plumber, talks about how he deals with salesmen who show up to his job site in a suit, saying, “He never comes to my job again in a suit. I’ve demanded, take their damn tie off and their jacket off when they’re talking to me. And they do!”

Clothes and fashion alone offer plenty of fodder for discussion in the film. Lang Phipps, a self-identified WASP reflects on how he learned to identify blue collar people, saying “… heavy and rough fabrics were blue collar. Wearing the same clothes all the time was blue collar.” Matt criticizes his mother Tammy, who works at a Burger King, saying “Sometimes I am embarrassed by her, cause she wears that Burger King outfit every day.” In a contrasting example, towards the end of the film a teenager at a picnic table with several upper middle class notes that around the table, “just about everyone here has something from Abercrombie & Fitch on.”

In addition to offering a host of compelling examples of expressions of class identity, in these ways the film also illustrates how symbolic interactionism can be applied to understanding social class. What each of these reflections show are ways in which classes are identified and how boundaries are maintained around class positions. They illustrate the symbols we use to identify class and ways in which those symbols are meaningful in our social lives.

Tensions between class positions are vividly illustrated in the film, too. We see black women in a salon talking about Jack and Jill, a membership organization that works to support “future African American leaders by strengthening children through leadership development, volunteer service, philanthropic giving and civic duty.” One of the women in the salon notes a tension, saying, “Here we fought to be invited into the golf clubs, the country club. Then we start our own club, and still, we have to be invited.”

Why do we put so much effort into social class? As Irene, a high school student, explains about how she and her peers deal with the assumptions made by peers from higher class backgrounds: “We have to let them know that we are here, and then like, we have no problem showing off - we are individuals - and if we don’t them other kids are just gonna straight up and just punk us for no reason cuz they think they can.”

Later in the film writer Barbara Ehrenreich reflects on how much social class separates us from others and argues, “I don’t want to be stuck in an upper middle class ghetto with all my friends being the same sort of people. … I feel deprived to live in a society that is so segregated by class.”

While the film does deal with the ways in which race and social class intersect, one weakness is that it does not take a close look at ways in which social class intersects with other identities. It also does not really discuss the ways in which circumstances for immigrants, or LGBTQIA+ individuals intersect with social class, for example. The relative lack of diversity, as much as the 20-year-old fashions, show the film’s age. But, students were still able to see the ways in which social class intersects with minority identities. One student wrote about how racial minorities are “already mistaken for being poor.”

So the film still retains a lot of value for students. I have students write reflections in response to a few questions as they watch the film and their reflections are informative. A black male student who said he identified mostly with the upper-middle class because he was, “raised by two successful parents” and that his aunt and uncle both made “well over six figures” explained that, “the social class you identify with is very important in this country no matter how crazy it sounds. It’s how people get their first impressions and judge you.”

When asked to reflect on Tammy’s story from the film and what it means to be invisible, a black woman in the class wrote, “To be ‘invisible’ in the US means that no matter what you do it isn’t enough and it means that people look down on you and judge you for where you are without trying to help.” Reacting to the same story, a white student wrote, “I knew there were poor people in America, but I never knew it was that bad for some people.” Tammy’s story is a powerful segment, and if you have not seen it, the more recent follow-up with Tammy and her two sons is worth viewing, too. 

In response to a question about which social class they most identified with, a black woman student wrote, “I identify with the black middle and working class. I was born into the working class and I’ve been working since 17 years old. If I want anything I have to work for it, and so does the rest of the working class.” But, in responding to this question, many students, white and black, discussed the story of Dana Felty, a reporter from Kentucky who we see living and working in Washington, DC, and then visiting family and friends back in her hometown. We see how Dana struggles to live in both worlds, separated not just by geography, but also by social class.

About these issues, one student noted that, “… if you’re poor and then you make it people from your old class may look at you different since you moved on without them and then the people in the class you moved to look down on you since you did not come from there.” Another student said this a little more simply, writing, “Coming from one class and moving to another can be hard on people.”

For that reason, Dana’s story is also the story that has most resonated with me. Coming from a working class background, when I went off to college I struggled with the dilemma of trying to exist in both worlds. This is a tough struggle, and one that I’ve written about in other essays, including here for the Everyday Sociology Blog. The illustrations of the dilemmas of class mobility, in Dana’s story and throughout the rest of the film, though, are another reason why the film retains so much relevance. In sociology classes across all kinds of classes, many students are dealing with these sorts of dilemmas. Among the other useful depictions of social class in the film, People Like Us let’s students struggling with social class mobility know that there are many other people like them.

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