News from the Underground

Friday, September 26, 2008


Middle class people don’t like talking about class, as I’ve noticed. Maybe because the middle class is often so large that you can easily choose to dismiss the lower and upper classes as “exceptions”.

Even I, who have been (in a slightly naïve way, I should say) making a big effort to display solidarity with the lower classes, recently realised that I had been very self-righteous about it.

My mum originally comes from “true” working class, where for generations the rule has been that single mothers bring up all their children alone on their meagre earnings while the fathers are absent and/or alcoholics. Her mum and her grandma were both cleaners or worked in factories. My dad was middle class – his mum worked in a store and his dad was a cartographer. They also had terrible problems at home, but they are still married today.
As I grew up, my family went through several “class shifts”, from lower middle class when I was born and my dad worked in the tyre factory and mum stayed at home as a housewife and textile artist; to upper middle class when I was in my lower teens, when dad had advanced to a CEO position in the tyre company; and down to working class when I was in high school and my parents divorced, leaving me, mum and our animals to rely on her low income as as a cleaner and waitress in hotels and restaurants and her unemployment compensation in the off-season months.

Back when we had a lot of money, I never really realised it, because our parents never made a big deal of it. We were put in the same average schools like everyone else, and we had the most embarrassing clothes in class until we got old and somewhat self-confident enough to fight for the right to choose our own clothes.

In hindsight it still becomes blatantly obvious what materially privileged lives me and my sister had as we were growing up. We travelled abroad on vacations, we could buy plenty of books and stuff with our pocket money, we lived in a nice apartment and had our own rooms, mum bought nice clothes and stuff for herself, dad always had plenty of expensive alcohol at hand, and due to dad’s work we had moved a few times to live in different countries and cities. We had certainly seen more – or at least different – things than most of the other kids in class.

When I “became working class” with mum during high school, I had to face people getting very quiet in some kind of pity and embarrassment if I mentioned that my mum was unemployed (they had been asking about my parents because they assumed that someone as talented as me must have interesting parents, and apparently unemployment made it impossible to be interesting), or feel bewildered when people complimented me on how creative I was that I’d sewn my prom dress myself, although that had nothing to do with creativity: there was no money to buy or rent a dress, but we did have a sewing machine, and, well, I’d learned enough in textile arts class to be able to use it to make a simple dress.
Having leftist sentiments already, I not only had solidarity with the “lower classes”, but I felt like I was working class myself.
Which wasn’t really true, of course. Although mum had her roots, and we lived in a small and cheap summer house in the middle of nowhere, that house was full of remains of more wealthy days – fancy porcelain, crystal glasses, silverware etc., nice furniture and carpets, loads of books, a computer. If we weren’t middle class anymore, we still weren’t working class, either. More like some kind of weird boheme/intelligentsia, who just happened to be poor at the moment.

One day I read in the local weekly newspaper about a program for 9th and 10th graders in a Berlin Hauptschule called “Windows on America”, a kind of cultural exchange where high school students visit the USA for two weeks, staying in host families and learning about the country. While the program in itself is kind of interesting from an ideological point of view, promoting a positive view on the USA among poor students, often from Muslim and immigrant background, the article also put a spotlight on the fact that the German educational system is blatantly upholding a class system.

After 6th grade, students continue to one of three possible schools: Hauptschule – vocational school, leading to blue collar workers/working class, Realschule – which leads to white collar workers/clerks/middle class, and Gymnasium – which leads to university and whatever path you choose there – maybe upper class if you’re not stupid and study humanities or arts or something “useless” like that. There is a theoretical possibility to fight for a Gymnasium degree even when you start out in one of the other schools, but that is pretty much only in theory, since it is quite obvious what you become – what you are – the moment you start 7th grade.

In this article it is stated black on white that students in Hauptschule already come from low-income backgrounds: “‘Windows on America’ is the name of the program, which in fact is not made for the normally in many different ways supported Gymnasium students, but for students in Hauptschule, for whom travelling abroad is usually already due to financial reasons unaccessible. […] ‘For these youths it’s really a special experience. Many of them could never afford such a trip otherwise. Unlike many Gymnasium students, they haven’t been all over with their parents on vacations.’”

Maybe I’m kind of stupid, because this article was a really shocking read. I got very angry and wondered how the hell this system can be tolerated, and how the liberals here can claim that “everyone gets the same chances, and if they don’t make it it’s only due to personality or not trying hard enough”. When it’s apparently such a self-evident non-issue that if you are in Hauptschule, you come from a poorer family, and if you are in Gymnasium, you come from a wealthier family.

In an info box next to the article there is mention of the program’s management, among others “… Janine C. White, who with her Turkish, French and German roots sees herself as the result of successful integration.”
I’ll bet you five bucks that Ms. White’s parents (“Turkish, French and German” to what exact percentages, I wonder?) did not live in the ghetto all their lives and work their asses off in a grocery store or a falafel stand, as cleaners, taxi drivers and periodically unemployed. I bet she had a “mixed” or “atypical” background quite similar to mine, which is NOT a result of “successful integration”, but an anomaly created by unusual circumstances.
In this Janine C. White I saw a mirror image of my own delusioned self, pretending to be of classic working class and of classic immigrant background and on one hand vainly making myself “different” among other white university-schooled professionals, and on the other hand also promoting myself as a “good example” of how you can “make it” (well, kind of, in my case) even when you’re “of working class and immigrant background”.

But if I really want to make a difference I need to be aware of where I myself stand.

"Ein anderes Bild von Amerika" was published in Der Tagesspiegel/Berlin-Mitte on Tuesday, June 3rd.