Classism: Tackling the last great American taboo
by Steve Pfarrer
This article was originally published May 23rd, 2008 in the Hampshire Life Magazine
One night in early May, teachers, staff and parents from The Common School, a private
elementary school in Amherst, gathered to talk about class.
But not class as in classroom.
Class as in students and parents of different economic levels. Those at the meeting --
members of the school's diversity committee -- had turned to a Hadley-based nonprofit,
Class Action, to help them.
"Over the years, we've had parents say they feel out of place here, or they wonder why
their kid isn't invited to other people's houses," said school director Bud Lichtenstein. He
noted that one parent who had filled out a questionnaire about the issue had written that
her daughter had come home from school one day and asked "Are we poor?"
Parent Katja Meinke related that her son had surprised her one day when he asked:
"Mom, what kind of job would I need to pick to get a really good income?"
Another parent, Maddy DelVicario, noted that children were likely more aware of
differences in class than adults realized.
And so Felice Yeskel, the director of Class Action, whose mission is to raise awareness
of how class defines issues in the United States, asked the group to think back to when
they were kids. When did they first sense differences in status among friends or
"That was really kind of an eye-opener," said DelVicario, "to look back and think about
when that first happened to me. And I can remember when I realized a friend of mine
wasn't as well off as our family, and wondering how she felt being in our house."
Yeskel, 55, says that the subject of class "is the last great taboo in America." But for
anyone concerned about seeing genuine equality in the country, she adds, "It's something
we have to talk about."
Talk is one tool that Yeskel is using to combat "classism" -- the oppression of people
based on their perceived worth, beliefs and values. Though many people in the United
States believe they live in a classless society, she says, where upward mobility is a given,
the country has become far more stratified in the last 30 years -- a situation that leads to
economic unfairness and distrust and misunderstanding between groups of people.
With a better understanding of that, says Yeskel, people from all walks of life can bridge
some of their differences and build a more just society where everyone's basic needs are