Socio-economic diversity is often ignored when organizations endeavor to become more inclusive and accessible. But, ignoring socio-economic differences can have a lasting impact on the audience and staff demographics, as well as impede future audience growth.
In our purportedly merit-based society, we are taught to ignore markers of class, so we are not good about discussing them. Even if we might talk about race, more, marginally, we rarely discuss socio-economic diversity.
Myth of Meritocracy
Americans are raised to believe we live in a meritocracy. Most young children are told that success is within reach, usually in their educational settings and sometimes in their families. How many of us are told that anyone in America can grow up to be president?
Inculcated into the myth of meritocracy, we are often incapable of seeing the ways that class and socio-economic standing are structurally embedded within society. Merit-based advancement is our cultural Potemkin village erected by the few to trick the many. There have been times in our history where a large sector has made advancement, notably the rise of industrialization and just after World War II. In each of these periods, notable lower class people became wealthy, greenbacks being the best accouterment for a class transition. But, these socially-mobile individuals are anomalies with great marketing, not the norms. They are held up as proof of our meritocracy, rather than simply being what they are, rarities that escaped the structural challenges.
This myth of meritocracy permeates the ways that people consider poverty, class, socio-economic mobility. Firstly, merit becomes directly related to success. If earnings and success are based on merit, then low earnings and career failure are born of a lack of merit. Lower earners are seen as less deserving than high paid ones, thanks to their personal failings.
In actuality, career success is born of many factors. Class stratification gives the rich a leg up by starting higher on the success ladder: starting with greater maternal nutrition, continuing through strong primary and secondary education, and eventually in adulthood cashing in on family and school networks and connections. The race to success for the rich is a much shorter course than for the poor.
Race and Class
Race and class are inextricably linked. African-Americans and Latinx individuals are more likely to be poor in American than Asians or whites. The myth of merit leads to the spurious assumption that certain racial groups are inherently less successful. In truth, African-Americans and Latinx individuals are often starting on the very bottom the ladder of success and climbing the rungs weighted by racism. Racism, therefore, cannot be disentangled from classism.
The connection between race and class is not accidental. Legal and political systems have made success harder for certain racial groups. Legally stipulated segregation, for example, meant that people of color spent much of the twentieth-century blocked from many forms of success. People of color often had fewer rights, like even the right to citizenship after decades of legal residency or the right to marry outside their race. These few examples scratch the surface of the ways that systematic racism contributed to our current racially-stratified class structure.
Programs aimed at improving racial disparity often ignore issues of class. This omission is often about the prejudice of the planners, who might not even realize their innate, unspoken beliefs. Class blindness has real ramifications. For example, many people might say black or Latino, but they mean a person who is poor and black. When people don’t investigate these false assumptions about class and race, the programs have inherent flaws, including scope, marketing, and reach.
Class Segregation is our Norm
People live and work in socio-economically siloed spaces. Work is usually earned through academic credentialing and networking. The former requires an initial investment of money while the latter requires tapping into existing relationships, usually with others of the same background. In American, most people are educated alongside people of the same class, only to go to the same universities, get similar jobs, and explore similar leisure activities.
Work can be a point of socio-economic diversity, but this is often when an employer has people in different job functions (executive to janitorial). In those situations, the workplace might reinforce class divisions. Leisure activities are another point where classes mix, like at sporting events. However, paid leisure activities often create a separate but equal culture, with upper classes enjoying games with cocktails from the boxes while the hoi polloi chow down on dogs at the lower levels. Many of these glancing connections to different classes reinforce stereotypes. Overall, most experiences that overlap classes are too shallow or else imbued with financial baggage to result in meaningful cross-class understanding.
What does this mean for the workplace?
Employees engage with each other about work through the medium of spoken and unspoken communication, both of which are intensely class based. Think about Standard American English. This vast nation has numerous regional variations and accents, but flat-toned Standard American English is the most commonly accepted communication tool on most news media. That type of speaking might go over class, hypothetically, but in practice, improper pronunciation or grammar scream “lower-class” to most Americans. For the American employee raised in a lower class home, communicating with colleagues can be an act of self-policing and personality translation.
The unspoken class norms are even harder for people passing into a higher class. While Standard American is taught in every American school, the subtle class cues are taught by osmosis in the many social and cultural experiences that make up a person’s upbringing.
The American myth of meritocracy often glosses over the problem of learning new class norms.
In a famous scene in the movie Pretty Woman, sex worker Julia Roberts learns about utensils as a way to grease her way into the upper-class society that she finds herself. Being able to tell a fish fork from a salad fork would be the least of your worries in the long run. The ability to interact with the trappings of a class is like signifiers of being comfortable with that class. Learning to interact will not help you learn the foundational class norms.
In service-based fields, this complexity of class is even more challenging. People in decision-making roles are often of higher classes than the people being served. This class differential can add bias into and decrease the efficacy of the services being provided.
What does this mean for museums?
Museums are inextricably connected to class. Most museums are funded through donations, often large gifts from the wealthy. Collections can also be connected to wealth. Art Museums display millennia of the material culture of the wealthy. But, science and anthropology collections often come from wealthy donors. Museums connection to wealth is not solely historical. While museums hope to expand their audiences, people still see museums as a leisure activity of the wealthy.
Without dealing with class, museums will be unable to draw wider audiences. Ignoring our prejudices and assumptions about race, therefore, can have a massive impact on our staff and patrons. Later this week, we will think more concretely about the challenges of classism in the museum and cultural sector.