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Alfred Lubrano shares stories of class displacement

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October 26, 2005

Swarthmore welcomed writer and journalist Alfred Lubrano to talk about his latest book “Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams” on Tuesday. One of the featured speakers for Class Awareness Month, Lubrano shared stories about the costs of social mobility.

Lubrano grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn as the son of a bricklayer before going to Columbia, becoming a journalist, and making the transition to the middle class. While Lubrano has never felt fully part of either world, as Rafael Zapata noted in his introduction, “it is clear from his book that he is still just a guy from the neighborhood.”

Lubrano opened his talk by explaining that “Limbo” is “an experiential book, not a scholarly one,” and that its goal is “not to make value judgments but to shed light on truths that have received little illumination.”

As a student at Columbia while his father laid bricks on a nearby campus building, it became abundantly clear that “we were related by blood but divided by class.” He was becoming a different person from his parents, and he began asking himself “Can people really reconcile this duality?”

In an attempt to resolve this question, Lubrano interviewed over 100 “straddlers,” those who came from working-class backgrounds but managed to move to the middle class, and are consequently stuck in “an American Limbo.”

Gender and race may be more noticeable, but class is “just as indelible a marker.” Who your parents are has more to do with your future than anything else. Middle-class children have what Lubrano calls “cultural capital.” They understand why Shakespeare matters; working class kids don’t. The “working class can learn cultural capital, but never quite as well.”

Middle class households, moreover, are “more collaborative than conformist.” While the working class uses an implicit language of obedience and conformity, the middle class values communication, explanation, and the “explicit language” that later serves them well in school.

Attitudes to education are also fundamentally different; the working class sees education as a tool to earn more money, but the middle class sees the life of the mind as valuable in and of itself. Lubrano wanted to “puncture the myth that all families want their children to go to college… in some families, college is seen as self-indulgent, a waste of time and money.”

If a working class kid does manage to reach college, his difficulties are not over. For the working class, entering the middle class “is like emigrating to a foreign country.” Lubrano shared funny stories of his own experience, of being astonished to find out that not only did Columbia students wear wrinkled dress shirts and no socks, but that Barnard women responded to them, and not Lubrano with his school-record-setting 801 sit-ups in 35 minutes! He felt “stupid on Broadway and a snob in Brooklyn,” resentful of the fact that he had to change himself to fit with the middle class.

People like Lubrano will always have “a sense of twoness… of being a perpetual outsider.” They can pass, but never truly belong. Ideally, he says, “a straddler becomes bicultural.” But the difficulties will continue. When straddlers have children, they can resent them for having so much. “Your kids become the people you hated when you were their age.” How do you prevent them from having a sense of entitlement?

Lubrano concluded with the idea of “strength from struggle.” The straddler’s independence of thought, their awareness that “there are costs and consequences for wishes and dreams,” makes having a mixed-class workplace and campus important. The lecture entertained students and faculty while making them think, and was another successful event in Swarthmore’s first-ever Class Awareness Month.