I once owned the greatest pickup truck on Earth. It was a three-quarter ton, 4-wheel drive International Harvester pickup the color of vomit. The bumpers had been cut off and replaced with cast iron pipes. That truck could perform any feat of hauling, pulling, or intimidating. They truly do not make trucks like that anymore, since International stopped building them 35 years ago. When my life no longer required a truck, I sold it to a good home, and I haven’t owned a pickup since.
When my wife and I bought a house, I considered buying an old pickup. Home ownership occasionally demands that I buy expensive, heavy stuff and cart it to my house, so a truck might prove handy. But we didn’t have a good place in our garage or driveway to park the thing. I suggested parking it in front of the house. My wife reacted as if I’d suggested we build a satanic temple in the front yard, adorned with fountains of blood and a few impaled babies. No particle of my being had considered that parking a truck out front would be a bad thing. So, I found myself confronted by the fact that I am white trash.
That explains a lot. I’ve spent years in academic and business settings around the country and in other countries. Occasionally I’ve said or done something that caused others to react with surprise or mirth. The phenomenon hasn’t caused me great concern, but I have noted it.
I recently read an article on this topic, written by a sociologist. She wrote about her rural-born mother, who got a job in the big city and was embarrassed at how people reacted to her country ways. The writer observed how she herself had experienced this in the past. But she was no longer ashamed of her origin because she had dropped her accent, and she been in grad school, and she had been socialized into academia. She had eradicated evidence of her origin and had assimilated into her new culture. She now felt less fear that she’d be embarrassed because she failed to blend in. But she still might slip, and that was the burden of her uncouth upbringing.
Speaking as a fellow with some Sociology degrees, let me say that no person on Earth is more pretentious, with less justification, than a student in the process of earning a Sociology degree—or than a low-level Sociology professor pursuing tenure. If we want to live and work in a culture, we should learn it until we can navigate it like a native. We should understand that cultural events exist other than the rodeo. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the rodeo. The last time I went to the opera, nobody was selling cotton candy, and that’s hardly a big plus in my book.
I theorize that the “ashamed of our origin” problem stems from childhood. I like willful children. I don’t own one, and I’ll admit that if I did I might feel differently. But I identify with them. When I was one of them I required a lot of guidance and discipline so that I didn’t become a shrieking baboon with sticky fingers and snot on my upper lip. Of course, if I had been forced to attend today’s public schools I would’ve created problems. “Discipline” doesn’t describe what I would require. Alternative schools would be inadequate for me. I would probably end up in a forced labor camp guarded by insane clowns.
But here’s my point. If willful children reach adulthood without being murdered or sent to prison, they’re unlikely to worry about embarrassment or blending in. If they leave home for a fine university or a more cosmopolitan locale, they’ll certainly learn the culture, but they probably won’t hide their past. And any field of endeavor (especially Sociology!) is better off with some members who didn’t all throw spit wads in the same prep school.
In the end, shame over my white trash origin hurts me and also my new-found friends who brim with culture and grace. If they laugh then I laugh with them and show them I don’t care, because confidence is king. And if my paramount concern is to blend in and avoid embarrassment, I should just go back home and chop cotton.