Confessions of a Class Migrant

Guest: Katie Augsburger Audacious Ideas, Change, Coaching, Diversity, You Want Me To Pay For What!?

Learning How To Navigate White-Collar Workplaces, When You Suddenly Can Afford A Compass

Reading the Harvard Business Review’s article on Why Companies Should Add Class To Their Diversity Discussion gave me new words to something I have been feeling for years. Classism is the elephant in the room that we refuse to address when we talk about equity and inclusion.

The idea of class is something Americans don’t like to discuss in general. In America, we are told, you can move freely between classes (with the focus of course on moving upward). So, it is not surprising that we cannot have the conversation at work.

Even though we don’t like to talk about class, we all know class exists. How many times have we laughed in a movie theater, as some poor sap finds themselves thrust amongst the well-heeled? We chuckle as they stumble through their fancy meal trying to determine which fork is right for the salad, and which is right for the hors-d’oeuvres? The joke is always at the expense of the poor person, grabbing the tiniest fork for the steak. We never laugh at the lunacy of having so many unnecessary utensils.

Though the vast majority of us are not wealthy, these cultural moments reinforce to us that we should at least have the good decency to act as if we are. Those of us that grew up poor or middle class are taught that it is our job to not only aspire to wealth but adapt our behavior to fit the culture of affluence. We are taught that the norms of the wealthy are the right ways to behave, regardless of how many dishes get dirty.

When you are thrust into that life, and it is your boss across the table, the scene becomes decidedly less funny. Not only are you hyper-aware of how different your cultural norms are, but it becomes painfully clear that those sitting across the table are just as aware that you don’t belong.

For most of my life, the idea of traveling abroad was about as possible as visiting Mars. Sure it would be nice, but the reality is, it ain’t ever gonna happen. As I started moving up the socioeconomic ladder, I found myself in workplaces surrounded by people for whom a gap year spent in Europe or childhood trips to the Caribbean was commonplace.

Except for my friends who immigrated to the US, or family members in the military, no one I knew growing up had ever traveled abroad nor had many held a passport in hopes of doing so.

So it would be little surprise to know that I had the foggiest idea what charcuterie was when the CEO ordered it at a working lunch. I was truly out of my element, especially when you consider I still have friends that have never eaten at a restaurant that takes reservations. Every social interaction in my professional life was new to me. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, even though I was only 42 miles from home. The experience of my class difference was often just as jarring as being the only person of color in the workplace.

Moving into a white-collar profession after being born working-class is what HBR describes as “class migration.” For class migrants, there can often be a feeling of isolation, or not belonging.

Class And Identity

The people I grew up with, shopped at all the same stores. We watched the same entertainment and ate similar food. Because of our shared experience, we had a common language and familiar habits. I had more in common with poor white people, than I did with wealthy brown and black people. It wasn’t until my professional career grew that I recognized how profoundly shaped by family economics I was, and how little tools I had to navigate this new space.

Sitting down to book my first trip for work was the first time I had ever reserved airfare for myself. I remember staring at my computer, too embarrassed to ask for help. Booking travel was something everyone knows how to do, right? When you were raised in an environment where people do not have access to wealth (even in the most modest sense) and the lifestyle that goes with it, moving through the workspace as if you were raised differently, is exhausting.

For my journey, five things helped me navigate these waters more easily.

  1. Finding Experienced Class Migrants. Finding someone that has navigated the choppy waters of class migration is critical. Not so that they can teach you how to behave differently, but so that you don’t feel alone. For me, I met this person early in my career. He and I would meet regularly at Popeye’s Chicken or a local diner to talk about work and life. This small moment of normalcy and authenticity was a much-needed respite from the workday.
  2. Stop Trying To Pass. “Passing” and learning the ropes of professional space was vital to me early on. For better or worse it allowed me some professional credibility and took the conversation of my difference off the table. But as I have grown more comfortable in my profession, I am less interested in adapting and more interested in being authentic.
  3. Keep Your Feet In Both Worlds. Just like J-Lo, who will always be “Jenny From The Block,” I will always be “Katie From Low-Income-Housing.” That experience is something I am proud of, and want to keep a connection to. It shaped how I see the world, how I show up and what I value. I am proud of my community, and I don’t have any interest in leaving. That being said, there are things about the white-collar lifestyle that I love (charcuterie namely), and you can have both lifestyles.
  4. Find Someone You Can Talk To About Money. Even if you don’t make a lot of money, when you are around affluent people, there is an assumption and an expectation that you are one as well. You may prematurely adapt your life to having more money, even if you don’t have it to spend. Many culture migrants find themselves worse off financially because they don’t have the tools or support to handle their new relationship with money.
  5. Understand The Difference Between Guilt And Generosity. I don’t have gobs of money. I have a house; I can go on modest vacations and have a bit of savings. But that is much more than many of my friends have. Early on in my career I felt guilty about that fact and paid for anything and everything I could when I was with friends and family. That was not sustainable and also did not improve their financial condition, or my guilt. Instead, I find moments when I can actually help and be there to support, it is more appreciated, and I feel more useful.

Though I still do not aspire to wealth, I am glad my journey has taken me from low-income-housing to the white-collar workspace. Not because my life is better for moving into the professional sphere, but because the transition has allowed me a more vibrant and deeper understanding of the human experience.

My experience may have left me without a compass, but it gave me empathy and compassion instead.