Class in America and Impostor Syndrome

It’s there. It really is. I thought Americans talked about “privilege” and “power” only in terms of race and sex, forgetting the thing that really matters. Class. Social class. What people on your income do. What you are supposed to enjoy. How you speak. Where you go to school. Expectations. However, I’ve since discovered a class narrative, and it includes a lovely phrase that deserves to be better known: “getting above your raising” – used, I am told, in African-American communities in the South. I have also learned the descriptor “magnet school.” That’s American for “grammar school.”

My exposure to nascent American notions of class came via this conversation between The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates and The American Conservative‘s Ron Dreher, where the pair of them recount their discomfort with spending time in France on somebody else’s shilling. Dreher’s discomfort is familial: a curmudgeon sister who thought he was engaging in “extravagance” by travelling abroad, especially to a costly European city. Coates’s unease is harder to identify: despite his limpid prose, he seems afflicted by an outsized case of “impostor syndrome,” that is, none of his accomplishments seem quite real, at least to him.

I didn’t think of impostor syndrome when I first encountered Coates as a writer. A friend alerted me to a debate he had with Jeffrey Goldberg (on gun control, something of interest to classical liberals), where Coates disclosed that he didn’t know who St Augustine was, and as a result gave a spectacularly clueless answer to Goldberg’s Augustine-derived query about the moral limits of violence. This meant that until his heart-wrenching piece on visiting Paris, I wrote Coates off as a cultural illiterate, someone who’d managed to read Malcolm X and miss St Augustine.

But then, Paris is a fifty quid Ryanair fare for me. I can even stay with friends if I fancy a visit. Geographical proximity is a wonderful thing.

And I have also seen a similar impostor syndrome to that which seems to afflict Coates, but in Britain is almost never a function of race. Here, it is the clever child from Leeds who hasn’t figured out that ‘Oxbridge’ is verbal shorthand for two university cities, not one. It is Oxford’s “Access Campaign,” one that uses students with cut glass accents intermingled with voices from students of poor backgrounds because, sadly, the cut glass accent is still associated with authority. It is people who think that a university founded in 1115 is not for them, because, well, that’s “getting out of your class.”

Or “getting above your raising,” as they say in the southern United States.

Class. Pay attention to it. You will learn something about your country if you do.