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Ethnifying Class Part III: A Socio-Cultural Perspective

By Mari D. González

How come Colombians and Iranians get upset when confused by Mexicans, at least the few I have come across. As a Mexican, I do not mind being identified as Colombian, Iranian, or any other ethnic group.

In general, people learn the “classifications of class” early in life as part of what becomes unconscious enculturative values. Most of us in the U.S., through enculturation -at home or school- or acculturation -dominant social values communicated by TV, school, or in the workplace, have learned the meaning of “ethnifying class,” or giving a particular nationality, color, or ethnicity a corresponding socioeconomic rank based on the dominant culture’s hierarchical perceptions.

Mexicans, aside from Canadians, are the only ones who cross just one border to get to the U.S. Thus, working-class families and farmers from Mexico can make it to the north less expensively than people from further south or further east.

Colombia and Iran mainly export citizens who are able to pay their way to the U.S. via “visas.” Most farmers and working-class people from those countries cannot afford to pay to cross many borders and they stay behind. In Mexico, however, the less financially-able are the ones who are more willing to risk everything “el todo por el todo” to go to the U.S.

In line with the dominant cultural stereotype, Mexicaness must equal lower class. Yet, when well-off Mexicans travel to the U.S. for business, shopping, or attending school as international students, their ethnicity is less of an issue.

Edited by Connie Cobb

Ethnifying Class Part I: Classifying Obsession

By Mari D. González

Our Legacy from Colonialism

Because our most forceful legacy from colonialism —color obsession— is widely represented in media and pop culture and supported during children’s enculturative years, our tendencies are rather simplistic. We wish we could accurately match someone’s ethnicity and/or skin color with a socioeconomic class.

The effort to classify what a person looks like, her skin color, her ethnicity and culture, and/or her country of origin as her socioeconomic status leads more than often to wrong assumptions, sad stories, and violent acts.

When one’s nationality or looks mismatches what the perceiver expects in her character or behavior, a need for logical explanation never delays. The work of the “I” is to rely on our reasoning when our old-held perceptions are challenged. Yet, verbally expressed inaccurate and overstated generalizations are always obvious to the receiver but usually dismissed by the messenger.

“But, you don’t look Mexican

Phrases such as, “But, you don’t look Mexican” informs us where the speaker comes from —a solid and steadily held ignorance. That comfortable internal bubble gets burst as the messenger desires to be, but is not, asserted. His wish-it-was-iron-made fizz is held. He does not have to look inside to begin to accept that he does also carry that human-shared misery of pain.

Or, perhaps, he had wished that I wished to separate myself from my group of reference as much as he can comfortably separate himself from what he sees as “other.” And this other in his eyes is usually darker, indigenous-looking, lives on the other side of the tracks, has not appropriately learned the common fake politeness, was conditioned to obey, follows orders, rarely confronts authority, has less social status and in turn less political power.

According to those narrow “ethnicity-equals-class” standards, I must not, could not, and should not be Mexican. A fine gentleman, with the experience of being “of color,” told me once, “It is because according to them, you are too intelligent and good looking to be Mexican.”

I rather think that it is my lighter skin and middle-class demeanor what makes commentators like him feel unthreatened and almost sure that I want to climb their socially-imposed hierarchical ladder at the expense of my self-perceived identity and of the connection with the people I relate to culturally, historically, and ethnically.