Dorothy Allison on class issues
Dorothy Allison, acclaimed author, poet and speaker, delivered a public lecture in Ostrove Auditorium yesterday evening, titled “A Race Car Named Desire: The Intersection of Class, Gender and Sexuality.”
According to Allison, who spoke with a Southern twang, the intersection of class, gender and sexuality is fear. “The word that I keep hearing when I talk to Colby students, and it’s fascinating to me, is the word guilt,” Allison said. “I have a suspicion living up here on the Hill that you have a long list of things you feel you must make amends for…We have a society built around the twin sorrows of shame and guilt. “When I hear Colby students talk about guilt and responsibility, I hear echoes of that fear,” Allison continued. “We grow up in a country that pretends it’s an egalitarian society. We grow up in a country that has the myth of being a meritocracy. But we all know how it truly works. We all know that the children of waitresses rarely get good scholarships. We all know that the children of truck drivers mostly drop out of high school.”
Associate Professor of Education Adam Howard had students in his class “ED322: Social Class and Schooling” read Allison’s novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, a semi-autobiographical novel that addresses issues of class, sexuality and abuse.
When asked why he decided to use Bastard in class, Howard said, “[Allison is] brilliant when it comes to issues of social class, as well as sexuality and gender…I use [this book] for a couple reasons. One is that there’s this kind of particular way that we think about poor people and poverty and it’s from a cultural deficit perspective. What that means is that poor people are poor because they deserve to be poor and because they don’t make the right decisions, they’re lazy. “What happens,” Howard said, “is that we don’t complicate the conditions of poverty, or even complicate poor people’s decisions and actions…What Dorothy Allison does more so than anyone else is that she doesn’t romanticize poverty.”
In her lecture, Allison spoke about her family. “My nieces just want to survive, just want to find a safe place to hide. It is the highest ambition of a family of young people who never graduate from high school…My nieces, my nephews, my cousins, don’t want to change the world. They want to hide. They want a safe place from which they can look out and not be hurt…It is the children of the middle and upper class who have the capacity to spend their lives changing the world. And that seemed to me the greatest injustice I could imagine…but that is the way of the world.”
Why is this the case? At the beginning of the semester, Howard asked his students to list every bad decision that the characters make in Bastard, which included drinking, missing work, losing jobs and undervaluing education. Then, Howard asked his students to circle “all the similar bad decisions that wealthy people make. Do wealthy people sometimes not value education? Yes. Do wealthy people sometimes drink, do drugs? Yes. The point is that every bad decision on that list are the same darn bad decisions that wealthy people make, too. The difference is the consequences.”
So that’s where the focus is: why don’t different groups of people have the same consequences for their actions? According to Allison, the answer seems to be the “insulation” of higher social class.
“Mostly what I have run into when we raise the issue of class in America is a kind of guilt that stops everything…All of you who are not on scholarship, you come here with an access that you know the value of. But what you might not realize is the layers of insulation…The layers of protection wrapped around you by family, money, and a cultural conditioning that gives you the capacity to be as aggressive, persistent, as determined as you need to be,” she said. “In stories, you are invited into the minds of people you would not talk to on the street if you just ran into them. People that you are suspicious of. The glory of fiction is to be invited into the minds of the people that you are afraid of, and find that in fact they are enormously like you.” Allison is scheduled to read excerpts from Bastard, on Wednesday, April 25, at 7 p.m. in the Robinson Room of Miller Library, to be followed by a reception in the Wormser Room of Miller Library, at 8 p.m.