"Rethinking Social Class": Education The Micropolitics of Race and Class

Diane Reay’s article “Rethinking Social Class” (from Hesse and Bieber’s Feminist Perspectives on Social Research,  2003) is dense with academese;  she’s writing for other scholars, particularly other sociologists, so she’s using the language they expect from scholars publishing in academic journals. Keep in mind, Reay is also writing for and about Britain. However, her project is provocative and very relevant for the U.S.. So let’s unpack some of it:

First, some basics. Just looking at the first two pages, answer these questions:

  • What are Reay’s criticisms of current mainstream academic debates about class?
  • How are such debates generally framed and what does she find these a problem as a feminist?
  • What is her criticisms of recent feminist scholarship on class in the academy?
  •  Moving onto the second page (p. 216), who or what does the rhetoric of “freedom of choice for all” privilege? What does it hide?

Reay tells us that “Constructing groups in certain ways is a process underpinned by political as well as economic interests” (146):

  • Reay argues that the working classes didn’t get to choose their label or shape the cultural discourse (or dialogue) about them. Why is this a problem?

So part of what Reay is arguing here is that to actively claim a working class identity is pretty hard – especially if you want to see this as positive in anyway. The “working class hero,” if one still exists in our national imagination, is imagined to be both white and male. So where does this leave women? Think back to Adair’s article, and the “misplaced pride” that is often ascribed to our image of the welfare queen. This is part of what Reay is talking about.

Recall, too, our earlier conversations about how the oppressed are often “colonized” by the ideology of their oppressors and so internalize the dominant culture’s negative messages and images about themselves. For example, a woman might come to believe that girls aren’t any good at math, or a Black man might come to believe that violence/crime is natural to him, or a child in a working poor community might assume that she isn’t cut out for college because the people in her community are lazy. As Reay found out during her study:

“Not only in some middle-class parents’ interviews but also in some working-class parents’ own accounts [working class people] are presented as a stigmatized group” (217).

We often come to subscribe to values that actually perpetuate inequality (as in “One Percent Education”) because we uncritically strive to be like those who are deemed “successful” or have power in our culture; this is what Rich cautions us against in “Toward a Woman-Centered Univeristy.”


Last year, Kelly Williams-Bolar, a young, Black mother of two daughters living in Akron, OH, was jailed and convicted of a felony for sending her daughters to a well-to-do private school in her father’s better neighborhood. The court’s decision ultimately jeopardized her job as a teacher’s aid and her future career as an educator. Watch ABC’s news coverage of the story:

Now compare the U.S. court’s resposne to Bolar advocating for better educational resources for her children with the narrative by the middle-class mother’s adovcating for her special needs son, despite “scare” educational resources, from Reay’s article (see handout).

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