Class at the Office

The people that I deal with now, they’ve probably never met anyone from where I grew up. They’d probably live their whole lives and would never meet anybody like I was when I was a young child.
— Denise McKenzie
photo: alex.byworth, used with creative commons license

photo: alex.byworth, used with creative commons license

Denise McKenzie has been working as a corporate lawyer for 20 years. But she says even today she can still feel ill at ease at work. For one thing, she’s an African-American woman in a legal landscape dominated by white men. She says people are often 'shocked' when they meet her. Also, her background is far removed from anything most of her colleagues have experienced, even second-hand. Here’s a 14 second audio clip where she talks about that:

Feeling 'other' at the place where you spend most of your waking hours can take a toll. At one point during our interview Denise half-laughed, saying she 'wouldn't recommend' the path she'd taken from an inner city school to UCLA to an engineering career and now corporate law. Yet this path has enabled her daughter to have a totally different kind of life than she had, with excellent educational opportunities. Opportunities Denise sorely wishes more inner city kids could take advantage of.

In the latest episode of The Broad Experience we'll be talking about career, race, and class. The US is more coy about class than Britain, but as one of my guests pointed out:

It’s clearly a part of how people think about themselves, how people understand eachother and as our study showed, how people get ahead - or don’t.

My guests in this show both feel they've left working-class backgrounds behind, but still sometimes flail in the white-collar world. I bet this feeling sometimes works the other way, too. I remember how awkward I felt at a chocolate factory job during college. I was glaringly aware of my privileged background as I tried to find common ground with the older woman who had worked at the factory for years, and was kindly helping me avoid a chocolate backup on the conveyor belt. It may have been the first time I truly thought about the opportunities my education would give me.