V. Segment-Related Questions and Activities
The following questions and activities relate to specific segments of People Like Us. We include brief descriptions of each segment to refresh teachers' and viewers' memories. If you wish to review any of them, fast-forward the videotape to the time indicated.
PART I: BUD OR BORDEAUX?
The Choices You Make Reveal Your Class
Joe Queenans Balsamic Vinegar Tour (Santa Monica, California)
Begins: 09.27 - Running Time: 4 minutes
Previous societies had to fear death from
Mongols and Vikings and cholera and smallpox, and what we fear most is criticism
"People will think I'm not cool." It's permanent high school. I mean you're 50 years old and you're still worried about what your friends think about your records and stuff like that. Joe Queenan, author and columnist
SEGMENT SYNOPSIS: Joe Queenan grew up in a blue-collar family but his success as an author and journalist landed him in the upper-middle class. In an upscale shopping district, he spoofs the pretentious consumerism of affluent Americans by scrutinizing some status-enhancing objects they acquire -- from truffle-laced vinegar to a hammered copper risotto pan. "There's a desire in this country to be perceived as being one step ahead of the great unwashed by doing things that the
less great unwashed are all doing," Queenan remarks.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What is the meaning of the introductory segment title, Bud or Bordeaux? Is it true that our choices in life reveal our class? Are those choices only about things? Who decides whats in good taste or not? What is meant by the term "status symbol?" If you can afford to purchase an expensive item say, a pricey car or a boat are you automatically elevated in class?
Which of your possessions have you acquired, consciously or unconsciously, to enhance your status designer label clothes or shoes? A car? A piece of jewelry? What items or physical characteristics do you think label the wearer or owner as "low-class?" Why do you think so?
How do you feel about the segment in People Like Us that depicts "rednecks" engaging in watermelon-seed-spitting and mud-flopping? Do you think that people of a higher class would criticize your taste? How or why? Does it matter to you? Do you agree or disagree with Joe Queenan's perspective on the things that we acquire?
→ GO TO Supplementary Reading : "Our Climb to the Sublime: The $5,000 BBQ grill and other milestones," by Robert Frank (The Washington Post, January 24, 1999). The article, excerpted from Frank's book, Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess, (Free Press, 1998) explores the dark side of America's luxury spending boom.
The Trouble With Tofu (Burlington, Vermont)
Begins: 13.32 - Running Time: 10 1/2 minutes
What comes up for me is like I'm in junior high school again and the middle class kids are laughing at my clothes and they're looking at my sandwich and they're saying, 'What's that?' And it's that kind of feeling I think that the people in the neighborhood think they're going to get
that these people are going to be looking down their nose at them and they're eating white bread. Oak LoGalbo, Artist
SEGMENT SYNOPSIS: The City Council has to decide who will build the new town grocery: Shaws, a national chain of supermarkets, or the Onion River Co-op, a smaller, community-based health food emporium. While the upscale Co-op has promised to accommodate everyone's taste buds, many blue-collar community members clearly resent its members' "snooty" attitude about Wonder bread and other "low-class" edibles. Councilman Tom Smith frames the conflict this way: "When you are invisible in a culture, and low-income people are invisible in this culture, you can't feel good about yourself [or] about the people who are making you invisible
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Describe the issues involved in the choice of a community grocery store in Burlington, Vermont. What is at the heart of this conflict? Which groups does the program indicate are in favor of the co-op, and which the supermarket? What are their reasons for their choice? How would you vote on this issue? Explain your choice.
What does bread symbolize in this story? Why does this situation remind Oak LoGalbo of being laughed at in high school? Who was laughing and why? Have you ever had a similar experience? In what situations? How did you feel?
What does Councilman Smith mean about being "invisible" in this culture? Have you ever felt "invisible" in a class context?
→ GO TO Lesson Plan : "Class and Health: You Are What You Eat," by Lynn Wiegand, an activity that explores the correlation between social class, health, and nutrition.
RESEARCH/WRITE about a conflict in your community over an issue that reflects class differences -- for example, a proposed housing development, a gentrifying neighborhood, construction of a new factory, a school voucher program, a new shopping mall. Bring in articles about the conflict from a variety of sources: the local newspaper, community group publications, interest group newsletters, etc. Compare and analyze each for class bias/perspective.
CLASS PROJECT: Distribute menus (or ask students to collect menus) from a variety of eateries -- from your area's most expensive restaurant to the local greasy spoon. Include one menu with pictures.
In small groups, get students to compare the menus' content, prices, vocabulary, and style of presentation. Are the menus reflective of class differences in the community? How? In what ways does each menu's vocabulary and style reflect a "high" or "low" social class? [For example, observe how a fast-food menu shows either pictures, numbers, or easy-to-remember food names -- like "The Whopper" -- as compared to an elaborately-described entrée from a higher-priced haute cuisine restaurant, which may assume foreknowledge of sauces, wines, and foreign languages.]
Ask students to recall if they have felt uncomfortable eating in a "high-class" or "low-class" restaurant. What made them feel that way?
How To Marry the Rich (Beverly Hills, California)
Begins: 23.59 - Running Time: 9 minutes
I started thinking I must be doing something wrong. What is it that I am doing wrong to attract the type of man who doesn't have a job and doesn't have a car? Vessa Rinehart, make-over client
SEGMENT SYNOPSIS: Author and motivational speaker Ginie Sayles grew up poor but ended up marrying a millionaire. Vessa Rinehart, a museum staffer, yearns for higher social status. In this scene, Sayles reveals to Rinehart a precise formula for mixing confidently with the rich and powerful. While Rinehart clearly believes the elaborate instructions will help her pass for classy, commentator Paul Fussell, author of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, is not so optimistic: "You are for a lifetime in the class in which you grew up."
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What is your impression of Ginie Sayles? Vessa Rinehart? What social class does each appear to belong to? Why do you think so? What do you think of Sayles' techniques for moving up the social ladder? Why do you suppose Rinehart wants to change her social class? Is such a transformation possible? Is it, as her mentor claims, basically a question of appearance and style and the distance you stand from people? Or is Paul Fussell correct?
What are the particular pressures and obstacles an individual faces when s/he moves into a different social class? Compare the term "upwardly mobile" with "social climber" -- is there a difference? In what situation is each term usually applied?
Ginie Sayles charges $1,500 for her make-over service: is it worth the price? Do you think a man would hire Ginie Sayles to transform him? Why/why not?
→ GO TO www.pbs.org/peoplelikeus for game: "Chintz or Shag," a light-hearted quiz that identifies class affiliation based on taste and style.
PART 2: HIGH AND LOW
A tour through the landscape of class
WASP Lessons (New York, New York)
Begins: 33.01 - Running Time: 8 minutes
I am a member of the privileged American class known as the WASPs, the silver spoon people, the people who were handed things from an early age and stepped into a safe, clean, white world. Thomas L. Phipps, writer
SEGMENT SYNOPSIS: In a series of candid and often humorous interviews, members of America's commonly-accepted aristocracy, rich White Anglo Saxon Protestants, reveal their inborn sense of noblesse oblige: "We stand better, we walk better, we speak better, we dress better, we eat better, were smarter, were more cultured and we treat people better..." Blueblood Thomas Langhorne Phipps joins other insiders in offering a wry introduction to the stereotypical WASP world of Madras pants and fox hunts. But that isn't all there is to it: one upper-class woman insists that "
could just have a bathing suit on the beach and I'd know they didnt belong."
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What does WASP stand for? What does it mean to "belong" to a "WASP" culture? How does the upper middle-class woman judge someone in a bathing suit as "belonging" or not? Do you make the same judgments about people who "belong" to your class or social group? What attributes do you look for?
Are White Anglo-Saxon Protestants indeed our country's "ruling" class? Have other groups -- American-born or immigrant groups -- changed or challenged wealthy whites' social pre-eminence and control in recent years? If so, which groups are emerging as the elite in your community? Do these groups exclude others in the way that the "bathing suit" lady suggests?
In this segment, what sports do we observe the "WASPS" engaging in? What sports do we typically associate with the upper classes? [If you wish to pursue the idea of sports and class, ask: what sports do we associate with the middle classes? The lower classes? For example: polo, golf, tennis, boxing, wrestling, bowling. Why are these sports linked to class?]
Are there white Americans who do not fit the upper-class stereotype? If so, who are they?
→ GO TO the Statistics Page for statistics: on poverty and race in America. Note that while the media generally equate poverty with people of color, not surprisingly, in this predominantly white nation, whites make up the largest numbers of the poor.
RESEARCH/WRITE: Have students research and write up a report on the largest pockets of white poverty in the United States. What is the average income in these communities? Employment/unemployment rates? Educational achievements of the residents?
SMALL GROUP ACTIVITY: "Exploring Stereotypes" is designed to prompt students to examine their own class-related attitudes. Divide students into three groups. Assign each group one of three class categories: upper, middle, or lower. Ask students to brainstorm "characteristics" -- positive or negative -- that they associate with people in the class they've been assigned. Then compare lists. Which qualities are alike? Which are different? Ask students to explain their reasons for including each quality. Were their choices based on personal experience, hearsay, media portrayals, etc.? Do they think the qualities they chose apply to everyone in that particular class? Are these characteristics based on money? On the type of house someone lives in? On the schools or religious centers they attend? Other factors?
SUPPLEMENTARY READING: Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (Plume, 1993), an autobiographical novel about growing up dirt-poor in the south; and "Bloody Footprints: Reflections on Growing Up Poor White," by Roxanne A. Dunbar, a memoir about her childhood in Oklahoma and her personal journey across class lines (from White Trash: Race and Class in America, edited by Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz. Routledge, 1997).
Bourgeois Blues (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Begins: 41.07 - Running Time: 11 minutes
Class is a very uncomfortable topic for all Americans and I think it's especially uncomfortable for black Americans. I think it's offensive to some people to think that there is a class structure in black America. I think that's probably rooted in the fact that minorities who have been oppressed in America do not ever want to be perceived as oppressive.Carlotta Miles, psychiatrist
SEGMENT SYNOPSIS: Whites often ignore them or condescend to them; working class blacks label them "bourgie" or "inauthentic." They are middle-class African Americans, roughly 50% of their racial group, and they're in a tight spot. As this segment portrays, they must navigate a minefield of race and class relations and are often torn between their social and economic aspirations and the realities of racism in America. Against the backdrop of a debutante ball, we hear the stories of men and women who are middle class and black. "We should be encouraging our community to strive," observes one investment banker. "Every group in America has come
with the goal of becoming middle class, so why should we suddenly be the only group that identifies becoming middle class as this nasty word of calling bourgie-ness?"
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What are the relationships between race or ethnicity and class in America? What is the conflict within the black community regarding class identity and racial identity? Is it related to color? Does that conflict exist in any other group in the United States or in your area for example, among Italian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, or other ethnic communities? What examples do middle-class African-Americans offer about common white attitudes toward them? About upper-class or lower-class blacks' attitudes? Do you agree with the investment banker's statement? Why/why not?
What is the significance of the Jack and Jill club? Is it an appropriate means for black families to foster social relationships or is it a means of excluding and oppressing other blacks? What do you think of private clubs in general? Do you or does your family belong to one? What benefits or advantages does it offer? What drawbacks?
→ Supplementary Reading:
Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class (Harper Collins, 1999) by Lawrence Otis Graham, one of the commentators in the program.
→ Supplementary Reading:
Langston Hughes' poems, "Low to High" and "High to Low" (from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, Vintage Books, 1995, p. 411-412).
CLASS PROJECT: In small groups, students can develop a plan to research the different types of private social organizations that exist in their community (from golf clubs to Elk or Mason lodges to bingo centers to boy/girl scout troops) -- or in their school (from debating societies to various sports groups to drama and arts clubs). Ask students to conduct research into these associations or to interview people who belong to them. In terms of social class, who tends to belong to which club or school organization? Are there social benefits or disadvantages to belonging to such a club? What are the membership requirements? Are there exclusionary policies in force? Are there clubs that attract a mixed group of members, socially or ethnically?
Tammys Story (Waverly, Ohio)
Begins: 52.21 - Running Time: 10 minutes
People at the bottom, they battle the limitations of life like everybody else. If they're not overwhelmed by the dictates of drugs, and violence, and extraordinarily bad schools, they have exactly the same plans that everybody else has. That is, to become the most that they can become, to get the best that they can get for their kids, to encourage their kids to become the best that they can become, and to be the best kind of person they can be. Stanley Crouch, critic
SEGMENT SYNOPSIS: In Southern Ohio, Tammy Crabtree, 42, lives in a dilapidated trailer with her four teenagers. After almost two decades of public assistance, shes now off the welfare rolls. But her job cleaning bathrooms at a local Burger King barely pays the bills. Crabtree sees herself as striving to do better and hopes to go to college and become a teacher. But she is labeled "trash" by her neighbors and she is openly dissed by her 16-year-old son Matt, who dreams of moving up the social ladder. "Sometimes I am embarrassed by her," Matt says, "cause she wears that Burger King outfit every day."
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What does it mean to be at the bottom -- culturally, socially, politically, and economically? [NOTE: help students define these terms.] What does it mean to feel "invisible" in the United States? In what ways is Tammy Crabtree invisible, and to whom?
Based on your recollection of her story, reconstruct Ms. Crabtree's family history and the impact of her social class on her aspirations, opportunities, and achievements (or lack of) in life. Why is she considered "trash" by her neighbors? What is her own view of her life and her future?
What is the conflict between Tammy and Matt? How realistic is Matt's belief that he is "classier" than his mother and brother? Realistically, what do you think are Matt's chances of achieving his life goals? What are the obstacles in his path to achievement? If you don't think either mother or son will "make it," how do you reconcile that opinion with the American belief that hard work is always rewarded with success? If the Crabtrees were to meet Ginie Sayles (of the How to Marry the Rich segment), could her formula help them rise in class?