Columns

Dorris ’15: Why we won’t talk about class

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It’s Saturday night. I’m at a Brown Divest Coal party, in line for a unisex bathroom, where two girls divide five perfect lines of cocaine. AmEx Card. Platinum.

I’m thinking about last March, when Susan Patton wrote a letter to the Daily Princetonian, urging women to find husbands before graduation. She claimed they would not find men of the same caliber upon leaving Princeton. She used phrases like “intellectual equal” and “educated.” What she meant was far simpler: After leaving Princeton, these women would not find husbands in the same class.

We don’t talk about class in America because we don’t all agree it exists. Instead, we use shorthand: “income inequality” and “poverty.” We don’t talk about class at Brown because it brings up images of a game — a fading one — sometimes called the American Dream. It’s hard to admit that we’ve already won.

These are the facts: According to a Herald poll in 2012, at least half of us don’t receive a single dollar of financial aid. At least half of us pay full tuition — presently $60,460, when combined with room and board and indirect costs. This is more than the median U.S. household makes in a year.

Some thought socioeconomic diversity would increase after the 2003 transition to need-blind admission. However, according to Michael Goldberger, dean of admission from 1995 to 2005, the University’s socioeconomic diversity has barely changed since 2003.

“Things are very slow and subtle the way they move in places like this,” he told The Herald in 2012.

Class expression isn’t like race or gender. It’s not as easy to see. The differences appear when we thoughtlessly talk about unpaid internships or spring break flights to the Caribbean. When somebody buys drinks for seven people and says, “It’s on me,” or takes a leave of absence to volunteer in East Asia, documented by high-concept Instagram photos. Nonprofit, Common Good, Artist: Are these future careers or different names for class privilege?

“It’s not like people are walking around in sneakers,” as Katharine Grimes ’14 told The Herald in 2012.

Step back for a moment. Think about your friends — you know who their parents are. You know the names of their siblings, their sexual orientations, their genders. You know where they grew up. But do you know how much money they have? Does this question make you uncomfortable?

We like to imagine that inside the Van Wickle Gates lies a classless community. When I first stepped on campus, though, the distance between the haves and have-nots appeared wider than Cara Delevingne’s thigh gap. During Fashion Week.

Class segregation is a two-step process after the initial craziness of move-in weekend. First, lower-income students are shocked by garish displays of wealth. They feel displaced. They learn to perform. Resentment ensues. Second, upper-class students sense this resentment. They also learn to perform: Remember that first Family Weekend, when you saw a Prada-clad mother linking arms with a girl in a thrift store sweatshirt, so overwashed it had holes?

Other times, upper-class students decide they don’t want to change their lifestyles. So they channel off. It’s just too much guilt.

Last year, when Lorde’s song “Royals” went viral, we were thrilled to sing about “post code envy” and fantasies of ball gowns. But when the song played at certain program house parties — charging $350 dues so members can drink the very Grey Goose the song cries out against — I couldn’t help but think that the real fantasy was the lower-class lifestyle itself.

As a first-year, I visited Harvard — where 70 percent of students receive financial aid  — and was asked if it were true: Was Brown really a place of guitar circles and vague protests, where people who called themselves “artists” spent summers working as unpaid interns, living in wildly eclectic, helplessly cool apartments?

Of course I was offended. But I don’t deny that Brown’s more-organic-than-thou culture can be stifling, especially when coupled with extreme wealth. Does a pay-your-way volunteer position in Ghana really trump a retail position at Macy’s?

This is not to say we are ignorant of class struggle. Most Brown students understand extreme poverty pretty well. We study it in anthropology classes, field studies and backpacking trips. What most of us don’t understand is how the rest of America lives — what it’s like to work a job after a long day of school, not to be able to afford restaurant food, to stay in Providence when the flight home is too expensive.

We can’t all possibly be middle-class. So we find solidarity in social justice. At times we dabble in the politics of victimhood because it lessens the guilt. We all want a rags-to-riches story, to say that when we reached our dreams they were covered in claw marks. But at Brown, sometimes our rags — made from 100 percent recycled materials, for every one purchased a new one goes to a child in need — are wholly fictional.

What disturbs me more than the occasional flaunting is the blatant lying about wealth. We’ve reached a tipping point. We can all admit we’re tired of students pretending they were escaping from inner cities instead of complaining to SAT tutors in suburban McMansions.

So we talk about race. We debate gender. We explore different aspects of sexual orientation, but never touch upon our biggest normative segregator.

The time has come to abandon class-blind lenses and acknowledge that we come from vastly different backgrounds. Class is sticky, because it intersects with most minority groups. That’s all the more reason to talk about it.

Back to the party. Someone brings up the environmental devastation caused by the drug war, and the room goes silent. Two girls argue and one boy shakes his head. Someone says the drug war isn’t relevant anymore; the real problem is prescription drugs. Someone offers me an Adderall. A glass breaks. We agree to sweep it up tomorrow. It’s too late to say, “I shouldn’t have.”

I say goodbye to a few students I watched protest in the Occupy College Hill movement my first year. They are tired, they haven’t been sleeping. Tonight, they rally for change. Tomorrow, they prepare for banking interviews on Wall Street.

 

 

Cara Dorris ’15 can be reached at cara_dorris@brown.edu.

25 Comments

  1. Cara, I usually love your articles but this one made me uncomfortable. I don’t think brown students understand extreme poverty very well. Studying it in a classroom is not the same as experiencing it. I’ve seen a lot of platinum credit cards and marijuana at brown but the reality is cocaine is not that common. I know someone’s going to respond something like I see cocaine at parties etc but in my experience, brown has significantly less cocaine than other schools, and a lot less than my high school. This article is striving really hard to make a point that I feel like a lot of people know, and it seems to be going too far in one direction, in effect stigmatizing brown and glamorizing the very class it attempts to criticize.

    –middle class brown student

    • I think the ‘extreme poverty’ comment was intended ironically. The wealthier echelons of Brown’s students engage with poverty in the classroom and maybe on one of those pay-as-you-go volunteer trips. The reality is that some students do actually come from extreme poverty, and also sometimes it’s considered ‘cool’ to downplay your wealth.

  2. Cara,

    Appreciate the sentiment. The campus is filled with highly visible groups that very explicitly talk class. And none of us are headed to Wall Street. The Student Labor Alliance meets Thursdays at 8 in Sarah Doyle. Would love to see you there.

  3. rational guy says:

    Because talking about class accomplishes a lot.

  4. Incredibly mature and well written. I’m glad I opened the BDH today.

  5. Cara, its editorials like yours that give me hope that there is an otherwise unvoiced, unseen portion of the student body that has sense, thinks, and thoughtfully questions the assumed status quo.

  6. I don’t really see the point here. As someone on nearly full financial aid, I could care less that I’m surrounded by rich people. My dad dropped out of high school at 16. I’m just happy to be here and have this opportunity, I don’t need to rock Gucci and whip a Benz at 21. And I feel no need to talk about it. I don’t encounter many snobs here.

    • You’re lucky, then. The first person who knew the state I was from mentioned they had a third house there flippantly. That kind of attitude was pretty prevalent for my four years there.

  7. Beautiful piece.

  8. Spot on. Illusion and hypocrisy versus reality.

  9. It makes me think of a comment made on Gore Vidal “An upper-class man in the only country where class doesn’t exist”
    Great editorial, really great one.

  10. I’m nearly on 100% financial aid, so maybe I can throw in my 2 cents. In my 1.5 years here so far, I have yet to meet an “elitist” snob. I could care less if I’m surrounded by wealthy people. I’m just glad to be here!

  11. The (bottom) 1% student says:

    I really appreciated the way this article was written. I agree with the holier than thou mantra that sometimes plagues Brown. Do Brown students try to marginalize because otherwise their lives are too perfect? Probably, and I enjoy the way you examined that question without directly stating your intentions.

    Great article as usual. Looking forward to the next one, keep em’ coming .

  12. You had me until the thigh gap comment. Unnecessary, unprofessional. Out of place in a piece like this.

  13. There are a lot of assumptions made in this article. As someone in a program house with approximately $350 dues, I can tell you that the vast majority of our members are not upper class. Many come from very disadvantaged background, and are on full financial aid. But they have found meaning in joining our community and work extra job shifts to earn the money to pay their dues. They work hard, and no one should criticize them for choosing to spend the money on something they care about.

    • That’s certainly not what the article was getting at. Finding meaning in a community is essential, but when communities of different class backgrounds are uncomfortable in each other’s presence, as the author is describing above, the lack of discussion about class and income becomes deafening. She’s advocating an attempt to be open so that the very real stigma against relative poverty at Brown can be fought against.

  14. The Princeton Mom says:

    Smart article, well written.

  15. Exquisitely written. Thank you for this piece.

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