OPINION: I’m in the 1 percent. Let’s be honest

A college student stands next to a dining hall check in desk, waiting to swipe in.
5C student makes purchase at Mallott. (Anna Horne • The Student Life)

According to a 2017 study published by the New York Times, the median family income for students at Pitzer College was $216,600. Seventy percent of Pitzer students came from families with incomes in the top 20 percent just four years ago.

The other Claremont Colleges aren’t far behind — in the same study, Pomona College’s median family income was $166,500, Scripps College’s was $160,700, Claremont McKenna College’s was $201,300 and Harvey Mudd College’s was $145,400. The student body at the Claremont Colleges is overwhelmingly made up of rich kids.

To many Claremont students, this is troubling. The generational wealth that pays for a substantial amount of our collective tuition is built on institutional racism, exploitation, pollution and injustice. Many of us profess to be progressive and anti-capitalist, and though we claim to fight for social and economic justice, an overwhelming number of us have lived all our lives in wealth and privilege.

If we truly care about addressing the public health crisis, the systematic oppression of minorities, environmental exploitation and the countless other catastrophes tied to income inequality, it’s critical that we wealthier Claremont students neither forget nor conceal our realities. Honest conversations about our wealth allow us to establish a culture of transparency, take responsibility and take action.

It’s easy — and sometimes even appropriate — to feel guilt and shame for being part of the 1 percent. I would know. My father worked for BP Global for over 30 years; the money my family pays to Pitzer every semester came straight out of the Prudhoe Bay oil field at the expense of millions of people around the world.

During my time in Claremont and at home, I have tried to organize against the systems that made my family wealthy. I worked with groups to mitigate climate change and stop drilling in Alaska; I worked on campaigns to protect traditional salmon watersheds; I donated to social justice organizations and tried to educate myself. 

But that isn’t enough. I’m not sure I will ever be able to take enough direct action to compensate for my family’s wealth. But my actions have also been insufficient in another way: They have been too quiet. 

Out of guilt and shame, and perhaps an outdated sense of propriety, I have always tried to downplay my affluent background. In classrooms, conversations and protests, I have felt money weighing me down — and I’ve been silent. I have felt like a fraud discussing the climate crisis as I sit across from students of color, as I protest with low-income students and organize for justice with the very people my legacy has oppressed.

For the majority of us who come from wealth, it’s tempting to hide the privilege we’ve been unfairly given. However, the events of the past year have made it clear that hiding privilege and wealth may be harmful in its own way. When we cover up our wealth and privilege, three things happen.

Firstly, we can’t realize our own agency. Having wealth means having the ability to make a difference in the world, for good or for bad. There are different kinds of power, and often grassroots power is the strongest catalyst for change. But money and social capital are also undoubtedly powerful tools, especially when they are directly redistributed to the communities that are most in need.

Secondly, when we ignore our wealth and privilege, we’re disingenuous. If I’m going to protest fossil fuel investment, I owe it to myself, my family and my peers to be honest about my family’s oil wealth and invite criticism and discussion. The people I care about deserve to know about the tension between my identity and my actions. We should celebrate a culture of honesty, not wealth. 

And finally, when we don’t talk about our lived experiences, we make it harder for other students to do so. We contribute to an environment of guilt and silence that extends to low-income students, as well as all those who are afraid to discuss their relationships to wealth. 

Pitzer and the 5Cs are filled with rich students. Sometimes our philosophies may contradict our upbringings, and sometimes our upbringings justify guilt. But we can’t allow guilt to overcome us. It is our responsibility to acknowledge our privilege rather than hide it and to use it to make our community a more just and understanding place.

Carly Dennis PZ ’22 is a politics major from Anchorage, Alaska. She is forever grateful for having grown up on Dena’ina lands.

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