During my time at Pomona College, I have learned a lot about privilege. Despite thinking of myself as somewhat informed on the subject, I continue to discover ways in which my race, gender, and other elements of my identity have conferred privilege on countless aspects of my life.
Three semesters ago, almost as soon as I’d arrived on campus for first-year orientation, I learned something else particularly interesting about privilege, or rather my lack thereof: Apparently, I was poor.
The realization astonished me. I’d never felt disadvantaged before, in any financial capacity. Gradually, however, I ascertained the full extent of my impoverishment. I do not own a car. I have never traveled to Europe. I cannot afford to dispose of my nonexistent iPhone 5 when the iPhone 6 comes out. After graduating, I will need to work for years before I can pay off my (gasp!) student loans. I even attended a public high school! As far as I could discern from the conversations around me, I was the only student at Pomona who had not grown up in a world of wall-to-wall Apple products and summers in the Hamptons.
I suppose this is untrue.
My family and I are not, in any conceivable sense of the word, poor. I would even hesitate to call myself a member of the middle class, insofar as any such concept exists outside the realm of Marxist theory. My parents are white-collar professionals with postgraduate degrees. I live in a suburban neighborhood of Southern California, where real estate prices tower over those in most of the country and many families own at least two cars. I thus admit freely that I am, in some ways, a preposterous candidate for writing an article on class privilege, given my total inability to represent the economic concerns of the hundreds of millions of Americans who possess fewer economic advantages than I do.
Simultaneously, however, I contend that the inappropriate, even bizarre sense of inferiority that I experience when considering my economic background implies two disturbing possibilities about class at Pomona: The college has failed either to admit students from a sufficiently diverse range of socioeconomic strata or to approach class discourse with the reverence for egalitarianism and subversive thought that it claims to hold when initiating valuable conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other social constructs that dictate distributions of power.
These two suggestions are not, of course, mutually exclusive, and I believe them both to be true. To confirm our school’s relative socioeconomic homogeneity, one can look no further than the college’s most recent admissions statistics. Forty-six percent of students do not receive financial aid directly from Pomona; thirty-four percent also do not receive any form of federal aid. Although I am all too familiar with the truth behind misleading statements like “100 percent of needs met,” the fact that such a sizable percentage of students do not demonstrate financial need through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid indicates an overrepresentation of the upper class.
I do not want to antagonize the administration unnecessarily, however. As top-tier private colleges go, Pomona actually admits an impressive number of students from middle- and lower-class backgrounds, largely because of its relative—although by no means ideal—munificence in granting financial aid. I would therefore argue that the disproportionate affluence of Pomona’s student body reflects trends that are endemic to a larger culture, such as the worsening socioeconomic stratification of American society, and the upper-class ideologies that surround higher education in general, rather than any conspiratorial effort on the part of the college.
Nevertheless, I would also argue that a pervasive reluctance to discuss class has served to conceal much of the socioeconomic diversity on campus. For whatever reason—perhaps because it is somewhat less visible than divisions like race and gender, perhaps because of our culture’s paralyzing and irrational fear of Marxist revolution, or perhaps because it seems irrelevant to members of our age bracket—class does not receive nearly as much attention in our discourse as other social barriers.
Moreover, upper-class symbols—be they affiliated with prestigious academia or with brand-name clothing—dominate the campus culture and thus facilitate the concealment of lower-class interests. I therefore want to caution students against assigning a normative role to their economic privilege. We all need to monitor the way in which our speech and our behavior reflect our class. Upon returning from Winter Break, for example, ask your peers, “What did you do?” rather than “Where did you go?” Be mindful of the ways in which you might be presupposing the universality of your personal experience.
Most importantly, I want to encourage students of all backgrounds to speak out fearlessly about the manner in which class shapes their worldviews. I recognize that a measure of guilt holds us back when we attempt to discuss economic privilege and our experiences of class discrimination. We may feel as though we are ungrateful, as though we are unduly casting ourselves as victims. This is an obstacle that hinders dialogue on any difficult subject, but I like to think that Pomona students generally do a good job of overcoming such guilt.
During my time at Pomona, I have learned a lot about privilege. I could stand to learn a little more. We can weaken the influence that class exerts on our attitudes and our everyday lives, but only by first acknowledging class as an aspect of our identities.