Our Classless Campus

by Sara del Nido | 11/1/05 6:00am

Several weeks ago, two Greek houses agreed on "White Trash" as the theme of an upcoming social event. Recommended costumes included "wifebeater" tank tops, blackened teeth and overalls.

Have an image in your mind? Most people would. "White trash" is a highly loaded term that traditionally refers to white, low-income Americans, perhaps living in rural areas or in trailer homes. Think Nascar, unkempt property and lack of education and ambition: these are all concepts that have been constructed to constitute the definition of "white trash." Terms such as "scumbag" and "trashy" were automatically associated with the "white trash" theme by members of the Greek houses involved, demonstrating the derogatory nature of this concept that is ingrained in the minds of many Dartmouth students.

The term reeks of subtle racism, implying that all white people who are not low-income are automatically socially acceptable. It is assumed that if you are white, there is no excuse for your lack of success in life. Even more important, however, are the classist implications of using the term "white trash." The expression has been employed by many, including affluent whites, to distance themselves from those who are poorer than they. Less privileged. Less educated.

Let's face it: at Dartmouth, we never talk about the class system. Class is the pink elephant on campus. Our college should certainly be proud of its actions to address fundamental inequalities that exist among students: there are forums on race relations, groups to examine gender biases. However, income inequality never seems to make it into the discussion.

So why do we shy away from a dialogue on class? What is it about the amount of money in our backgrounds that makes this subject so much more uncomfortable than a discussion about the color of our skin?

Certain schools of thought in America deny the existence of class differences in the first place. This stance seems to have a credible explanation: many markers that were used to signal class have disappeared in American society. We can no longer be sure of a person's class based on their political views, religion, or even their car. Consequently, our society -- and our campus -- may seem like a space of "classlessness."

Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be absurd to suggest that class is not an issue at Dartmouth. I use this Greek social event as one example, but the houses in question should not be isolated as the sole perpetrators of classism; there are countless ways and instances in which class subtly permeates our understanding of this college. We all know that some groups on campus are thought of, correctly or not, as the "rich kids." There are other groups who are assumed to be on financial aid. Higher education institutions in general, particularly the Ivy League schools, are dominated by students who come from a particular category of wealth. The New York Times reported last spring that at colleges where nearly everyone graduates, the vast majority of students come from the top of the nation's income ladder. Similarly, graduation rates are, by comparison, lower at colleges dominated by low-income students. Exceptions exist, but generally these trends stand. Although we often pay the most attention to race when it comes to higher education, class is intertwined with factors such as race in complex ways; discussions of race therefore must also necessarily involve a simultaneous discussion of class.

The truth of the matter is this: each and every one of us, regardless of class background, is privileged to be here at Dartmouth. We are more fortunate than many millions of other people in this world. We have the money to pay tuition, or the ability to apply and qualify for financial aid. We were lucky to receive a good enough education to prepare us to take and pass the standardized tests that act as a determinant of college admissions. And we can all think of instances when we were confronted with class differences among students here at Dartmouth.

The point here is not to feel guilty about what we have; indeed, no one should ever have to feel guilty for these privileges, especially since it is undeniable that we all worked hard to get to Dartmouth. The issue is not one of culpability; in fact, overemphasis on our own privilege could backfire, causing feelings of pity towards those outside Dartmouth.

What we must remember, rather, is that we are all situated in specific social locations, and class constitutes a major part of our identities and the context in which we understand the world. For example, it was a privilege to simply have the opportunity to work hard enough to get into college. We are all fortunate that we were able to overcome the obstacles (higher for some than for others) that may have stood in the way of a higher education. And we have the advantage of being able to discuss tough issues like this one in a setting where we can not only gain new knowledge, but also find others to willingly engage us in our discourse.

We can no longer ignore the presence of class differences among students at Dartmouth. It is true that we, as a student body, are more privileged than others; similarly, however, some students here at this college are more fortunate than others. Using terms like "white trash" to stereotype a low-income category of people ostracizes those of us at Dartmouth who are not at the top level of the income ladder and incorrectly constructs the Dartmouth student body as a homogenous group that looks down on others outside the Dartmouth bubble who are less fortunate than they. Just as it would be outrageous to hold a party glorifying misconceptions of a specific race, it should be equally inappropriate to do the same for a certain income level.

The reason why we tolerate this covert classism is simple: we just do not take class as seriously as we do race or even gender. Rather than being pessimistic about future prospects for change, we should recognize this as an opportunity. It is time to acknowledge that the levels of wealth in our backgrounds shape our experiences, identities and behaviors just as much as being a woman or a man, being white or a person of color.

Wake up, Dartmouth: the class system exists. We all exist within it. And the worst thing we can possibly do in terms of classism on campus is to remain silent. Dialogues must be started, and objections raised. We must confront this issue head-on, because class is not going away anytime soon.

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