“Where do you come from?” has been a difficult question for me to answer for as long as I can remember, because my birthplace, where I last lived, and where my family resides seldom coincide. The question has recently taken on a new dimension, however—one of socioeconomic status.
For those who have never heard of Greenwich, Connecticut, it is one of the wealthiest towns in America. It has also been my family’s place of residence since last August.
When I tell people where I live now, they respond with a knowing tone: “Oh, Greenwich?” Immediately, I am as branded as the clothing worn by most of those who walk along Greenwich Avenue. People assume that I am rich and spoiled. Attending Georgetown to top it all off, there is little else I can do other than to nod my head in slight embarrassment.
I do not fit into this category. Unlike many others living in towns such as mine, I did not grow up wealthy. I grew up drinking government milk and Minute Maid Orange Juice coupons as my father was financing his education. I wound up in Greenwich after my family’s lifetime of hard work and I am proud of how far we have come from our shared New Hampshire townhouse with paper-thin walls.
The assumption that my zip code indicates a certain economic class is a problem. The issue lies in that the branding of “rich,” at least in me, sparks a sort of shame in being privileged, and as a result, abstention from dialogue on class. The reason for this hesitation to participate in dialogue is because of the assumption by others that wealth goes hand in hand with being spoiled and of being, not necessarily oblivious, but indifferent towards many of the issues that afflict society’s less privileged members. The more privileged are consequentially discouraged from participating in dialogue due to the label of “hypocrite” that is immediately assigned to them.
There must be a line drawn between the judgement of resources and the appreciation of those resources. If we acknowledge the fact that this is an expensive school that we are incredibly fortunate to attend, we begin to move away from the “spoiled” title and towards a more nuanced “privileged.”
Being privileged should not inspire shame, rather thankfulness for our circumstances. The title begs us to thank those who have allowed us to reach this point. It also encourages us to keep working towards repaying those responsible for our privileges and to extend these to others who may not have been as fortunate in their upbringing.
Most importantly, privilege ought to inspire recognition of the rarity of our economic position, though this is often a challenge at a school where most of our peers are themselves just as, if not more, affluent than ourselves. It is difficult to acknowledge the fact that 15.1 percent of the U.S. was living in poverty in 2010, or that 2.4 billion people live below the poverty line worldwide while walking along M St. and overhearing lamentations on the inability to afford a new pair of heels.
Many Georgetown students pride themselves on their knowledge of current events and on their awareness of statistics on poverty, but they remain unable to genuinely engage in the subject of privilege, particularly with their peers when they themselves fall into the higher social classes. Students refrain from dialogue on the upbringing of those less privileged and oftentimes ignore their own privilege in order to avoid awkward conversations, perpetuating an ignorance of socioeconomic realities beyond their own.
Dialogue that occurs within institutions such as Georgetown regarding the structures that enable, or more importantly, disable economic advancement must take place in order to invest a worthwhile effort into altering them. These discussions are only comprehensive if they involve both ends of the economic spectrum.