Saxa Poitica: Classism dialogue outside the classroom

April 15, 2015

I’ll be dedicating my last Saxa Politica column (at least for the foreseeable future) to an issue I’ve seen grow in salience over the three years I’ve spent in college. As someone majoring in the liberal arts, I’ve taken quite a few seminar classes that, many times, dedicate long periods of class time to discussing present-day social and political issues. These discussions are one of my favorite things about Georgetown—I’m consistently impressed by just how smart the people I see chugging Natty Light and gossipping on Lau 2 really are.

In the classes full of liberal, socially-aware students that I find myself in, someone almost invariably brings up economic privilege at one point during the dialogue. Everyone seems eager to cut down their own privilege, to say openly that they attended one of those one-word prep schools in New England that others are supposed to know instinctively. I get the impression that my peers are happy to address the leg up they’ve been given in life, and empathetic to the fact that other, less privileged students in the room had much different paths to Georgetown than they did. When people talk like this in class, I feel confident that America’s future ruling class will deal with the problem of income inequality much better than their parents did. (Valium)

As Georgetown students, we’re living in a community of extreme wealth and privilege and, as a fairly highly-educated and politically-inclined group of people, becoming increasingly aware of all those advantages we have over the rest of America. Yet often it seems as though students here forget about all their privilege the instant they step out of an academic setting.

In one of my seminar classes, my professor usually asks the class about what we have been up to since we last met and devotes the first half-hour to free-form discussion. Several weeks ago, the topic of conversation was spring break, and several students rattled off their fun weeks in Aruba, Switzerland, and various other mouthwatering destinations.

This conversation, however, took place in a classroom full of other students who had previously related their stories of struggling to fit in at Georgetown after growing up in low-income environments. To me, the stories of expensive vacations felt insensitive. They represented exactly the sort of thing that would make a student from a less-traditional background feel like they are excluded from the Georgetown norm.  They undermined the awareness of privilege that those student had demonstrated when speaking about issues that transcended their own experience.

If we’re limiting our engagement with economic privilege to the classroom, then we aren’t really accomplishing anything. Race, gender, and sexuality are common topics of discussion around campus, and students are mindful not to offend others when talking about them, but income and class haven’t reached that level yet.

At Georgetown, racist, sexist, and homophobic actions and words aren’t tolerated, but no one bats an eye when students talk about their plans for unpaid summer internships in far-flung cities (a luxury that only rich kids can afford) or routinely post pictures of hundred-dollar brunches on Instagram. Perhaps this is because many Georgetown students are sheltered from a world in which they actually have to watch their bank account. In their lives, it is acceptable to spend as conspicuously as they can.

It’s these little things that are the worst part of being at a school full of wealthy students when you didn’t grow up the same way, as a friend on my freshman floor once told me. It’s knowing that they’ll get the latest iPhone the moment it comes out, regardless of the off-contract price; it’s seeing your a buddy lose a North Face jacket at a party and order another one from Amazon without a second thought.

It’s not like there’s an easy solution to this problem; rich people are going to spend money, poorer people are going to wish they could spend that money, and Georgetown’s going to remain more of the former. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for our student body to be a bit more conscious of how uncomfortable conspicuous consumption can make others. We’ve pretty much got the academic issues surrounding privilege down pat, but it’s something that Georgetown students need to remember outside of the classroom.


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