Class and Classism: My Contribution to UChicago’s Dis-O Guide, 2013

A brief entry I wrote for the Dis-Orientation Guide at UChicago. The full PDF is available here:

Dis-Orientation Guide, University of Chicago, Fall 2013

One of the trickiest aspects of class is its ambiguity. Poll, after poll over the past decade has demonstrated a majority of Americans associates with the term “middle class”[1]. These sorts of labels make it hard to comprehend who is hurt most by classism–$100k a year sounds like a fortune to myself as a single child. To a family of 6 residing in New York, it is close to poverty. Talking about classism in the University is then to talk about a series of experiences. Try not to simply reject them as being “unrealistic” because they seem foreign. There is little quantifiable data of what it is like to experience classism at elite universities. All I have are the experiences of myself, and other people who have had difficulty dealing with finances here. Further accounts can be found on the UChicago Class Confessions Page on Facebook.

Classism is a child of Marxist thought. To quote the Communist Manifesto[2]: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”. The interaction between the bourgeois and the proletariat tends to be dictated in terms of capital. In the present day, these interactions are rarely direct—classism is a force that often permeates itself in structural, and personal levels. The manifestation of this history is still visible in the present day. To be “working-class” or blue-collar tends to have a series of loaded connotations, many revolving around a failure to achieve more. Chuck Barone of Dickinson College words it like this:

“Success honors those who make it and failure stigmatizes those who fail, while liberals tend to focus on deficiency, expressing pity and concern for those unfortunate enough to fail. Although cast in terms of individuals and equal opportunities, this ideology is classist. It casts working-class people as inferior and incompetent, middle-class people as superior, perhaps bless by God”.[3]

This is part of a societal trend to view the working-class individual as inferior to the “Life of the Mind”. For an example of these generally unspoken sentiments, here is the description of a plumber in an essay entitled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”:

“There he was, a short beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work.”[4]

The working-class individual, in the eyes of most upper-class students, is an alien thought to be below those who have gained access to schools like this one. This is a structural form of classism within society that is only magnified by being at elite institutions. Often jokes are exchanged about becoming sales clerks, or even plumbers. This reinforces moments of internalized oppression—students whose parents are working-class have often noted feeling shame about such origins.

Structural classism also manifests itself closer to our University. The Office of College Aid promises to “meet a student’s demonstrated need throughout their four years in the College”. It seeks to create a perfect balance between your legal guardian, yourself, and the college, in terms of paying your tuition. Through this process, the goal is to eliminate class as a consideration. Regardless of whether your mother is a janitor, or a tenured collegiate professor, the University wants to make your presence here happen.

The reality is quite different. It includes having to jump through every hurdle the College sets for you in order to receive your aid—in my case, it meant finding someone who “knew my family well, but was not a friend or another biased party” to confirm that neither my mother, nor myself had been in contact with my father since I was born. It means finding out in April that the state can tax the room and board part of your financial aid, and you are liable to pay it. It means attempting to find out whether a House trip is worth selling your pride to your Resident Head, and telling them that you can’t afford the $20 fee, but would still like to go. These are all examples of structural classism—if capital was unlimited, none of these would be concerns.

Personal levels of classism can be even worse. Rather than having the ability to blame an abstract concept for your misfortunes, the perpetrators are often your classmates, and friends. My first year, friends started a conversation about how much they were expected to pay. A  friend of mine said the school expected her parents to pay $30,000 a year. Without speaking I said, “$30,000? That’s insane! Who on earth pays that?” to which she replied, “Yeah, well, maybe if you had a dad you’d be expected to pay more too”. This was not spoken with the intent to hurt. She simply expressed a subconscious ignorance in a very poor manner.

And here’s the clincher about personal forms of classism—because anyone can claim ignorance about what is common economic practice, any response has to deal with its perception. If I had reacted with anger towards my friend, people would have certainly perceived me as being hostile, or even irrational. From their perspectives, she might have had a factually valid point. And because of that, their analysis would see something wrong with my emotional reaction, but nothing wrong with the formulation of her statement.


[1]Andrew Dugan, “Americans Most Likely to Say They Belong to the Middle Class”. Galluppoll.com, November 20th, 2012. Accessed: September 6th, 2013.

[2] Marx, Karl and Engels, Fredrich, The Communist Manifesto (Chicago: Merlin Press, 1998) page 1.

[3] Chuck Barone, “Bringing Classism into the Race and Gender Picture” Race, Gender, and Class 6 (1999): 15.

[4] William Deresiewicz, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” on AmericanScholar.org, summer 2008. Accessed: September 7th, 2013.

Whoa, a post below 1500 words. I knew I could do it.

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