Class Issues and the Campus Community

Posted May 7th, 2010 at 10:32 pm.

This Diversity Conversation was a follow-up from the last one, about political correctness. This time the discussion was more specifically focused on class and class issues at Bryn Mawr. We began by simply noting that there are several challenges inherent in even having this type of discussion; it’s difficult to have an honest, open discussion about classism and class issues across joblines, etc., so that everyone’s point of view is represented. Even the terms we use can be problematic; we hold “conversations” and “diversity conversations” rather than trying to organize “interaction,” “action,” “doing” of some kind. One of the projects of Diversity Conversations is an attempt to make dialogue more interactive, so that more people from more backgrounds are participating and everyone can give input.

One of the issues of classism at a liberal arts college like Bryn Mawr is the idea of “work;” there is work of the head and work of the hand. Often these two types of work are contrasted and set up in opposition to each other rather than as complementary and both necessary to run a community like Bryn Mawr; what we have to ask ourselves is where do they meet? There are hierarchies at Bryn Mawr, as in any other community, but we don’t name them or acknowledge that they exist. Bryn Mawr fosters an environment where we tend to pretend we’re all equal, but we aren’t; there are differences, and we have to admit them before we can examine them effectively and actually improve anything.

One personal anecdote that was brought up as an example of this was an experience in the parking garage of another university; a staff member sat in a booth and operated the door to the parking garage; faculty never acknowledged her, but without her, as she noted, they wouldn’t be able to leave the garage. This raises the question of how to acknowledge people’s different functions to create a sort of “transpersonal equality,” as one participant called it, wherein we recognize that we do not all perform the same functions in our community and we acknowledge the different work we all do.

But another obstacle we face on this route is stigma; class, participants agreed, is the most stigmatized and least discussed category of diversity. It’s a diversity that society tells us isn’t something to be proud of, like cultural background would be. Furthermore, most people in the US consider themselves middle-class, which both creates a sense of belonging and also makes the issue even more difficult to explore because it is being denied. People feel a need to keep this difference hidden, and this sense of belonging to one big group accomplishes that.

Academia complicates this issue even further; coming from a working-class background is seldom discussed in academia. Students seldom consider that faculty and staff may come from a lower background because of where they now are; despite originally being from a different background, having the opportunity to get an education and/or working in academia puts one in a different class and position. This feels alienating on both ends; you don’t identify with Bryn Mawr, but you can’t go back to the background you came from because others don’t allow it since they feel alienated by the changes. People also often go to college to change their socioeconomic background, which increases this tension.

But acknowledging one’s privilege can be hard too; it’s hard to acknowledge our privilege openly and name the privileges we have in front of others, because we feel we will be judged or resented by those who have different or fewer privileges. But being able to name our privileges isn’t (and shouldn’t be) an automatic opening up to resentment, it’s an acknowledgment that needs to happen in order to understand our different positions and be able to think about/talk about/do something about them productively. When people work together, their differences become less important in the context of the project they’re working on, so we need to create an atmosphere where we work together to solve class issues, and acknowledgment is certainly the first step.

A next step might be how to integrate dialog with action and interaction. When we have something to do together, it gets done without much consideration for class differences, because the focus is somewhere else; but talking sometimes only serves to reinforce these differences and create a sense of alienation. TLI is one example of a program that addresses these issues; it has helped level the playing field in a lot of ways because it creates a different setting for interaction which changes the context of the hierarchy we see and live in. It makes interacting with different people less intimidating, because there’s a platform for it. In this type of context, housekeeping, faculty, staff, and students can all interact and everyone has knowledge to share, so everyone gets put in the role of “teacher” and everyone receives mutual benefit and learning.

One proposed new project in the works is a go-to bank. Staff, faculty, and students can post abilities they have, things they can teach or services they can provide, and people who need certain services can look for what they need, and provide their own time and services in return. It may help if we focus less on making things campuswide and more on making small and varied opportunities available more often. These types of activities or programs can’t be made mandatory, so we have to compensate by making them more wide-ranging and synthetic; more self-interested. Even the simple fact of getting staff, faculty, and students together in this type of context so that different people get to know each other can help in this endeavor.

What we’re trying to work towards is not only how to have a class identity but how to have a positive class identity. There seem to be stigma no matter where you fall on the class spectrum, and people can take things personally that aren’t personal, which creates tension that is never addressed. Part of the problem is that there shouldn’t be personal tension here; in order to remedy that, we should learn to name the tension and discuss these stigma. Everyone should have the language and the opportunity to participate in this discussion; what we need to learn is how to approach confrontation and turn it into conversations across lines.

Filed under: diversity,families,history,language by claireaelionmoss

Comments are closed.