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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Wealthier students: Beware further marginalizing your low-income peers

I write to share alarming findings from my Fall 2017 sociology research with Professor Sharon Quinsaat, Ph.D., department of sociology. I found several common trends including appropriation of low-income culture and cooptation of the word “poor” by wealthier students. These have numerous negative effects on low-income and/or first-generation students, especially on those who are also people of color. Here, I delve into my findings and suggest alternatives to better the low-income and/or first-generation student experience.

The most visible impact is in the “invisibility” of social class. Looking around the campus, few students are dressed in expensive clothing. In fact, it is hard to pick apart wealthier students from poorer ones based on appearance. This reality has a mixed effect on low-income students. On the one hand, low-income students feel less alienated from their peers and are less worried about clothing. This means somewhat less stress when compared to other liberal arts schools such as Pomona or Harvey Mudd, where social class can clearly be distinguished.

But, the negative effects are, in my opinion, much larger than the positives. Many low-income students use these indicators of class to find comfort and create support groups, but with thrift store clothing becoming an aesthetic and the appropriation of lower-class style, low-income students are struggling to find their people. Without class indicators such as clothing, students (especially first-years of color) find themselves searching for new friends in the middle of semesters once peoples’ class is evident. Social class at Grinnell then has a huge impact on how friendships are created and maintained. Actions should be taken by wealthier students to limit false perceptions. Beware the lower-class aesthetic; it is not yours and alienates your peers. In shopping at thrift stores, you take clothes from the racks that could be bought by lower-class peers that do not have access to more expensive stores. I am not saying that you cannot shop at thrift stores at all; I am asking that you, as wealthier students, do not embody the lower-class aesthetic. This has been a problem at Grinnell since the 2000s when Kara Jones found it in her own research, and I am asking that we as a community work against it now. It has been a problem for low-income students for far too long.

There is also the concerning newly documented problem of being “college poor” and being real world poor. Students at Grinnell, regardless of social class, can be overheard talking about how “poor” they are. But, low-income students have some grievances about these discussions and the real-world experience of being poor: “Rich kids—they don’t even know!” Many of the students calling themselves poor are actually broke, not poor: they don’t have much money in their bank account. But, this is not being poor. Many wealthier students at Grinnell could call home and ask for money if need be; there is a safety net present. Low-income students do not have this luxury. The money in poor students’ bank accounts is often their only safety net, which is why many have more money saved up than wealthier peers. I suggest here then that wealthier students at Grinnell avoid the term poor in reference to themselves. The implications of the term are not your lived experience. I recommend calling yourself “broke.”

Wealthier peers in general have different lived experiences from low-income and/or first-generation students, but there is one last alarming trend in story-telling at Grinnell. Some wealthier students have begun coopting the narratives of independence and confusion that first-generation students shared with me, citing a lack of parental support and reliance on guidance counselors instead. It is important to note that this experience is greatly different from first-generation students; the first-generation identity is more than not having help in applying to college. First-generation students lack role models who have been to college and family that understand what college is like. I then caution wealthier students from claiming to have experiences that first-generation students live. You can of course share that it is not the typical concerted cultivation and guided college process that most wealthy students have, but you should not take their stories as your own.

So, in short, wealthier students of Grinnell: support your peers by taking all of these suggestions into consideration. Low-income and first-generation students already have enough to worry about; please do not make this worse for them by continuing these actions that have haunted their existence on campus.

—Tim Burnette ’19

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