Adventures in Ethics and Science

Noticing class privilege.

Via Bint Alshamsa, this is a version of a “social class awareness experience” used in the residence halls (and possibly also classrooms?) at Indiana State University by Will Barratt et al. In the classroom, students are asked to take a step forward for each of the statements that describe them; they don’t talk about the exercise (and how they feel about it) until after they’ve gone through the whole list.

Doing this online, I’m bolding the statements which describe my background. Also, I’m including a second list that Lauren added based on the suggestions Bint’s commenters made as to other markers of class privilege.

ADULTHOOD [up to and including college]:
If your father went to college
If your father finished college
If your mother went to college
If your mother finished college
If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home (Commodore 64!!)
If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children’s books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind
If you had more than two kinds of lessons
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it (not until right before grad school, when I could get approved for one based on my own meager income)
If you have less than $5000 in student loans
If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
If you have been to Europe (not until I was 29)
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels (assuming motels count, not to mention circumstances where at least one child was supposed to stay out of sight)
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house
If your parent own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room (had I a sister, or if I had been a boy, this would not have been the case)
If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
If you had your own cell phone in High School (they didn’t have cell phones back then; I didn’t get one until I was doing a long commute with a baby — my in-laws insisted it was a safety thing)
If you had your own TV in your room in High School
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline (I think it used to be cheaper — when I started college, PeopleExpress flew between Boston and Newark for $25, plus $3 for each bag you wanted to check)
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.

CHILDHOOD:
If your body does not bear long-term signs of malnutrition. (For example, teeth marked up from poor nutrition when they were forming.)
If you had orthodontia.
If you saw a doctor for anything other than emergencies or school-mandated shots.
If you heated your home with clean-burning fuels or had properly vented heating. (I’m assuming that home heating oil is relatively “clean-burning”)
If you grew up in a house without vermin. (unless you count ants…)
If you had running water.
If you had a basement or foundation under your house.
If you had an indoor toilet.
If your parents and immediate family were outside the criminal justice system.
If you yourself remained outside the criminal justice system.
If your parents had a new car. (they got driven till they fell apart, though, and some were bought used)
If you never went barefoot so that you could ‘save your shoes for school.’
If your parents never argued in front of you about having enough money for food to last out the month.
If you ate hunted and fished meat because it was a recreational activity rather than as the major way to stock a freezer. (didn’t hunt or fish meat)
If your laundry was done at home in a washer rather than in a lavandaria.
If your hair was cut by a professional barber or hair stylist instead of your parent. (mostly by mom)

THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS:

*These lists are pretty good at illuminating a lot of things it’s easy to take for granted if you have them.

*I do wonder, though, whether the American tendency to transform “wants” into “needs” might require a new list in another generation. (Cell phones and computers strike me as two items that are no longer viewed so much as “luxury” items. College education might be shifting that direction as well.)

*I’m not sure whether I think there should be some questions that capture awareness of shifting your economic class. I know that there are things that can make you more aware of your privilege — for example, remembering when you were drinking powdered milk rather than fluid milk. It was a big deal, in my childhood, when we left powdered milk behind.

*Would an eating out/eating at home question identify a real divide in class privilege, or would it need to be more fine grained (e.g., fast food or fancy restaurants, what kind of food at home, what kinds of issues of time and money drive the eating habits)?

*I imagine this exercise might be more of an eye-opener at schools with lots of “traditional” college students (i.e., right out of high school). At universities like mine, where our students tend to be older on average, to have taken a “break” of some sort after high school, and to be working close to full time, I think there might be a whole bunch of questions that could be posed about economic privilege right now.

*I’m not at all sure, though, what the effect would be of posing those questions at the start of class.

Generally, this strikes me as a better exercise as the social class knowledge quiz described by Chad. It’s worthwhile to think about the infrastructure and support team that makes it possible for us to do the things we want to do, whether that’s going to school or pursuing a particular career or life path. Noticing that not everyone has the same level of infrastructure and support team helps you see that many choices are more constrained than we like to think they are.

Comments

  1. #1 chezjake
    January 24, 2008

    Thoughts on your thoughts:

    College education might be shifting that direction as well.
    I agree, and perhaps a more pertinent question now would be whether college/university at a private institution was an option that could even be considered.

    I’m not sure whether I think there should be some questions that capture awareness of shifting your economic class.
    I think questions along that line would be good. For my family, there were two landmarks: when we got our first TV set (when I was 11) and when my dad bought his first ever brand new car (when I was 17 and bought with inherited money).

    On the eating out question, that would definitely need to be more fine tuned nowadays.

    I also think that some questions about family priorities might be very revealing. Such as:
    1. Did your family own a new car before they bought a home? (mine didn’t)
    2. Did your parents always assume that you would go to college? (mine did)
    3. Did you get an allowance, and if so, did you have to perform certain chores to earn it? (yes and yes)
    4. Were you given educational toys (and/or books) for birthdays or Christmas? (yes)
    5. Were your parents involved in local community activities other than just attending church or PTA meetings? (Yes, both of them.)
    6. Did your parents encourage you to volunteer for community activities? (yes)
    7. Did your parents’ social circles include representatives of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds than your own? (Yes)

  2. #2 yami
    January 24, 2008

    I do wonder, though, whether the American tendency to transform “wants” into “needs” might require a new list in another generation.

    I don’t think the distinction between luxuries, wants, and needs is all that important to this type of exercise, and might actually be destructive – it tends to obscure the way that having or not having “wants” can still affect your class and prospects. It’s easy for this to degenerate into a discussion of where the want/need line should be, so that we can blame people for their failure to achieve if they only lacked “wants” but be nice to them if they lacked “needs”. Or maybe I’ve just been arguing with too many libertarians lately.

  3. #3 Daniel Harper
    January 24, 2008

    John Scalzi had some comments (mostly negative) on his blog here:

    http://scalzi.com/whatever/?p=270

    His point seems to be that a lot of these markers aren’t really markers of class, or that they are ambiguous, or whatever. For instance, having lots of books in the home: I had a lot of books, but that was because we _didn’t_ have a lot of money, and books are cheap.

  4. #4 forhecancreep
    January 24, 2008

    I think a question on eating out would be telling. I remember in high school, when a friend who was always talking about going to this and that restaurant asked if I’d been, being to ashamed to tell her “no, we never eat out.” Maybe if you framed the question around being exposed to foods from a variety of cultures to which you and your family do not belong?

    As to “if there was original art in your house” I might recommend a caveat about if being produced by a family member. We had my mother and grandmothers’ painting and one piece that was given to my father in lieu of payment.

    And to add to chezjake’s “Did your parents always assume that you would go to college?” a follow up, the same question for graduate/professional school.

    Also, you make a good point about cell phones, maybe a question acknowledging the difference in cell phones. Cheap prepaid version vs. an iPhone or Chocolate?

    I would also recommend questions covering divorce, alcoholism, and similar family issues as well as constancy in your childhood. One year we’d have a health care, next year we wouldn’t, if we got it again, we’d quick get things taken care of–who knows how long it would last? We owed a house, after the recession, not so much. Also things like ever having your phone disconnected, or being too ashamed to invite friends home after school.

    I did a version of this with my dorm in college and found it very enlightening. It had a few different questions, but the thing that stood out in my mind was that they had us hold hands at the beginning. It made for a very visceral realization if, as you took a step forward, you stretched too far and felt someone’s hand slip out of yours.

  5. #5 Katherine Sharpe
    January 24, 2008

    “His point seems to be that a lot of these markers aren’t really markers of class, or that they are ambiguous, or whatever. For instance, having lots of books in the home: I had a lot of books, but that was because we _didn’t_ have a lot of money, and books are cheap.”

    The book ‘Distinction’ by Pierre Bourdieux is one of my favorite books about classs; in it, he helpfully posits three different types of capital (which all have a bearing on class): social capital, cultural capital, and financial capital. It’s possible, he says, to have a lot of one or two kinds and not so much of another.

    For instance, a professor’s family might have tons of cultural capital, some social capital, and relatively little financial capital. A house full of books, for example, but no new cars.

    That’s still class privilege, but a different kind from, say, some idea of having a lot of money but being a philistine.

    His point, which I appreciate, was that class privilege comes in different flavors.

  6. #6 agnostic
    January 24, 2008

    First, “people like me are portrayed positively in the media” — hahahahaha. Ever watch Law & Order, any of its incarnations? Who commits gruesome crime in New York? Apparently, Park Avenue social types, not underclass thugs. That’s one example of many.

    So the item should read: “People like me are portrayed negatively in the media, out of guilt and shame for our so-called class privilege.”

    Noticing that not everyone has the same level of infrastructure and support team helps you see that many choices are more constrained than we like to think they are.

    We have to be clear about the infrastructure and support — having genes with beneficial effects, and a dose of good luck in development. Especially the items relating to intelligence, personality, time preferences, and so on. No amount of external infrastructure — that we currently have — will raise someone’s IQ 1 s.d. or make them chronically more introverted.

    If those who aren’t blessed with genes for above-avg intelligence shouldn’t feel ashamed of this, since it’s out of their control, we — everyone reading this blog — shouldn’t feel ashamed about having them.

    It’s only by viewing the above traits as due to personal effort or identifiable factors of the environment that we become smug and say, “That person didn’t go to college because they’re lazy, but I did because I work hard.” In reality, that person didn’t go to college because they’re not smart enough, and that’s mostly a function of their genes and developmental luck.

  7. #7 Zuska
    January 24, 2008

    I’d be mighty hesitant to use this exercise with students unless I were a trained facilitator for this sort of thing. Too potentially explosive, and then you end up with a lot of hurt and anger that doesn’t do anything positive.

    I’d also be hesitant to add questions about things like divorce, alcoholism, or things like that. Divorce and alcoholism don’t really respect social class, especially alcoholism. Asking students to reveal information about these issues in front of a group of strangers strikes me as too personally invasive.

    All that said, it’s a very interesting exercise. Similar exercises have been developed for gender and race and again, it can be very damaging if not done with careful facilitation.

    Reading through the list was very eye-opening for me, in both directions. There were advantages I had as a child that I never quite viewed as such before, somehow assuming most people had the minimum home comforts I did. Other items made me realize how much privilege I did NOT have access to. Just as an example, “summer camp” has always been, in my mind, the stuff of stories and anecdotes but somehow not quite real. I never knew anyone who went – or at least, didn’t know I knew. It’s somehow stunning to be reminded that for a lot of people, summer camp is an ordinary, taken for granted phenomenon.

  8. #8 Mark P
    January 24, 2008

    These questions are skewed towards more recent times. Intentionally or simply from lack of awareness that someone lived before the originators of the questions?

    In any event, they are also skewed towards a particular type of class consciousness. Some of the questions are fairly obvious but probably not good at identifying certain types of “class.” For example, some poor Southerners used to live in houses without foundations (a rather ambiguous term, anyway). But what about poor urban kids who live in housing projects? How do you qualify a mobile home?

    My conclusion is that the whole exercise is elitist in the worst sense of the word. If someone asked me those questions in a classroom or dorm setting, I would say, “Mind your own damn business.”

  9. #9 Janne
    January 24, 2008

    It’s interesting to note what elements of this list are and aren’t really applicable to other countries. Of course, some are a simple matter of translation – “Have you been to Europe?” (Well, yes, most of my life) could just be translated to “have you been to North America” or simply “have you traveled to a different continent”.

    Other questions, like “Have you been to summer camp” are completely culturally dependent. The one thing that would be vaguely like summer camp in my home country is actually for poorer kids that don’t get out of the city in the summer otherwise. An affirmative answer there would indicate lower social standing, not higher.

    But a lot of these probably are fairly good indicators almost wherever you live. You’d had to mentally adjust the relative value of course. Here in Japan, not living in a family home is far from a poverty sign as so many people regardless of class choose to live in apartments; and if you’d live in south Asia you probably have vermin whoever you are (and there wouldn’t be a heating bill worth arguing about).

  10. #10 Nomen Nescio
    January 24, 2008

    interesting, but so U.S.-centric that i had trouble translating the steps into equivalent ones for the culture i grew up in. (for instance, i did take a rough equivalent of the SAT/ACT, but nobody took prep classes for it; the equivalent of high school was your preparation for it. going barefoot was a summertime luxury; lacking footwear isn’t an option in Scandinavian winters.)

    also quite a bit of generational gap in there, too. when i was in high school, cell phones came with carrying handles and certainly weren’t thought of as “luxuries”.

    i counted 29 steps off your list, but some of them were guesstimates based on what i think the intention was. thought-provoking.

  11. #11 brtkrbzhnv
    January 24, 2008

    That list seems kind of dated; e.g.: “If you had a phone in your room” – I bought a used phone for about a few dollars when I was a teenager; that’s not really a sign of wealth. And, likewise, everyone has a computer nowadays.

  12. #12 Mrs Whatsit
    January 24, 2008

    Responding as I would have in my first year in college, I got 14. However, I did not need such an exercise in order to realize the disparity between me and my classmates at college. I remember one evening my freshman year, when a girl on my floor turned to me and asked, “Why do you work?” The people at the bottom don’t need the differences pointed out to them. It’s only the people at the top who don’t realize there is a gap. Personally, I would have been horrified to do this experiment in front of a large number of people my first year in college. Deeply, horribly, and terribly ashamed. I was trying to move up, you see. I didn’t want people to realize how far down I was.

    It seems to me, however, that this list was composed by someone who was not in the lower class and did not really talk to people in the lower class, because while some of the items seem to be indicators of being in the bottom rung, a lot of the indicators of being on the next to the bottom rung have been left out. And some of the bottom rung stuff seems to be stereotypes (the criminal justice system stuff, for instance–I assume they mean, were you in jail or on probation or anything like that; most of the lower class people I knew were law abiding people; just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re a criminal). In comparing my experiences to others, I would add to the list:

    *eating out
    *receiving gifts/toys/clothes/etc other than on gift-giving occasions (birthdays, etc)
    *working to buy your own things (because otherwise you wouldn’t get things like clothes) before the age of 18
    *receiving free lunches at school
    *knowing that your family receives some kind of government assistance
    *going on family vacation
    *parents who worked “third shift”
    *parents helped you with homework

    Again, I would have been far too embarrassed by these questions back then. In fact, I probably would have lied and stepped forward when I shouldn’t have just to keep from being at the bottom.

  13. #13 hip hip array
    January 25, 2008

    If you did not have or father a child while in high school
    If you did not have or father a child while in junior high school
    If you did not have or father a child while in middle school
    If you did not survive 6th grade by stealing 4th graders’ lunch money
    If you had to walk 15 miles through the snow to school, but it was uphill only one way.
    If you had to walk 15 miles through the snow to school, but generally only in winter.
    If you were born before 1970 and your name is Tiffany
    If your family owned either a dachsund or a Mercedes
    If your mother wore leggings into her forties
    If your mother never went grocery shopping in sweatpants
    If you parents gave serious consideration to your stated career goal of “blues man”

  14. #14 Lab Lemming
    January 25, 2008

    Of course, the people most likely to lord their privilege over the hoi polloi are not only the most aware, they are the most obnoxious. Is the purpose of the exercise to turn the middle class into elitist snobs too?

  15. #15 Sis
    January 25, 2008

    Some of these items are dismissive of parental choices too… for example “having a TV in your room in high school”. Some parents, mine included, didn’t think kids should have televisions – we should be doing homework or reading in there!

    Ditto new car ownership. My parents always bought used cars to avoid the markup, though they could probably afford any car.

    A lot of the “old money” kids I grew up with had jobs while in school too. They usually spent their paychecks on weed.

  16. #16 JYB
    January 26, 2008

    @brtkrbzhnv

    No, not everyone has a computer. I teach in the Silicon Valley but in a poor part. Less than 20% of our students (6th-8th grade) have computers and even less than that have internet access.

  17. #17 Heddi
    January 28, 2008

    I spent the whole time putting the kids to bed feeling worked up about this topic. I agree that without a great facilitator, this exercise would seriously backfire. I also agree that I would have lied through my teeth so that I wouldn’t have been left standing practically at the starting match. Now I understand why I didn’t ever live in a dorm (besides a boarding house being cheaper).

    Why not just cut to the chase and find out everyone’s financial aid package (excluding scholarships of merit)? Parents paying for everything and keeping you in a steady flow of spending money? Move to the front. Gotta work or get a small loan to be here? Right here behind those folks. Pretty much on full financial aid/work, but you folks do send you some money every once in a while? Make the next row. Do you have financial aid and have to work just to eat? Next row.

    But then here’s what I would say (in my daydreams while I’m trying to yawn the baby to sleep): People towards the front, you’ve probably got the connections to do what you want after college. But look closely at these people near the back because they are the ones that are so determined and so motivated that they are going to be your best co-workers/board members/managers/etc., and you’d better watch your back if your company is competing against theirs.

    I mean, really, isn’t a college education supposed to be the great equalizer?

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