By Lina Zhang, V Form
Examining Classism on College Campuses through a Critical Social Justice Lens
This September, New Mexico planned to pass a law that would offer free tuition for its public four-year colleges for all residents of the state. While legislation like this and policies such as affirmative action are increasing education accessibility, the article in The Atlantic questions whether institutions are truly addressing the lives of low-income students after they enter competitive colleges. Through exploring several aspects of campus life, the article exposes the institutional inequalities that low-income students face on campus because of their class status and positionality. When elite colleges fail to provide for the dignified wellbeing of low-income students, they reinforce classism, a complicated and historical system of oppression that manifests itself as internalized sentiments of dominance and oppression and intersects with multiple aspects of racism, doubly disadvantaging low-income students of color.
To begin understanding classism, we must first view classism not only in terms of individuals and anecdotal evidence but through overarching patterns throughout society. In its explanation of oppression, the textbook Is Everyone Really Equal highlights the “pervasive, historical, and political relationships of unequal power among social groups” (Sensoy and DiAngelo 65) that cause the “-isms.” In a capitalistic society like the United States, wealth has always been the clearest determinant of power. As politicians, legislators, CEOs, and—in this case—board members of colleges usually come from the upper class, this contributes to an inclination towards the benefit of the upper class and the institutional oppression of members of the working and lower classes. This perpetuates a social stratification or social hierarchy, wherein different amounts of resources are allocated to different social groups based on a good/bad binary constructed by the dominant group, or the upper class. The article examines several correlations between income and admittance and found that students from the top 1% were 77 times more likely to be admitted to an Ivy League compared to students from low-income families. It also found that, despite policies such as affirmative action, low-income students still overwhelmingly choose to pursue their education at less-selective institutions and colleges even though these institutions offer lower-quality education. As these students will then not be able to progress to a higher social class, the cyclical system contributes to the solidification of social hierarchies and the system of classism.
Even when students are admitted to selective institutions, they experience internalized dominance from their peers and consequently develop internalized oppression. The article cites low-income students feeling that “their place was not earned but is instead an act of charity, that they were given someone else’s spot,” while socioeconomically stable students “rarely experience the same level of skepticism as to whether they have ‘earned’ their place” (Smith). The constant denial and suspicion of low-income students will then affect their academic performance and mental wellbeing on college campuses. This contrast in belief is due to hegemony, or the imposed beliefs of the dominant group. The textbook argues that hegemony “enables domination to occur with the consent of the minoritized group” by emphasizing that minoritized groups “deserve” their lower place and lack of opportunities (Sensoy and DiAngelo 73). To justify this hegemony, many in the dominant group employ the ideology of meritocracy, the reinforced belief that everyone worked equally hard to attain their social position. Though low-income students went through the same process of applying, they are perceived as relying on affirmative action and financial aid, policies that appear to give them an advantage. In reality, their peers have also received greater and constant privileges that accompany their middle- or upper-class status. Nevertheless, through these messages, low-income students also internalize and normalize feelings of oppression. As one student noted in the article, “I was ashamed of what I was coming from” (Smith). By concealing themselves within hegemony and normalization, internalized feelings of oppression and dominance reinforce the class hierarchy and discourage people from recognizing and acting against oppressive systems.
While classism is a pervasive and encompassing system of oppression, it rarely acts alone. In real life, multiple “-isms” other than classism may be influencing a person. The textbook uses the metaphor of a birdcage to describe the privileges and difficulties caused by the intersection of a person’s identity. When we only examine one aspect of oppression, we cannot see the entire birdcage, constructed of “interlocking pattern[s]” and “systematically related barriers” that restrict the bird (Sensoy and DiAngelo 70). As such, it is important to consider the influence of other forms of oppression. The article specifically mentions racism as another barrier for low-income students of color. When students stood in line for financial aid, the article pointed out that “the Scholarship Plus line was made up of mostly students who were black and Latino,” students of color who already experience racism (Smith). In another example where students from low-income families could clean rooms of other students to earn wages, a student stated that his Latino identity would reinforce negative stereotypes about his race when he was already navigating the difficulties of his class identity (Smith). Racism is not the only additional form of oppression that can influence low-income students: depending on the positionality of the student, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and many more “-isms” may also influence them. Just as a birdcage, oppression acts in multiple ways on an individual, and to only observe and attribute one factor, such as classism, is to ignore all other forms of oppression that an individual experiences. The truth is that as long as we are a capitalistic society, classism will always exist. However, it does not mean we cannot work towards reducing the effects of oppression. Just as New Mexico offered free four-year college to all students, reducing tuition for selective colleges can be a key first step in achieving educational equality. Increasing governmental funding towards community colleges and for-profit colleges with concentrations of low-income students can also improve the quality of education they will receive. Drawing from examples in the article, opening college cafeterias during vacations to accommodate low-income students, combining lines and creating other methods of identification for financial aid, and creating separate job opportunities for low-income students are all methods to combat stigma and discrimination faced by individuals. Nevertheless, we must constantly work to counter forces of classism and other forms of oppression faced by everyone in order to maintain social justice and equity. As the textbook states, “to choose not to act against injustice is to choose to allow it” (Sensoy and DiAngelo xxiv).
Lina Zhang is a V form boarding student from Beijing, China, who now lives in Southborough. In her free time, she enjoys baking, writing, and walking two hours for Starbucks.
Sensoy, Özlem and DiAngelo, Robin. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education. Teachers College Press, 2017.
Smith, Clint. “Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong.” The Atlantic, 18 Mar. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/03/privileged-poor-navigating-elite-university-life/585100/. Accessed 9 December 2019.