Today I had one of the most meaningful conversations that I’ve ever had at Carleton. It took place in my Conversations About Diversity and Community class. It’s a student-facilitated class that meets to talk about issues like race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. They just started the class this year, in response to feedback and surveys that revealed that Carleton wasn’t as integrated and community-like as it is often purported to be.
We talked about class today. We started with an activity requiring us to describe the class that we came from, not in terms of upper, upper-middle, middle, or low class, but in terms of concrete things that your class status enabled you to do. We had to finish this statement “I come from the class that _____”. We did it twice – the first, in relation to our families, the second, in relation to Carleton. Example statements would be things like “I come from the class that takes regular family vacations by airplane” or “I come from the class that requires my parents to work long hours”. And at Carleton, “I come from the class that worries about the cost of textbooks” or “I come from the class that can afford to send me to Carleton without financial aid”. (Yeah, the syntax is weird, but that’s unimportant.)
When I was doing the reading in preparation for today’s class, as well as writing my journal assignment, I found that I had a lot of trouble thinking about class. All these issues we talk about, really; they aren’t things that we really talk about in Singapore – at least not in my circles of family/friends. We were supposed to write about our coming to class consciousness. When did we realize that class mattered? Or that classes existed, and we were in a certain class? I wrote a bunch of things down, but I still felt like I was missing something, like I wasn’t fully engaging with this issue as much as I would like to.
At the end of class, we were shown a powerpoint presentation of anonymous statements that students at Carleton had made. The statements included things like:
“I can’t bring myself to date this girl that I really like, because her dad is rich. My family makes less than $20,000 a year; her dad would never trust me to take care of her.”
“I have to work 15 hours this term because I studied abroad last term. I can’t keep up with it all, but if I don’t find a way, I have to leave Carleton.”
“I had to quit my sports team because they travelled to places I couldn’t afford, and Carleton doesn’t help pay for any of the travel.”
“I have to go home every weekend to work at my parents’ restaurant. They need me.”
“Sometimes I wonder why I came to Carleton when I can’t even afford the $600 insurance…even with loans.”
“I don’t own a laptop. Why pay for that when Carleton has so many I can use for free?”
“People are always telling me “Suck it up and pay for texting!” but I can’t afford it. I’m already paying the bill for my little sister’s texting because my mom can’t afford it.”
“I am getting tired of acting like I have money. Every weekend I go to the Cow with friends, and every weekend I have to ask my older sister for money.”
“My professor doesn’t understand that when he asks us to pay him back for the magazines he buys the class each week, I have to skip a meal to have the money to give him. I wish he’d stop buying these magazines!”
“My friends tell me to Skype my parents if I’m worried about the cost of phone bills. I wouldn’t dream of telling them that my family lives abroad in a small town with no computers.”
I nearly cried.
I guess I’d always sort of recognized class differences between friends and myself back home…it’s just weird to think about it so explicitly in terms of “class”. But definitely, like…I didn’t have to deal with the additional worry of not being able to go to a college I got accepted to, on top of the stress of applying to colleges. I can afford to eat out and to splurge every once in awhile. I can afford to eat off-campus and to buy groceries to cook for myself even though I’m on the meal plan. I can afford to waste some of my meals from the meal plan. I can afford to fly home every break, and even do additional travelling. I can do so many things that I take for granted.
I thought also about when I’m on the other end of the spectrum, with friends who are much richer than I am. The tension of not wanting to spend $10 on a typical meal, yet wanting to spend that time with them. I think that’s why I felt so sad while I was reading the statements. So many of them expressed that awkwardness, and that feeling of needing to act like you have money when you don’t. It shouldn’t be like that. Neither should there be this huge inequality, but it’s a million times worse when that inequality exists and you are disadvantaged by it, but you can’t even admit to being disadvantaged and ask for help.
The entire class I was struggling with my own class identity and feeling caught between two ends. I think I fall somewhere in the middle… The Methodist Church doesn’t exactly pay very highly, yet I know that I have a very successful, well-known and well-off grandfather, who is not stingy about money at all. There is such a great tendency to want to put myself in a group and identify with one group, but in so many parts of my life, I feel like I fall in the middle. I straddle two worlds. And maybe that’s a good thing. Otherwise, I find myself wanting to take on their struggles as legitimately my own, which would enable me to complain and mourn in self-pity or to strike back in anger and injustice. Getting defensive and saying, “No, I’m not rich… Stop making assumptions…”, yet knowing that I am a lot more well-off than many. And on the other end, feeling so much less well-off and wanting to identify myself as on the poorer side, yet knowing that I am still very very much distant from poor.
So how do you deal with that? I think it just calls for being thankful. No matter which side you’re dealing with, whether you’re the richest in the group, or the poorest, just being thankful for what you have. Because that’s all that we can ask for. I read somewhere (I think it was “Crazy Love”), recently, that we don’t have the right to ask God questions. We like to ask Him why there’s so much suffering in the world, why there’s so much inequality, why our friend had to die, why that innocent man got cancer… But God has His reasons why. We respond with praise, with thanksgiving, with trust, with faith, with love.
So today, I am overwhelmingly thankful for what I have. I grieve at the injustice in the world, so I’m asking…What can I do about it, God?
This song is called Ain’t No Reason. I don’t necessarily agree with that – there is a reason, as mentioned above. We just don’t get to know it sometimes. But the song is still great.