On Class

by Holly Fetter, ’13

As soon as the word “privilege” entered my vocabulary, I found myself unpacking an inundation of knapsacks filled with the stuff, frantically trying to unlearn 16 years of internalized racism, ableism, classism… My white identity was the easiest to grapple with because it was the most visible. So I spent (and am still spending) years reading, talking, and writing about whiteness so that I could begin to feel more comfortable living with the tension of being white in the United States.

But class was a different story. I didn’t want to even acknowledge my class identity because it made me feel guilty and ashamed. I worried about the (usually correct) assumptions that wealth carried with it, as well as how it might undermine my credibility as a budding activist. In high school, I avoided the topic altogether, choosing to make friends with other affluent kids because it felt a lot simpler. Class was apparent there – we knew what kind of cars our classmates’ had (or didn’t have), what their houses were like, and what their parents’ jobs were.

At Stanford, however, my class identity was a lot easier to hide. Suddenly, I was 1,700 miles away from my family, in a place where I magically became a “student” – a socioeconomic status that connoted egalitarianism and bean and cheese burritos at Treehouse. It’s easy for some people to hide behind this false class identity, especially students with wealth. We don’t need to confront class if we don’t want to. Our identity as “students” helps us hide our economic privilege, but it doesn’t erase it. And often, our class status doesn’t change much between The Farm and home.

But I’ve decided to come out of the class closet, and acknowledge my privilege and complicity as a part of the 1%. This process hasn’t been a particularly easy one, but it’s crucial to my development as an activist, an ally, and a friend. Because here’s what I know now: we cannot afford to hide our class identities. It’s destructive to our peers and colleagues as class privilege manifests itself in subtle but violent ways. Here are some examples that might resonate with you, based on a list provided by Resource Generation, a grassroots organization devoted to organizing young people with wealth to leverage resources for social change.

You’re abusing class privilege when…

  • You always insist on being in charge of a group, meeting, or conversation.
  • You are flakey and unreliable because you have yet to internalize the importance of dependence and commitment to a community or cause.
  • You assert that your politics are the best politics and that everyone else is wrong, without taking into account the importance of context and privilege in shaping one’s worldview.
  • You use your skills rooted in privilege (i.e., access to education and connections) to contribute to others’ projects and campaigns, but then insist on taking all the credit.
  • You assume that your degree from Stanford makes you an expert on the lives of others.
  • You see a problem and assume that you can fix it without consulting those affected by the problem itself.
  • You put too much emphasis on the importance of academic debate and analysis when contemplating a community’s issues.
  • You put yourself at the center of your work, which manifests itself in your actions in group spaces – you walk in and out of meetings as you please, you disrupt the space by leaving early or arriving late, or you make decisions about your life based on what’s best for you, and not for the community of which you want to be a part.
  • You undervalue or deride the expression of emotion by those affected by oppression.
  • You organize an event with a theme or activity that might make others uncomfortable. For example, a dorm meeting that is “homeless people”-themed, thus alienating invitees who feel connected to the experience of being unhoused. (This was actually going to be the theme of my freshman dorm house meeting one week…).

These are only a few manifestations of class privilege that can and must be unlearned if we are to work in solidarity across class barriers. And we must create movements that incorporate a variety of disparate political and personal perspectives (and thus a variety of class experiences) in order to successfully challenge and reimagine power. But one of the biggest struggles for privileged people is learning the value of interdependence. We have been socialized to believe that being independent is crucial to our success, and that our wealth allows us to be perpetually unrooted and unaccountable for our actions. By building honest relationships across class identities, we can begin to transform the problematic construction of “community” among the 1%, challenging dominant values of independence and competition that are at the foundation of the U.S.’ hypercapitalist culture.

This process may sound impossible, but it’s not. At Stanford, we’re surrounded by students from a variety of class backgrounds. Don’t be afraid to make friends outside your socioeconomic status. Visit spaces and events that make you uncomfortable. Have the hard conversations about your role as a privileged person in whatever movement you’re a part of. Engage with the Stanford First-Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP), and build community around socioeconomic experiences. A few months ago, I attended a special version of Crossing the Line that was centered around class, and I was the only person who crossed the line when upper-class identity was mentioned. In the debrief that followed, folks were both surprised and grateful that someone who didn’t identify as low income showed up at the event. This reaction was frustrating, because it shouldn’t be a big deal if someone with class privilege shows up at a conversation about class privilege. As with privilege based on race, gender, or sexual orientation, we often assume that if we’re in the advantaged group, we don’t have to talk about it. But that ignorance reflects a damaging sense of superiority and innocence. It’s everyone’s responsibility to talk about class.

Last week, Salon published a profile on Leah Hunt-Hendrix, the granddaughter of a billionaire who has immersed herself in Occupy Wall Street. The article left me feeling conflicted, but she shared a few pieces of wisdom that I appreciated. One came from her thoughts on supporting the 99%: “There are two aspects to solidarity… One is standing with others and the other is an awareness of one’s own complicity in systems of oppression.” Aside from her use of ableist language, I like this quote. I think it speaks to the important part of privilege that we often overlook. As the 1%, we can’t deny the fact that we are benefitting from a system of inequality, a vast understatement that most of us would rather ignore. Instead of acknowledging and interrogating this experience, though, I see a lot of my wealthy peers try to escape their social positions by dressing like hipsters or living in co-ops. But when you hide behind a bohemian lifestyle, you aren’t building cross-class alliances or breaking down class barriers. We must own up to our privilege and begin to critically examine it so that we can move toward realizing justice in an empowering interpersonal and structural way.

The thing that leaves me feeling unsettled by the Salon profile is that there’s no perspective from the 99%. There’s no one but ourselves checking us on our privilege, and that can be destructive. Yes, having safe, homogeneous communities can be valuable when we begin our exploration of our privileged identities. But there needs to be space for us to work with others and get pushback for our implicit classism. When we get in these therapeutic spaces centered around self-congratulatory storytelling, we lose our effectiveness as allies. So I want to leave this post open to your criticism and questions. And I want to share some of my own as well: how (if at all!) can people with class privilege be in solidarity with those without it? Can we be authentically engaged with grassroots organizing? What does it mean to go from OWS during the week to a yacht on the weekend, as was the experience of Ms. Hunt-Hendrix? Can we benefit from economic injustice while fighting against it?

For now, I’m going to work on alleviating the side effects of my class privilege. If you’ve ever worked with me, you know I have a lot to fix. I’m going to be more honest and vulnerable with others, and continue to engage with conversations around class at Stanford. I only wish that I’d come out sooner, but part of class privilege is the privilege not to have to acknowledge it. I regret the countless microaggressions that my friends and classmates must have dealt with as I clumsily negotiated these cross-class relationships over the years, wondering why it took them so long to trust me. But now, I understand that I have a responsibility to enable trust and solidarity to develop within my friendships, and that I can’t expect that process to be quick or simple. I’ve finally learned to be okay with feeling awkward and ignorant, because that discomfort is productive.

Holly is a junior majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity with a focus on intersectionality. Talk to her at hfetter@stanford.edu.

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12 thoughts on “On Class

  1. – “You put too much emphasis on the importance of academic debate and analysis when contemplating a community’s issues.”
    – “You undervalue or deride the expression of emotion by those affected by oppression.”

    Holly, you raise these two vaguely insulting points about lower-class folk that seem to be a product of a sadly myopic understanding of “oppression”. For one, you seem to suggest that those belonging to underprivileged classes lack the faculty or capacity to navigate situations through healthily rational means, a concept founded in paternalistic conceptions of our nation’s complex class framework. Your response to Sceth merely demonstrates further that you lack a coherent thesis on what is potentially destructive about these hyper-academic contexts and the conversations that follow, other than the fact that operating within these contexts reinforces a greater societal disconnect between the privileged academic elite and the institutionally disenfranchised. Yet this is absolutely not a problem, I think, that can be solved by simply “unlearning” these potentially productive methods of approaching problems.

    Is emotionally-driven discussion really a plausible alternative to academic debate? When has “academic debate” produced actively negative results? I look to the Fadi Quran debacle, Vaid-Menon vs. Cardona, etc. and it seems to me that the more articulate members of those sides – regardless of my own political leanings – have won out, and that is because those viewpoints presented more than histrionic emotionalism but instead married such expression to cogent, tangible reason. To participate in academic debate is not to discount or betray emotion.

    You also seem to suggest that historically oppressed peoples – socioeconomically, that is – are too stupid to function within the realm of reasonable dialogue, and that we must resort to this more pure “way of the people” to engage in favorable discussion. You regard those who belong to lower classes as emotionally visceral beings (and nothing but, which is something of a gross generalization) who have no capacity to think things through. Perhaps, you say, this is because they do not have the educational tools to do so. But you fail to define what is fundamentally wrong with having these tools beyond the fact that they are symptomatic of a privileged space we inhabit. I find the Socratic methods of students in this so-called privileged university space, rooted in a very salient philosophical tradition, much more conducive to effecting change (or, at the very least, engaging in productive discussion about it), and to criticize that seems somewhat puzzling to me.

    I have seen this kind of vague characterization of “class oppression” by many students at Stanford, a roughly colonialist conception of the ways of the proletariat as viscerally emotional. And to prioritize “emotion” over the rational – opinions that can be supported by mature, thoughtful reason in addition a raw authenticity of feeling – is a painfully simplistic concept.

    • Holly says:

      Of course I’m not saying that low income people are “too stupid to function within the realm of reasonable dialogue.” I’m saying that to prioritize academic discourse over emotional responses, often ignoring the validity of emotion, is a side effect of class privilege.

      • You’ve made those points very clear in your article, but I’d like a tangible response to my contentions, which have to do with the assumptions you make about academic discourse in privileged spaces and how this particular breed of discourse differs from that of people in inherently underprivileged spaces. The way in which you characterize academic discourse implies that it is fundamentally divorced from expression of emotion. Yet the academic discourses I, at least, have encountered with regards to our nation’s socioeconomic problems hardly ever disregard or abstract this kind of emotion, instead showing a respectful consideration for it with regards to a proposed solution towards which we argue.

        Though I understand your claims, it is not as if well-constructed academic arguments are unemotional, remote treatises completely devoid of nuance. That we should somehow shirk such complex methods of dialogue and instead resort to strict emotionalism with regards to expressing our passion doesn’t seem like a particularly solid point to me, and it is, as I have written before, rooted in an overwhelmingly simplistic conception of the disenfranchised. You haven’t articulated the perceived value of emotionally-driven discourse clearly, and that is where you’ve lost me as a reader.

      • Holly says:

        Once again, I’m not saying that academic responses are necessarily unemotional, I’m saying that some can be, and an overemphasis on the importance of such academic debate can be a result of one’s privilege in their access to academic theories/discourses and their ability to intellectualize personal issues.

    • esqg says:

      I’m not sure why you think “academic debate” is the same as “reasonable dialogue”. I’ve had some excellent “reasonable discussions” about class, and race at the same time, with no academic-style expectations, in large and small groups under “safe space” guidelines, where each person was expected to speak once until everyone had a say. It didn’t much matter how they said it, because everyone was listening. Many of these statements were emotionally loaded, but they and the follow-up conversations they started were incredibly enlightening, and the results made it much easier for me to process, and to critique, academic-style writing that I then read on the same subjects. I don’t know if you know Janani Bala (it seems everyone does?), but perhaps you can ask her about anti-oppression training she’s done, which similarly created settings where emotion and individual experiences can be expressed as part of a constructive conversation.

      The point of the original quotes is not that academic discussion isn’t ever useful, and I certainly hope nobody thinks something like “well we can’t expect people to be able to participate in academic dialogue if they didn’t grow up with money”. But class-and-education-privileged people seem to find it easy to recognize that emotions can bias one’s perspective and make it hard to give reasonable arguments, yet we may fail to recognize that a desire to make everything theoretical, abstract, and focus only on the quantitative evidence that enough people have already decided to research in academic style, is also a bias. So, in most any context of privilege/oppression you can find privileged people demanding “provide me large quantitative evidence that’s already been gathered by academics, or I refuse to learn or care about your life and others like you”.

  2. Sceth StXellus says:

    (Typos corrected)

    Your class privilege list includes two items that confuse me a bit.

    > You put too much emphasis on the importance of academic debate and analysis when contemplating a community’s issues.

    > You undervalue or deride the expression of emotion by those affected by oppression.

    They’re both a tad complicated by their relativity – you say “put too much emphasis” and “undervalue,” as opposed to “emphasize” or “deprioritize.” Not everyone affected by oppression reacts emotionally in response, and even those that do can also provide more productive data. Apart from data collection, do you perceive any value in the expression of emotion by those affected by oppression?

    The former point is a bit more troubling. Academic debate and analysis usually construct a highly effective framework from which to address oppressive systems, and avoiding the necessary nuances in maneuvering a solution is a tactic that lends itself to derailment or pushing an extra agenda that is either concealed or unstated. What is “too much emphasis” on academic debate and analysis?

    • Holly says:

      Hey Sceth,

      I think too many people try to intellectualize stuff in order to ignore and belittle those who come from a place of a visceral, emotional reaction to a situation without having access to the academic language and frameworks to analyze that experience… The ability to articulate oneself and rely on complex theories comes from the privilege to a) obtain an education and b) use that education to study another person’s life without sharing their lived experience. By relying too much on academic responses to someone’s emotional reaction, we assume the role of disconnected experts on a person’s life, and that can be seriously destructive to those who create and share knowledge that can’t be found in academic journals. Does that make sense?


  3. Miranda says:

    Thank you for writing this!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    I appreciate this article very much. You have hit upon many sentiments that I myself feel as a white, wealthy Stanford student. The discomfort you’ve identified with building “cross-class” relationships” resonates with my own experience.
    However, I do not agree with what you expressed here:
    “But when you hide behind a bohemian lifestyle, you aren’t building cross-class alliances or breaking down class barriers.”

    I huge part of coming to Stanford has been shedding the consumerist culture of my hometown. I may dress differently now and I may want to live in a co-op but I hardly feel that is something to criticize. Furthermore, I tire of the constant criticism of people like myself engaging in “bohemian” culture. To accuse me of not breaking down class barriers through this choice seems unreasonable. Would you prefer I remain in a privileged enclave and dress in Prada? It seems I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Perhaps you could extend some advice to a fellow 1%er. How do I navigate this kind of class privilege? I realize you may not have a complete answer but I am curious to hear what you have to say.

    • Holly says:

      I’m glad to hear that most of what I said resonated with you. In response to your question, I’m not saying that living in co-ops or dressing “differently” is something inherently problematic – I’ve lived in Terra and I’m not one to rock designer labels. My point was that it’s useless to make those lifestyle changes without educating yourself about class privilege and then acting on that increased consciousness. It seems that people seeking “alternative” styles and surroundings are often trying to erase their class identities, but that’s an impossible (and destructive) task. What do you think?

      • Anonymous says:

        Ah yes I agree. There is an unfortunate tendency for people to feel as if they have accomplished something simply by choosing an “alternative” lifestyle but, like you said, it must be accompanied with attempts to engage in dialogue surrounding this uncomfortable topic.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is great, Holly!

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