Dropping the C-Bomb

When I brought up social class advantages in my classroom at Emory University (one of the colleges that calls itself “the Ivy of the South”), my students got furious. What did I do that got such an angry response? I stated that there were students in the classroom who did not arrive at Emory based on their own merit – that they in fact had help getting in.

I added, “Some of you got into Emory because your parents hired tutors, enrolled you at testing centers, made sure you engaged in the right extracurricular activities, took you on vacations to target places; in short, your parents began preparing you for college at a young age.”

The response to my dropping the C-bomb was fast and furious. They said, forcefully, that they “Worked Hard!” to get into college. Indeed, they did. “But,” I responded, “What an advantage!”

Who was I, they wondered, to say that they hadn’t worked hard for entry into Emory? I never said they didn’t work hard, I said they didn’t do it alone. I suppose this is one of the myths of meritocracy – and of American Individualism – that we make ourselves through our own hard work and sacrifice. I think their sense of accomplishment was jarred. Also, I don’t think they wanted to acknowledge that they had advantages over other students. This, of course, is one of the aspects of class in America that’s so persistent – that we don’t want to talk about class.

At the How Class Works Conference in Stony Brook, New York in June, I attended a presentation by Jill M. Smith of Brandies University entitled “They Come Pre-Packaged”: Independent Educational Consultants and the Reproduction of Class Privilege,” which brought back memories of my livid Emory students. Smith is researching families who hire educational consultants to teach and counsel families about getting accepted into top tier colleges. She described how the consultants inform families about the college-application and entry process such as hiring tutors, taking practice exams, and making sure students engage in the “right” extracurricular activities.

Similar to Smith’s interviewees, a lot of my students arrived at Emory from the Professional Middle Class, many of them coming to Georgia from New York. Many had lived comfortably due to their parents’ occupations such as physicians, attorneys, bankers, etc. These were the kinds of parents who — college-educated themselves — knew the right steps to get their kids into good colleges. These were the kinds of parents who could (and did) hire Educational Consultants to help get their kids into good colleges. These were the kids who grew up with the expectation that they would go to college, if not Ivy League then at least an elite private institution. These were the kids whose eventual entry into college began early in life, even if they weren’t aware of it. These were the kids who grew up with the right social capital for getting into college, even if they didn’t recognize it.

These students either didn’t see their class privilege and how it propelled them to this stage in their lives, or they preferred to ignore it. This “blind spot” gnaws at me because I know there are so many working-class and poor students equally as bright and motivated as these students but they lack the cultural capital needed for entry into the best colleges they could get into. And so goes the reproduction of class privilege in America.

Terry Easton is assistant professor of English in the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts at Gainesville State College. His research and teaching, grounded in working class studies, uses literary, historical, and sociological material to analyze relationships between power and identity categories such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, disability and citizenship. He has published essays and reviews in Hospitality, Southern Spaces, New Labor Forum, Southern Changes, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and Teaching Working Class. His dissertation on Atlanta’s day laborers, Temporary Work, Contingent Lives, won the 2008 Constance Coiner Dissertation Award of the Working Class Studies Association. In addition to holding a firm commitment to bridging the chasm between colleges and communities, he strives to eradicate classism in America.

4 Responses

  1. Christopher Page

    I never understand such a disconnect among the privileged. It seems so obvious and that becomes so frustrating to me. Is there a way to bridge the gap with them?

  2. Marcia Russell

    Since 1983 i had done business abroad covering most of the world except China and Africa. I studied gloabl cultures and learn to speak 3 other languages. I found that most young persons in Europe and the Americas outside of the USA speak English and at least two or more languages of their contiguious countries. Their educaton systems better prepares them and the cost to education is reasonable. The guild system is in fill force in Europe where 16yr old students get schooling for 3 days and work with a industry master for 3 days in special 5-6 yr guild program. Many graduate in jobs/careers making more money then doctors.

    We are sady unuware of the skewed priviledged system we have locked ourselves into,a system that has become its own diminishing return. We are a nation were Boston plays NY and we dare call it the world series ??..Such social nonsense has affected how we connect and relate to one another and ourselves. The students anger bespeaks of disconnect with anger emerging from a myopic hedonism that we have sadly “texted” ourselves into. Drop those agitated students into any non Enlish speaking country and watch most of them unravel not only from lanuage deficientcies but from unawareness of other cultures in a world that is becoming increasingly global.

  3. Well Mr. Easton, I can honestly say I “feel you.” Now you understand (somewhat) what radical feminists face every time we broach the subject of MALE privilege and the male colonization of the feminist movement — which gave us “Third Wave Feminism” and brought us doozies like Hugo Shwyzer, a race and class privileged male who not only is an admitted rapist but also a male who climbed to the pinnacle of his career (on the backs of poor women’s rights activists) as a tenured Women’s Studies professor (who ended up using his position to coerce/manipulate sex with his female students while getting all the honorariums from speaking engagements that should have gone to WOMEN). Of course, to hear Hugo tell it, he “earned” his professorship and all those honorariums.

    And no matter what country, ethnicity or culture, no one is more oppressed by classism than poor women.

    The reproduction of class privilege is really the reproduction of MALE privilege. Many who enjoy class privilege due to their fathers’ inherited wealth (in some cases, going all the way back to the 1600’s) not only fail to see how their great-great-great-great-great granddaddy’s land grant bequeathed by some inbred crowned head in Europe 300 years ago gave them privileges that were passed down that not all immigrants and colonists and their descendents got, they also fail to see that only MALES were given those generous land grants.

    Women’s class privilege was largely determined and allocated by MEN (and still is, for the most part). It is transitory, temporary and 100% controlled and determined by fathers, brothers, husbands and employers (most whom are male) because women were legally nothing but reproductive chattel and sexual commodities — a state that the War on Women returned us to with the 100-plus anti-woman laws passed during the Teahdist takeover of Congress in 2010 and those laws have yet to be repealed.

    Women were not even allowed to have decent jobs, educations, or even custody of their own children that they risked their lives bearing, until the latter half of the 20th century. And even that has been rolled back as the “fathers’ rights” movement resulted in 31 states granting rapists the right to visitation and joint custody while forcing the victims to give birth against their will, no matter the harm to them, because our patriarchal society elected Congressmen who claim that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape” because women’s bodies have a way “to shut that whole thing down.” And nobody really cares about this largest, most oppressed and marginalized group since — in the immortal words of Terry England (R-GA) — women are more like “cows and pigs” than human beings deserving of the same full human and civil rights that are automatically conferred on men.

    In the South after the Civil War throughout the century of Jim Crow, black MALES were allowed to own property, and did: black land ownership amounted to 15 million acres. But it was black MEN who got to own and control that property, not black women. To this day, women of color remain at the bottom of the economic pile and white women are only slightly better off.

    Too often, class privilege serves as a cover for male privilege and as a legitimizer for male supremacy. Women comprise the overwhelming majority of those struggling at or below poverty. Of course, trying to explain all that to your students will likely be less well-received than your explanation of class privilege to them was.

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