I was born and raised in New England, half Jewish, half WASP. Went to the same prep school as my grandmother, and the same college as my great-grandfather. I ended up in graduate school for sociology, with a specialization in class + race + gender inequalities. I heard the occasional call for studying the unmarked side of those hierarchies (rich / white / men). I thought, “I could do that – those are my people.”
And so I embarked on a dissertation project interviewing members of exclusive private country clubs. They too are acquainted with these inequalities. They are also aware that to be exclusive is to be controversial.
So, in the course of discussions, club members either deny that they do any excluding, or they justify what they do. The justifications take several forms:
- “I only belong to the club for the sports”;
- “Club membership makes parenting easier, and it’s good for my children”;
- “It’s normal to choose to socialize with people with similar cultural capital”;
- “This is just how it’s always been”;
- “Other people do the excluding, not me”;
and as a last resort:
- “It is our legal right to offer new memberships selectively and subjectively”.
Those are the justifications, but there is also denial. In one memorable exchange, a club member pointed out that the dues were simply comparable to renting a beach house:
Steve: “It’s not inexpensive to be a member. By the same token, if you’re renting a summer house for a couple of weeks someplace, my guess is it’s about the same, not dissimilar from that, plus —”
Steve: “We’re talking about $5,000 a year. You rent a nice house someplace, you’re talking about $2,000 to $3,000 a week, so probably not much different than that, so you put your money where you want to get your most pleasure.”
The club member’s vision of the class structure is truncated, legless.
Like exclusive neighborhoods (and schools and churches and hobbies and so on), the clubs help to insulate their members and make their social lives homogeneous. As a consequence, club members see nothing special about their economic and social capital, because everyone around them seems to be similarly situated.
It’s ironic that a well-known club in New England is called Myopia. A typical critique of exclusive clubs is that members hoard valuable networking opportunities, and that’s accurate. But also, club members’ myopia (nearsightedness) about the class structure is harmful, to people on both sides of the guarded walls.
Jessica Holden Sherwood, Ph.D., is Executive Officer of Sociologists for Women in Society. This post is adapted from her new book, Wealth, Whiteness, and the Matrix of Privilege: The View from the Country Club.