Having grown up poor, nobody taught me which fork to use, which wine glass was “correct” and whether the bread plate goes on the right or left. I remember being invited to dinner by some of the old guard in my neighborhood and, in the midst of my brilliant small talk, grabbing the wrong glass of wine. A lovely woman to my left whispered in my ear, “That’s my glass. Yours is to the right.” My small talk may not have been as fascinating as I thought either.
It’s one thing for a poor black kid with huge potential to get into an elite college like Harvard, but there’s a good chance he’s not going to know which fork to use either.
Within that cohort, he documented separate groups: the “privileged poor,” who had gained access to day, boarding, or prep schools that introduced them to the social norms and academic culture of elite higher education (for example, making use of office hours); and the “doubly disadvantaged,” whose path led from under-resourced public schools into an often bewildering environment on campus. For the latter group, that transition risked making the very students the colleges had recruited feel vulnerable and alienated, and thus more exposed to academic failure.
There’s a huge socialization aspect to transitioning from Jenny on the Block to Master of the Universe. Some learn it at home. Some at prep school. Some only find out when their application to the Supper Club is met with sniffles.
I remember Dr. SJ and I overhearing at a charity gala a blond woman of indeterminate age mutter, “look at her shoes, they’re so . . . trendy. She not our kind.” It was at that moment that Dr. SJ, who grew up poor like me, realized three things. First, that we were not their “kind.” Second, that they were not the kind of people we wanted to be like. Third, that they wore unattractive shoes.
The world of the elite is, in pointlessly snobby ways and in substantive ways, remarkably myopic and unforgiving.
Beyond the weight of this existential fear, there are the indignities that come from institutional thoughtlessness:
- closing dining halls, except for athletes, during spring break—leaving hungry low-income students, who can’t afford to travel home, to resort to food banks—and even encouraging young women to risk pursuing dates in the hope of getting a meal (“treating Tinder as if it were Open Table”);
- having to pick up college-subsidized tickets to campus events in a separate line; or
- working on a dorm crew cleaning peers’ bathrooms, because the job pays better than research assistantships—but missing out on the networking opportunities with faculty members those positions enable, and hearing from a fellow student, “I don’t want to get you in trouble or anything, but you missed a spot. Next time can you scrub under the toilet?”
It sucks to go hungry at an elite school because no one there grasps that the money you don’t have, you never had, you still don’t have when the dining hall is closed and you’ve got no money to buy food. But then there’s the banal tete-a-tete discussions with your roomie, Biff or Muffy, in the dorm.
Those experiences often coincide with the prevailing campus climate of “peers in the dorm [who] swap tales of excursions to Bali and extravagant purchases” of luxury clothing that are utterly outside the lives of their now-classmates who may remain enmeshed in “[p]roblems at home with their families and friends—typically some combination of evictions, convictions, and violence…”: the antithesis of a bank of social capital upon which to draw.
When your buddy from class mentions she just got a Birkin for her birthday from daddy, do you reply that daddy managed not to get evicted last month? It makes for awkward friendships.
The practical weight of his research is that institutions that have made it their business to effect such diversity also have to recognize that access is not inclusion.
Should every poor kid, every “diversity” admission, get a copy of Emily Post so they know how to navigate the social scene without grabbing the wrong wine glass? Or should elite ettiquette be eradicated in the name of inclusion? It’s a far bigger issue than the petty snobbishness of the elite, as knowing which fork to use doesn’t put food on the table.
Nor is the solution to eradicate all the vestiges of wealth, both because people are entitled to enjoy the bounty provided them and the finer things in life should be appreciated. If no one appreciates Ch. Haut Brion, then we would be left to swill Mad Dog 20/20.
But at the same time, plucking the unwashed from the ghetto to Winthrop House is only one step in the battle, akin to throwing them into the deep end of the old guard pool without a life preserver. It’s not going to work. It’s a recipe for failure.
Providing access to the world of the elite isn’t the same as equipping people to survive a world where you don’t speak the language of the wealthy. If you’re going to be all “diversity and inclusion,” then at least give people a chance to succeed before you pat yourselves on the back for being woke enough to tolerate someone wearing trendy shoes.