Confronting a culture of classism at Macalester

Finn Odum

The Macalester rock was papered with Macalester Fund posters from 6:30 pm on Saturday, April 20 to roughly 11:00 am on Monday, April 22. The reasoning was unclear; some whispers claimed it was a protest against the Fund, but others could see it as a statement of support. I’ll be the first to admit it was a confusing action, and I’m the one who did it. But as a second-year at Macalester who had, up until two weeks ago, seen no action against classism at Macalester, I had to do something. I wasn’t arguing that the Fund itself was classist; as the marketing material boldly claimed, the fundraiser is meant to help with financial aid. It does, however, help reinforce a classist culture through its advertising. Taking the posters down and subsequently putting them on the rock was, at the time, the only way I could express my opinion.

I’m frustrated with how the student body treats issues of classism or the prejudice against those from different social classes. When we talk about classism, our discussions tend to fall into one of two categories: classism as an academic topic and classism in other communities. In class, we address the relationship between race and income. In the halls, we complain about schools down the road filled with wealthy students who don’t know about privilege. We bemoan the impacts of gentrification in the Twin Cities and around the world. We talk and study and talk some more, and yet, in all of that, we rarely take a step back to analyze our own community.

In our defense, I’ll note that classism is not as visible as other issues on campus. In addition, there’s a mentality at Macalester that we’re all on financial aid. It’s a dangerous assumption. Some students aren’t on it at all, while others rely on financial aid and still struggle with college expenses. If we group everyone together, we’re further erasing the already thin economic divides on campus.

Visible forms of Macalester classism aren’t hate speech. More often than not, they’re well-intentioned. When it’s talked about academically, it becomes an issue about the “other” people in marginalized neighborhoods and victims of corrupt estates. Our academic bubble separates our classrooms from those neighborhoods. Geographically, we live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in St. Paul. Students look to University Avenue as an example of a lower income neighborhood. A similar problem arises when we talk about classism in social settings. We don’t look down on lower-income students, so how could we be classist? While, yes, we don’t emulate traditional classist behaviors, we perpetuate a classist culture with ignorance.

Macalester students struggle with finances on a day-to-day basis. These students are neitheran “other” separated by a geographic barrier, nor are they a topic for studying. They’re your friends, roommates and students who sit in the same classrooms and strive for similar goals. I am one of these students. I’m still here at Macalester, with the same education as everyone else. I’m not an “other,” and neither are the students around you struggling with the same issues.

We ignore the differences in economic status, basing our perceptions of Macalester’s economic body off of the “everyone’s on financial aid” mentality. It’s true that about 70 percent of Macalester students receive financial aid; however, circumstances differ. We are and we aren’t; while all students with scholarships will need to work off loans, some have sacrificed every penny to go to Macalester.

We ignore that some students cannot afford to casually donate to every cause that places a moral weight on money. We recognize that these functions benefit financial aid, but not that the morality of money puts pressure on students who are already spending everything on living expenses. I won’t beat around the bush here: the language of the Macalester Fund class agent marketing does this. The posters encouraged students to donate to help the future of financial aid. The posters’ language all but says that if you don’t donate, you don’t care about financial aid. This rhetoric needs to stop. There are ways to fundraise without alienating the very students we’re trying to help. We as students at an allegedly liberal institution cannot continue like this.

I do not intend on calling any one person ignorant. Throughout my writing process, I’ve talked about this issue with a number of Macalester students who share this sentiment. The recent resurrection of the Income Inequality Committee is evidence that there is a change coming. What needs to change is how we talk about class on campus. We need to start thinking about the functions of our culture that help perpetuate a classist atmosphere in the classroom and on promotional material. We need to stop blurring the lines of what it means to have financial aid, and what it really means to be low-income. Until the day we as a student body decide to fully look ourselves in the mirror and address this, we’re going to remain blind to our classist campus culture.