Every winter, Yale’s campus is filled with flocks of Canada Goose jackets, those obscenely expensive parkas that appear just after each snowfall. When I first saw them two years ago, I could not believe that anyone would pay so much for something so frivolous. Like many first years, I was shocked. But I have since realized that that is all it is: culture shock.
I would like to think that people as open-minded and inclusive as Yalies would embrace an unfamiliar culture like this, but in my experience, we do not. We question whether our privileged peers really deserved to get in. We make assumptions about the moral character of wealthy students without having met them. And, because we’ve received an Ivy League education, we know enough to use at least the semblance of logic to justify these attacks.
Surprisingly, despite the vitriol aimed at the privileged, our discussions of the underprivileged are remarkably empathetic. The common refrain is that the students with privilege must work to understand the experiences of students without it. I wholeheartedly agree; in addition to monetary challenges, poorer students often struggle to fit in to a society where so many of their peers come from enormous wealth. There is social friction when, for instance, they must refuse invitations to get late night food because they cannot afford it. So, as the countless columns and Facebook posts say, it would be a great help to underprivileged students if their peers were more aware and understanding of their situation.
The wealthy need this kind of support, too. For instance, last summer, two friends of mine found themselves in New York City. One day, one texted the other asking where she was, and the other responded that she was at such-and-such private club. It was a purely utilitarian statement, meant only to communicate a location, but the first friend got mad, thinking the other was bragging. The privileged among us experience an unrelenting, hidden struggle. They must sanitize discussions about their everyday lives of any mention of wealth and incur the ire of their peers whenever they slip up.
Empathy is never a bad idea, but selective empathy is. In our campus discussions of privilege, there is a conspicuous absence of reciprocal calls for empathy for the wealthy. It implies by omission that the privileged neither need nor deserve the same from the underprivileged and feeds an attitude of self-centeredness and a culture of isolation.
Because the group toward which we are hostile is ambiguously defined, it makes us all a little paranoid. Everyone has a different idea of what the threshold for excessive privilege is, and, while each of us may fall below his or her own standard, we all fear crossing someone else’s.
“Does this Apple computer mark me as an elitist?” we ask ourselves. Would my friends think I deserve my spot here if they knew my parents hired tutors for me?
In a larger sense, however, discussing disparities of privilege at Yale misses the point. As Yale students, we all now have unparalleled social capital and high earning potential. Whether or not we were poor and underprivileged before, we probably will no longer be so. It turns out that a Yale degree that costs upward of a quarter of a million dollars and takes years of hard work to obtain is actually quite valuable.
We cannot unlearn a Yale education and, once we possess it, cannot refuse to use it. I used to tell myself that I would not spend the money from a high-paying job on expensive and frivolous things, but I already have. It’s human nature to splurge at least a little when given the chance. And even the most iron-willed among us will have no choice but to exercise their privilege once they have children. Being a parent sometimes requires that we use our privilege to give our children certain advantages in life. Sure, I may not give my kids extrinsic privilege, like a six-figure allowance, or buy them Yale acceptance letters for their first birthdays, but, to be a good parent, I must impart meaningful, intrinsic traits to them. For example, I believe that writing is one of the most important skills a person can have, so I will teach my kids what I know. But in doing so, I will give them the advantages I gained from studying English at Yale.
A Yale education irreversibly alters both our social positions and our minds. We are now the privileged few, and their lifestyles will soon be ours. Empathy for the privileged is necessary if we are ever to accept our own futures. We must master the disdain we feel upon seeing someone in a Canada Goose jacket, for, if we lift up the fur-lined hood, we will find ourselves.
Kathan Roberts is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org