In my last column, I argued that we need to talk about class. If you read it, consider this a follow-up. If you haven’t read it, know that I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. Regardless, I’ll summarize: America has a particularly anemic language for talking about class. Yale students are no exception. I pointed out that many Yalies — especially those towards the top — have an unfounded predilection for calling themselves middle class, but the conversation can’t end there. Of course, talking about class is never easy, and conversations are rarely wrapped in the tidy bow of an answer. Even my surface-level article from last week left me with a bunch of unanswered questions (and I wrote it!): What is class anyway? What’s the big deal with that one in the middle? The most important of those questions, though, is: What now? In lieu of sharpening the guillotines, I want to put forth a few thoughts on how we can talk about class, how we can work together to start making sense of the world around us.
1) Start with the mirror.
Examine your own positionality here. Ask yourself: What is class? Where do I fall in this system? Do I feel that that descriptor — whatever it may be — actually encapsulates me? Try it now, I’ll be here when you get back. The point is not to grill yourself on whether you remember that one Marx reading you did a year ago. The point is to tease out your implicit biases, positions and beliefs. You’re alive, so — whether from the top, the bottom or somewhere in between — you’ve definitely experienced and interacted with class in some shape or form. Whether you’re aware of them or not, those implicit sentiments will manifest in how you talk about class, and being aware of them helps you understand what you know and what you’ve yet to learn.
2) Know that no one is out to get you.
In talking to friends of the wealthier persuasion, I’ve noticed that, whenever I bring up class, the reluctant admissions of wealth, of privilege, of status become shrouded in a subtle tinge of shame. Sure, you have a trust fund and went to a day school. But, we all have clean water and beds to sleep in at night. In the grand scheme of things, we are all so extremely privileged. No one is blaming you for being born into fortunate circumstances, just don’t pretend you weren’t. We are all so implicated in privilege and oppression. Don’t be afraid to be called out, don’t be afraid to call others out — just remember why we’re talking in the first place.
3) Listen for nuance.
The most important thing you can do when talking about class is to know when not to talk. We each come from backgrounds with unique advantages and unique challenges. We can never understand the totality of each other’s trajectories, and class is not a totalizing descriptor.
So, don’t treat every conversation as an opportunity to extrapolate, to flatten until it’s easy to understand. Be comfortable with the difficulty of the stories around you, and give dignity and attention to those who are willing to share.
4) Look for the symbols.
For every shameful admission of wealth, there are 10 blatant displays of it. Somewhere between the first and 9,000th joke about Canada Goose jackets we’ll all inevitably hear in a few weeks when the leaves turn brown, we seem to forget that Canada Goose jackets literally run for upwards of a thousand dollars. Forty percent of Americans can’t come up with 400 dollars in an emergency, 78 percent of US workers live paycheck to paycheck. Thousand-dollar jackets are not normal. From fancy clothes to perfect straight teeth, we carry with us our backgrounds, our trajectories, the artifacts of our class positions. The symbols we surround ourselves with say a lot about the systems that encode them with meaning, so don’t be afraid to pick at them.
5) Don’t worry too much about the numbers.
Class is a mercurial thing. It means different things to different people in different places. And Yale has a lot of different people from a lot of different places. It’s tempting to try and pin class to a single metric, but there’s a reason this column doesn’t come with a cheat sheet. Talking about class is not about answers or diagnosing your friends with affluenza or finding the exact income level that qualifies you as middle class. Income is a particularly seductive metric, and yet it fails to account for the visible and invisible manifestations of privilege that are just as important. Class is about trajectories, it’s about stories — especially those without a thesis.
6) Don’t let syllables steal your words from you.
Those who have the most to say about class are typically those who grew up without the academic language to discuss it. Don’t let a lack of theory, a lack of technical “knowledge” about class, stop you from expressing that which you have lived, from the arguments you did not start. Knowledge is all made up, anyway, right? Seriously, to students of color, to first-generation students, to gender-minority students, to low income students, to students who have been historically told that their ideas and words don’t matter, don’t discount what you know, what you have known and felt your entire life. It’s not your job to educate others, but don’t doubt for a second that your voice matters.
So, in sum: the first step in trying to talk about class is to try. If these tips seem banal — be considerate, be vulnerable, listen, pay attention and be open to learning — it’s because they are. It shouldn’t be surprising that what makes for good dinner time discussion can also make for productive dialogue on class. Class is not some negative space in the back of our psyches, it’s not a black hole of ideology and terminology. Class hangs over all that we do, all that we think, all that we say. Try to notice its shadow.
Eric Krebs is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .