No one likes to be singled out for his privilege. But class privilege always seems the hardest to confront. This is probably because all of us have struggled with money as individuals or as a part of a family at some point in our lives, either in our decisions, our ability to stay afloat or our anxiety to save. Everyone feels middle-class.
In America, the notion of the middle class is sacred, but also more widely adopted than is statistically reasonable. A 2015 Gallup poll had 51 percent of Americans identifying themselves as middle class, while a September 2015 survey from Brookings measured 85 percent of respondents identifying as middle class. Despite these conflicting numbers, there is a clear consensus in the research: More Americans think they are middle class than those who actually fall into the middle quintile of income in the United States. There are several reasons for this disparity.
CNN Money, in an attempt to find out, “What is middle class, anyway?” identified five areas people can consider when they identify as middle class: income, wealth, consumption, aspirations and demographics. Our indicators of class are, in fact, as much social as they are economic. They are based on what we look like, what we wear, what we buy, how much we save and what our lifestyles look like just as much as they are based on income level.
In The Atlantic’s 2013 article, “Why Americans All Believe They’re Middle Class,” author Anat Shenker-Osorio cites media representation as a reason for the overwhelming identification with the middle class: “Not finding popular depictions of wealth and poverty similar to our own lived experiences, we determine we must be whatever’s left over.”
This rings true to my media experience. I often become frustrated by media depictions of “average” families in multi-million dollar California homes or the lack of good, working-class TV for the 21st century (though I do still love the ’90s sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle”). Movies feature well-educated urbanites living in huge apartments, maybe occasionally referencing bills to retain that “down-to-earth image,” but conflicts never center on socioeconomic status. The excessive wealth we see portrayed on reality TV, such as the Kardashian family’s, adds to the sense of class isolation. Even the 1 percent is not monolithic, and when people see extravagant displays of wealth in the media, they can view themselves as closer to the middle class than they actually are.
On the other hand, popular signifiers of low income level and poverty can be just as isolating. Homelessness and the poverty line as indicators of the lower class make people in the lower quintiles of American income turn away from identifying as such. The notion that financial struggles are just temporary roadblocks of hardworking middle-class families runs rampant in post-recession America. Anyone who doubts this can take a look at CBS’s much-critiqued summer reality show “The Briefcase.” Its egregious premise pits supposedly middle-class families, whose massive debt and dire financial situations indicate they are anything but, against one another for $100,000.
Everyone says he is the exception. Everyone says he is part of that invisible, illusive middle class. No one wants to say he is rich and no one wants to say he is poor.
The effects of this phenomenon, in many of its forms, can be found at Georgetown University. No matter how many people are aware of “The Great Gatsby’s” thematic argument, the notion of the American Dream is still very much alive on campus. I have heard many people attribute their socioeconomic status to their parents’ or grandparents’ hard work or frugality. Vacations, cars, unpaid internships and lack of loans are all justified by prudence or as long-deserved rewards for hard work. Georgetown students are aware of class but are often defensive about it. Because we attach such social and ethical values to class in the United States, to imply association with either the rich or the poor is to condemn oneself to unflattering stereotyping.
The difference is that while stereotyping the rich may hurt feelings, stereotyping the poor causes those with the least social clout to further lose legitimacy. No condemnation of Kim Kardashian’s materialism or criticism of Hillary Clinton’s old-money lifestyle has stopped them from dominating our cultural and political narratives. As long as people on either end of the socioeconomic spectrum can play the part of the middle-class person — act sufficiently down-to-earth, but not unrefined; be scrappy, but not dirty; not spend too much, but not scrimp either; have a nice house, but not too nice — they are accepted as such, and we as a community can ignore the problem of socioeconomic stratification that is actually occurring.
The same is true of our Georgetown community. We must prioritize the issue of class, no matter how difficult it can be to discuss. Class may be the hardest privilege to come to terms with. But to recognize class struggle, we must understand that how we see ourselves and other hardships we’ve faced don’t necessarily have bearing on our class. Then we can start on the road to rectifying it.
Laura Owsiany is a senior in the College. Missing Class appears every other Friday.
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