For a freshman beginning their education at the University of Michigan, it can be difficult to navigate an overwhelmingly large campus, especially if they come from a marginalized or under-represented background. Unfortunately just last year, we saw countless horrific examples of students and staff being targeted with offensive language, so this general weariness and anxiety is understandable. However, the behavioral inertia of progress persists. The University has been dedicated to acknowledging various aspects of social identities in order to construct a campus community that is accepting and inclusive.
Systemic infrastructure dedicated to promoting and celebrating cultural heterogeneity in the student body, including race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender, is essential in addressing the concerns that come up in a predominately white campus. Even when active progress seemed to plateau or come to a virtual halt during the pandemic, the University remained strategically cognizant of how its diverse student body would be impacted. In fact, in October 2023 the University will launch DEI 2.0, an intricate and detailed plan that will adhere to the fundamental and imperative principles that DEI 1.0 proposed while developing new institutional efforts to promote anti-racist initiatives.
DEI 2.0 includes creating more positions focused on DEI across campus in a compartmentalized and department-oriented manner. We can also expect to see more seminars and public education that’s concentrated on commemorating campus diversity. So, while DEI efforts can seem mild and even sedated at times, there is a broad underlying headway being carved, and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has been well resourced and staffed in order to appreciate and welcome student diversity on campus.
To continue moving forward, though, the University must begin addressing how classism affects the experience of so many students. Ann Arbor is ridden with wealth inequality and disparity, which is ironic given the City’s renowned liberal culture. Thus, it is integral to bring this element of students’ psychological character into the spotlight as it can play such a chief and monumental role in determining social and community well-being in a ridiculously rich city.
Ultimately, failing to realize the impact of the burden that students from poor and under-resourced communities live with has a detrimental effect on their mental well-being. This can mold an exclusive and hierarchical environment in a place that should focus primarily on merit. It’s a dystopian idea really, in which students’ college education is dictated by the depth of their parents’ pockets. It instills a distancing sense of subservience and shame for students who don’t come from wealth.
Not to mention that this wealth bubble creates a socioeconomic barrier between U-M students. I recently witnessed a conversation demonstrating such barriers: A group of four friends were planning to live off campus for their sophomore year (because upon arriving at the University, they realized that the dorms are criminally expensive). Three of them were set on living at the Hub, a notoriously luxurious apartment building, while the fourth individual was seeking a more affordable apartment on Packard Street. This sparked an interesting cascade of conversations between the group, which had an intrinsic power dynamic to it.
Privileged and tone-deaf comments from the first three students, such as “I just really need a gym in the building” and “I don’t want to share a bathroom with anyone” came off in a hurtful way to the fourth individual, who ended up searching for housing on their own. For this person, the distinction between want and need was pivotal in their housing selection. There’s nothing inherently wrong with desiring certain amenities in a living space. However, it was an upsetting experience for the person who was seeking more cost-friendly housing. Inevitably, every student that can’t comply with their friends’ extravagant lifestyles will ask themselves this question: “Why am I not entitled to what my peers are entitled to?”
For many students, college is the time when this cultural rupture takes place, and the reality of classism dawns on their eager yet anxious psyches. Discriminative affirmations such as “I need my Starbucks in the morning!” are often innocent, subliminal and uncalculated, but they normalize and habituate a snobbish expectation that emotionally wounds disadvantaged groups. They serve as a reminder of the harsh power imbalance seen in interpersonal relationships. I’m not trying to rich-shame individuals who come from well-off families; I’m saying that statements, such as the aforementioned Starbucks quip, can have unintended consequences and can reinforce a toxic differentiation of social classes.
From the uncompromising commitment to construct more New York priced high rises to tuition spikes, the economic background of U-M students is becoming more and more relevant for their college experience. Some students will never know the psychological torment their peers endure every fall when they’re fighting to understand the bureaucratically convoluted ins-and-outs of the Financial Aid Office. This ruthless culture fosters an advantageous campus life for pampered students while shoulder-shrugging a major segment of the student body.
As of now, when it comes to classism, the ideological problem and solution fall beyond the current DEI framework. For financially distressed students, a simple University “recognition of their diverse background” or an appointment at CAPS is not going to resolve the extensive and broader scale of problematic class implications.
Current DEI policies are relatively effective when it comes to race and ethnicity because they are able to distinguish different groups while respecting them equally. But when it comes to class, the DEI model cannot preemptively balance the scales and instead merely identifies and pays lip service to less affluent social classes. This ultimately shapes into various accepted and predetermined societal opinions about wealth that only serve to divide the student community. So, as the University continues to focus on embedding DEI into its institutional fabric, it’s vital to address this ever-growing, dismally skewed economic power balance in a substantial and effective manner.
The socioeconomic class struggle is rooted in the capitalistic pillars that the University (and frankly, the whole country) was erected on. Unless a democratization of all major oppressive corporations takes place in the coming weeks, that struggle is a tad too enormous to seriously address in a forty-five minute DEI seminar. In other words, there is no straightforward way to reimagine the cultural framework within which classist tendencies operate. However, organizing, funding and maintaining University aid opportunities can begin to stifle our classist campus climate. Moreover, to spare the discomfort these students feel, raising awareness about the language we use when talking about wealth and privilege can shed light on the exclusionary and concealed behavior often seen in social circles. While this wouldn’t resolve any financial situations, it would at least limit the distress from the subtle classist nuances found in daily conversation.
Ammar Ahmad is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.