It’s not what you know…

My father’s—and uncle’s and grandfather’s—favorite phrase, when discussing the educational and research opportunities I’ve been afforded, is: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” And what really bothers me is that they seem to be right. The summer before freshman year, my dad got me a job sterilizing operating rooms an oral surgery office. The summer before sophomore year, my uncle convinced his friend (a robotic surgeon) to let me shadow him in the ER. The summer before my senior year, my grandfather’s fellow rotary member contacted a former postdoc to get me set up in his lab. Now looking towards graduate and medical school, I’m well-equipped to send out my résumé to all the programs I’m interested and hope something good happens.

In her essay, My Hidden Class-Consciousness, Monica Bielski discusses the difficulties that college students from traditionally “lower” or working class backgrounds face. Namely, not having the built-in knowledge and connections that professional parents tend to afford. As someone who comes from a position of class privilege, I am embarrassed by my own culpability in avoiding the topic of socioeconomic status (SES) with my peers. By ignoring the education and income disparities that exist within Pomona College’s student body, I contribute to the isolation that low-SES students sometimes feel. And that’s wrong.

But I’m not sure that I agree with Bielski’s assessment of why I, as a high-SES student, continue to avoid discussions about class with my peers. Bielski hypothesizes that it’s because I’m ashamed of the advantages I have over my fellow students—and she’s right. But it’s not just about the economic advantages I enjoy. It’s that I’m a white heterosexual male who has economic advantages because of my white heterosexual male-ness. It’s that race and gender are intimately tied to income inequality and SES.

Bielski notes that “Many studies have shown that women and people of color face barriers when they enter the academy, but I never hear discussion of the obstacles that working class students must overcome” (217-218). In fact, she “see[s] class as being more difficult to address than race or gender” because it is readily concealable (219). I disagree. Studies on the “education gap” faced by women and people of color necessarily address SES. Nine-year-old black students, on average, have significant math and reading deficits just by virtue of growing up black—and SES is the principal mediator. Class, in this sense, is not concealable because class is inherently racial. It is a variable in the equation that relates race and educational achievement.

I admire what Bielski is doing in her essay, I do. And as a straight, privileged white boy, I’m the last person who should be critiquing her. But I don’t think you can have a discussion about “just class.” An honest discussion about class necessarily involves race and gender. Because in a sick, twisted way, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you look like.”rothstein1

2 thoughts on “It’s not what you know…

  1. Hi Colin-

    I, too, was confused by Bielski’s focus on class without its intersections with race and gender (and sexuality and disability, two of the other topics that this week’s readings explored). Race and class are incredibly closely tied, as you pointed out. For example, black Americans are more likely to be poor and near or below the poverty line than white Americans.Disabled people are more likely to be poor than their abled counterparts. I would have liked to see more intersectional thinking in this piece.

  2. Hey Colin! I really appreciated hearing your perspectives on this topic. I agree that race and gender are very closely tied with class, and it’s really hard to tease apart how different parts of an individual’s identity influence their experiences. However, I still want to highlight the importance of trying to isolate and describe the influences class can have on education. I first want to acknowledge the experiences of white individuals who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Although being a white, heterosexual male often also comes with the privilege of a higher SES, this is not necessarily the case for everyone. I recognize that working-class whites still have more privilege than working-class individuals of all other races. It’s just that class seems to play a big role in the educational experiences of working-class whites, even though it’s not often recognized.

    Furthermore, working-class POC have vastly different experiences than upper-class POC, especially since the upper-class POC are more likely to be familiar with the dominant English academic discourse and dominant culture in general. I tried to touch on this observation a bit in my blog post. It’s especially hard to generalize SES experiences because they’re not as physically visible (at least compared to race or gender at Pomona). Therefore, while I think class, race, and gender are not completely separable, it’s still important to try to focus on each category individually as well as viewing them as parts of a whole.

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