Hieu “Hugh” Nguyen
“C+” for Diversity in Trinity College
Race and social class are always intriguing and complex concepts of society. The First- Year Seminar class (FYSM) has been learning different racial and social class theories to try to understand more about these concepts and their applications in college life. There are three theories, two of which are about race, that were taught to the class: Tatum’s racial identity development, Omi’s racial formation , and Armstrong and Hamilton’s social class and organizational analysis. Tatum’s theory develops different phases that every student has and will eventually go through. Omi’s theory states that race is unstable and cannot be determined by physical traits but by social and historical aspects. Armstrong and Hamilton’s theory is about how students in different social classes experience different college pathways. The class’s study demonstrates that, at Trinity, both financial aid and non-financial aid students are equally aware that non-financial aid students have greater options in extracurricular and social activities. The study also conveys that Trinity students commonly use appearance as a main factor to judge one’s racial and social status. Thirdly, the study proves that social class greatly affects one’s perception of racial barriers, which is opposite to what many people think. Fourthly, the study reveals many signs of racial and social isolation on Trinity’s campus. In addition, these findings closely link to two theories, the racial formation theory and the social class and organizational analysis.
To investigate this topic, our seminar conducted an interview-based study of students’ perceptions of race and social class at Trinity. Our interview guide posed ten open-ended questions and three demographic questions that explored topics, such as personal awareness, social interactions, and other students’ assumptions regarding racial and social class differences at Trinity. The Office of Institutional Research and Planning provided our professor with a stratified random sample of 55 sophomores from the Class of 2016, categorized by race (white or non-white) and first-year financial aid status (receiving or not receiving). Our professor sent personalized email invitations to this group, and assigned each of us to conduct an interview with all who responded and agreed to participate. The typical interview lasted about ten minutes, and was transcribed by the interviewer. The final sample consisted of 18 interviews: 9 students who received financial aid (3 white and 6 non-white), and 9 students who did not receive financial aid (5 white and 4 non-white). All names are pseudonyms and personally identifiable details have been masked, in accordance with our research ethics confidentiality agreement approved by the Trinity College Institutional Review Board.
Many people would believe that compared to non-financial aid students, financial aid students are more aware that affluent students have more range of extracurricular activities and social options than students on financial aid. Social options here refer to activities like eating out at a restaurant, traveling, going to a frat party, becoming a member of a fraternity or sorority, etc…However, our study of Trinity sophomores revealed that both financial aid and non-financial aid students are equally aware that non-financial aid students have greater options in extracurricular and social activities. Out of 18 interviews that the class conducted, four out of nine financial-aid students and five out of nine non-financial aid students mentioned that wealthy students at Trinity are involved in more extracurricular activities and/or social options than students in lower classes. For instance, participant Luisa when asked about how social class has been a daily factor to her life, pointed out that there were friends who could go out for dinner or go to a big city on every weekend while she could not do that. But she also stated that she did not know whether or not she should pay the money to join in a sorority, and she acknowledged that students from lower classes had to work on campus and thus they rarely had the options of doing what her and her friends did (Luisa 6-7). What Luisa said closely ties to Armstrong and Hamilton’s theory about social class. That theory of social class and organizational analysis explains due to social class, students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, as Luisa observed, experienced different things in college and followed different college pathways. Thus, what Luisa’s friends do imply that they are from upper middle class and so they follow the party pathway, while Luisa and other students like her seem to fit in the “wannabe” category who tries to fit in to the party pathway. Also that the students who have to work come from the middle or working class and thus they follow the class mobility pathway.
One common belief is that one’s appearance does not have anything to do with they are treated by others. However, our study revealed that appearance, like physical traits and clothes, is the main factor that makes up the impression regarding one’s social status and race, and thus, appearance decides how others judge an individual. 12 out of 18 students reported a problem that involved the use of appearance to misjudge one’s racial or social status. Seven of them elaborated that their appearances caused other Trinity students to misjudge their social statuses. Appearance includes physical traits and clothes. Let’s consider clothes first. Four students (Andres, Yvonne, Abe, and Kaylie) conveyed how clothes and accessories on one’s body could create an illusion of one’s social class. For instance, Yvonne pointed out how people treated her differently based on what she wore. She said ”…when my hair is nice and when I am dressed fully…people hold doors open for me, people say hi when I smile at them…, or people just speak even if they only see me like if we see each other often but we’ve never been formally introduced, people speak, they smile or they wave. If …my hair is not done or if I’m wearing sweatpants…or something…that does not look name brand…people…are less likely to hold doors open for me…less likely to speak to me…” (Yvonne 20). This undoubtedly demonstrates how clothing is like an automatic electrical switch that turns on and off indicators of social class. When it turns on, which means a person wears brand clothes, the individual’s social class is assumed as upper-middle class or higher, which makes other people treat the individual very nicely; when the switch turns off, which happens when the clothes don’t look fashionable or not so well put together, the individual’s social class is assumed as middle class or lower, which leads to the very indifferent, if not impolite, manner that other people have toward the individual.
While these four students were focused on the clothing aspect of appearance, three other students (Kirsten, Fred, and Alice) highlighted the other aspect of appearance, which is physical traits. These students expressed their frustrations of how other people used their physical traits to assume their social class to treat them accordingly. Kirsten mentioned a situation when someone automatically assumed she had a lot of money just by looking at her, but actually Kirsten came from the working class (Kirsten 16). Fred’s story elaborated a similar idea: his coaches on his sports team, based only his appearance, interacted with him in the way that he felt “like I’m from more of a lower class family” (Fred 22). Alice’s case was even more extreme. She expressed her very hostile attitude toward a Trinity staff member who, according to Alice, assumed that Alice came from a very wealthy family by using Alice’s appearance (white, blonde hair) as an indicator.
Our study also demonstrated how appearance, not only heavily misinterprets one’s social class, but also confuses one’s race. 5 of the 12 students who have not been mentioned in the previous paragraphs (Luisa, Juan, Victoria, Ruby, and Abby), all shared the same concern about how race cannot be defined based solely on appearance. Luisa was confused because many people got her race wrong: they thought she was Indian or African-American, while her race was actually Hispanic (Luisa 10). Those people did not get her race correct because they only used her skin as an indicator. This problem does not only happen to Luisa whose looks are different from the stereotype of a race, but also occurs to students who are like, as Juan said, “oreo”-who looks black but is actually white internally (Juan 6). One paradigm is Victoria, who was originally Asian but had been raised in a white family. This kind of problem that happens to the five students can be solved by Omi’s theory about racial formation. The main reason that causes confusion in race is that a lot of people have used physical traits to determine one’s race. If the racial formation theory is applied, these people would know that race is not a matter of biological traits but is measured by social aspects. Thus, if people had known about this concept of race in Omi’s theory, they would have looked more into one’s life before trying to determine his or her race. Therefore, these five students’ problem conveys how important and necessary the racial formation theory is, and it urges everyone to learn about this theory. More broadly, the 12 students in general convey the idea of Omi’s racial formation and the parallel theory about social class formation. One should never judge another’s racial or social status based on that person’s appearance.
While many may argue that one’s social class does not have anything to do with one’s perception of racial barriers, our interviews confirmed the opposite of this notion. When asked how race has been a factor in the life of the participants, out of 10 non-white students, five out of six financial aid students were highly aware of racial barriers, while only two out of four non-financial students realized how deeply race influenced their lives on campus. Thus, the connection between race and social class is much closer than people often think. Both of these groups were students of color, however most of the financial aid students were ranked “High” in terms of perception of racial barriers, while only half of the non-financial aid were ranked “High”. This demonstrates that even though students of color may all encounter racial issues on campus, those in middle class or lower recognize the racial barriers more quickly and react to them more dramatically. Thus it can be concluded the higher the socioeconomic status of an individual is, the less likely he or she will be able to recognize and react strongly to racial barriers. This also applies to white students. After a close reading of the transcripts of all the interviews, the writer found that there were two special white students who differed from the rest of the interview participants. The other seven white students, and the nine non-white students, though they had different levels in perception of racial barriers, were all aware that racial barriers exist on Trinity’s campus to some extent. However, these two guys (namely, Jim and Steve) had absolutely no awareness of racial barriers on campus, or in other words, these two never noticed any racial issues on campus. For instance, Steve answered very shortly: “no” to all questions about race and its affect on his life at Trinity (Steve 44). Both Jim and Steve have high socioeconomic status, as Jim described his family as “well-off” (Jim 27) and Steve stated that his father was in finance and his family was in “good shape” (Steve 44). From these examples and numbers, one can see how much race and social class relate. Social class acts as a deciding factor that determines one’s ability to recognize and react to racial matters. The higher one’s social class, the less likely he or she will recognize and react to issues that involve race on campus. In addition, this pattern also suggests that future studies about race should take socioeconomic status into account, instead of trying to isolate race and social class.
The interviews conducted by the class also confirmed the existence of isolation in daily life at Trinity. For instance, three students mentioned the exact same thing though they were interviewed at different times and they did not know each other. Michael, Luisa, and Kirsten stated that Mather Hall was divided into two sides, one of which was the minority side. This separation makes some students feel really uncomfortable, particularly when it comes to the question of where to eat. Kirsten, as a minority and an athlete, expressed her confusion and pointed out that the division at Mather ruined her meals (Kirsten 18). Outside Mather, there were a lot of signs of isolation on campus. One sign is that people only associate with people from the same social class or race. For instance, Victoria noted how having a car on campus defines who to hang out with (Victoria 24); Abe stressed on how before coming to Trinity he never cared about social class and that people hang out with others from the same social class (Abe 45); and Kaylie noticed that black people tend to hang out together on a daily basis (Kaylie 36). But the more worrisome problems are under the surface. After a close reading of all the interview transcripts, the writer found two quite intriguing patterns. The first thing is that even though many students noticed signs of isolation and separation due to race and social class, students were afraid to talk about them or discuss them with their friends. One epitome is Michael. He whispered to his interviewer “Mather. Where people sit” and he tried to not speak out the name of the side that he sat whenever he goes to Mather (which would be “minority”) (Michael 3). His action proved that he was afraid. What Michael did during his interview also gave the impression that talking about racial issue is something bad. If students like Michael do not dare to publicly discuss these isolation problems, these problems at Trinity will never be tackled and never ended. The second alarming thing is that many solutions that Trinity has tried to promote such as inter-racial interaction have not working properly. One paradigm is minority clubs. During her interview, Andres pointed out that there are people in minority clubs like LVL and MOCA who “are negative towards the social division and…have negative ideals” toward people from other races (Andres 14). This links to what one of the writer’s friends (who is African-American) said about P.R.I.D.E. (short for Promoting Respect for Inclusive Diversity in Education), that the program had mostly black people. Thus, clubs that are meant to promote interactions and to build understanding among students from different racial backgrounds have been doing the opposite. If these club members only associate with people from their own race and are taught by older members to view people in other races negatively, how on earth will the members ever dare to reach out to talk to other students from different races. This issue of minority clubs also conveys that Trinity is not as diverse as it is advertised on its viewbook and website. It is just like the concept that Juan brought up, “oreo”- Trinity appears to be diverse on the outside, but actually is not that diverse inside, as people from one race or social class tend to isolate themselves from those from other races or social classes.
Overall, many interesting patterns were found in the interviews conducted by the FYSM “color and money”. These patterns help students have a deeper view about race and social class as well as racial and socioeconomic issues in college life. Furthermore, these patterns point out that Trinity’s student body is not as diverse and open-minded as it is advertised to be. Many students judge others’ racial and social status based on appearance. Many treat others based on race or social class. Wealthy students are less likely to recognize and react to racial tension on campus than less affluent students; those who are well aware of racial and social issues are afraid to openly talk about them. Many associate with only people from the same race or social class. Student clubs that are meant to promote diversity have not been working properly. These signs of racial and socioeconomic tension at Trinity are very likely to last for a very long time. Thus, it is necessary for college administrations and students to tackle these issues immediately, instead of advertising how great the student body is on paper to attract more applicants.
Armstrong, Elizabeth, and Laura Hamilton. Paying for the party: how college maintains inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print.
Lee, Stacey. Unraveling the “Model minority” Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth. New York: Teachers College Press, 1996. Print.
Omi , Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the united States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. Second . New york: Routledge, 1986. Print.