Race and social class are intertwined and affect individuals differently, depending on their demographic categories. By interviewing 18 sophomores from Trinity College, three major patterns emerged, which influenced the lives of students. First, non-financial aid students are more concerned about how they portray their social class than financial aid students. Second, non-white students are less likely to react to racial incidents than white students. Finally, non-white students were more likely to merge their responses about social class and race, even though interviewers asked about these two topics separately.
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: 10 students who received financial aid (4 white and 6 non-white), and 8 students who did not receive financial aid (4 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.
Firstly, through the interview, it was shown that non-financial aid students were more concerned about how they presented their social class than financial aid students. Four out of six non-financial aid students were concerned about self-presentation of social class, while only four out of nine financial aid students were concerned about it. This shows how non-financial aid students were more concerned about the perception that others had of their social class. For example Alice, a white non-financial aid student, was keen on explaining that while she did not consider herself as wealthy as her friends, she was still pretty wealthy. She expressed that her friends would often say “ ‘well you drive a Mercedes’ that must mean that you’re well off…” (Alice 42). This shows how she, and non-financial aid students in general, are focused on how they self-present their social class, ensuring that people understand that they belong to the upper class.
This finding does not support Tatum’s argument. Tatum, a social psychologist who focuses on race and its implications, explains that in an unequal situation of power, the subordinate group tries to emulate the dominant group’s actions as a mean of survival (Tatum 25). While Tatum’s argument is only based on race, the argument can also be applied to social class. It is assumed that class and race are connected, as the subordinate racial group is also the subordinate socio-economic group (Omi and Winant 55-56). Therefore, it would be expected that financial aid students were more concerned with self-presentation of social class, as that might be a way to increase their self-esteem and not feel less than those who do not receive financial aid.
The social class and organizational analysis theory explained by the sociologists Armstrong and Hamilton can clarify why non-financial aid students are conscious about how they present their social class. The social class and organizational analysis theory is the intersection between the socio-economic status of students and the organizational structure of the college, and how they both affect each other resulting in different social practices(Armstrong and Hamilton). This theory explains that social class is the guideline that determines social structures around campus. In the interview conducted to Kaylie, she says, “If I’m not wearing that particular jacket or pair of boots, they wouldn’t assume that I am on the same level as them. They wouldn’t speak to me…” (Kaylie 36). Her answers portray how socio-economic class determines social life on campus. Kaylie and most non-financial aid students showed that they are more concerned with self-presentation of social class than financial aid students because they want to keep a certain status in order to keep benefiting from it.
Through the interviews, white students as well as non-white students reported being involved in racial incidents. Six out of ten non-white students surveyed were involved in racial incidents, whereas two out of six white students were not. For instance, Alice, a white, non-financial aid student, mentioned that while at a dining place on campus, she asked the lady at the register to check how many Bantam bucks she had left, and the lady responded: “yeah um oh you have 15 dollars left, oh your parents came through for you” (Alice 43). Alice considered this to be an assumption based on her race and reacted with “first of all I can get you fired for that and second of all that is very rude and making a ton of assumptions about who I am and what I do and don’t work for…” (Alice 43). Tatum would support this finding, with the racial identity development theory, which is “the process of defining for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a particular racial group” (Tatum 16). She explains that racism and racial awakening and development occurs to every individual regardless of their race (Tatum 93). Therefore, racial incidents against both white and non-white students are expected.
While these incidents involve both white and non-white students, non-white students are less likely to react and more likely to minimize the event than white students. Out of the eight people that reported having been involved in racial incidents, six were non-white individuals and three were non-financial aid. From the eight people that were involved in a racial case, only three people reacted to the scenario, and all three people were non-financial aid individuals. This leaves non-white, financial aid students, the most “vulnerable” in the social structure, as those who minimized or did not react towards the racial actions. For example, Fred, a non-white, financial aid student, undermines the fact that Campus Security has stopped him a couple of time based on his race, rather than on his actions. When asked if race has been a factor in his daily interaction he mentions “the incidents with campo and stuff like that will happen but not on daily basis, it’s usually not a factor, it’s rare” (Fred 23). The fact that he says that “it’s rare” and yet, it has happened on various occasions shows how Fred is trying to minimize the impact of the events. They may not react because they don’t feel they have the right to. For instance, Yvonne was also involved in an event of racial profiling where the manager of a dinning facility on campus asked her if she attended Trinity College, when he normally doesn’t do that. Even after the rest of the employers at the facilities supported her and told her to complain, she did not. This shows how she did not feel empowered enough to react and stand against the racist event. Tatum describes, “Survival sometimes means not responding to oppressive behavior directly” (Tatum 25). This theory explains why the non-white, financial aid students tend to avoid any reaction towards a racist act, as a way to protect themselves.
Under and over reacting to racist situations may be a consequence of racial formation. Racial formation theory explains how one race has hegemony over the other one. This theory states, “racial projects connect what race means in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning” (Omi and Winant 56). The dominant race is the white race and the other ones are the minorities. Racial formation explains how society is built under the principles of this theory, where it is made to benefit one class exclusively. Because society is structured so that it will benefit the dominant race and thus social class, it puts non-white students in a place where they do not feel they deserve or have the right to react towards racist acts. Even if they did, because racial formation has organized society according to race and social class, non-white students would not want to recognize that they were victims of racism.
These interviews also found that non-white students are more likely to intertwine their responses about social class and race, even though interviewers asked about these two topics separately. Twelve out of eighteen students did not associate race with social class, while six out of eighteen students did. Out of the twelve students who did not relate race with social class, five were non-white students while seven were white. Half of them were financial aid students. When answering the questions in the interview, the majority of the students focus only on social class or race rather than intertwining both.
This finding is interesting because it contradicts both Lee’s and Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory. The racial formation theory suggests that there is a dominant and a subordinate race, and that the power of the race is highly linked to socio-economic benefits (Omi and Winant 55-56). Therefore, according to this theory, white people (dominant race) are also the most privileged economically, while non-white people are not. This theory shows that students would automatically connect their race with their social class. However, very few students did that association. For instance, Andres, a non-white, financial aid student, was of the few students who associated race with social class when he expressed that “you have all of like the racial people who are most likely lower class just because that’s how it plays out” (Andres 11). This was not the case of most of the students. Most of them gave straightforward answers and focused exclusively on social class or race, depending on which question was being asked. This was the case of Kaylie who after being asked is she was always aware of her social class after coming to Trinity, responded only focusing on social class by saying: “I was always aware of people being wealthier than I was. It wasn’t as much of a problem. I think that social class influences who your friends are, who you want to be friends be. Also it influences with what able to do with your friends. It depends on how much you are willing to spend money. It does have effect on the social life.” (Kaylie 36) Like Kaylie, most of the students do not take race or social class as the consequence of one or the other.
It is also interesting to notice that only four non-white students out of the ten non-white students who were interviewed, associated race with social class. Overall, the majority of students who did associated race with social class were non-white students. This shows how people who relate these concepts are usually those who are most affected by it. Even so, the students who relate race with social class and are white students, reported some racial incident. This shows how those who connect race and social class do so because they have been involved in an incident where their social class and race have been associated or a factor of an incident.
These interviews have allowed the seminar to get an insightful view on the campus regarding race and social class. They allow us to corroborate and discover new patterns. They helped prove that non-white students are less likely to react to racial incidents than white students because of the place they have in society. Furthermore they helped identify that non-financial aid students are more concerned about how they portray their social class because of society’s structure, and that non-white students are more likely to intertwine their responses about social class and race.
– Tatum, Beverly. “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Print.
– Omi , Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the united States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. Second . New york: Routledge, 1986. Print.
– Armstrong, Elizabeth, and Laura Hamilton. Paying for the part: how college maintains inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print.