Color and Money
Interview Analysis Essay
Trinity College is a diverse, educational institution that contains many different perceptions and viewpoints on social class and race from all types of students. Our first year seminar class conducted a study on this topic, in which we interviewed 18 different sophomores to get a first hand look at what students had to say about the diversity at Trinity. After finishing the interviewing process, using white students and non-white students as well as financial aid students and non financial aid students, it was clear that similar students, in terms of these categories, had comparable opinions about race and social class here at Trinity. A common theme throughout the interviews was the emergence of social and racial barriers in the Trinity College community. The skin color of the interviewed students played a big factor in determining whether or not they perceived these barriers to exist at Trinity. On the other hand, the financial aid status of these students did not seem to influence the perception of racial barriers, yet it did come into effect when looking at social barriers amongst the community. An alarming theme drawn from the interviews was the students’ expression of clothing and appearance emerging as a barrier relating to social class. While Trinity may be seen as a place free from any kind of segregation by the outside world, a deeper look into the student body may suggest something else about the existence of social and racial barriers.
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.
After reading the transcribed interviews, one pattern that I noticed was the non-white students had a greater tendency to recognize racial separation as opposed to social class barriers at Trinity. Whether it be at a social event on the weekends or at Mather Hall, almost all of these students noted a racial division on campus. While 8 out of the 10 non-white students mentioned these racial barriers at Trinity, only 3 out of the 8 white students brought up this issue. After being asked if she had become more aware of her race since coming to Trinity, Luisa, a non-white female, went on to say, “I don’t know it’s like different here though cause I feel like everything’s really separated by like race,” comparing the college atmosphere to her home town (Luisa 9). The main goal for any institution seeking diversity is to limit segregation of any type and create a place where all feel welcome, with students able to interact with whomever. Following her response, Luisa was then asked if the division among students at Trinity was more racial or social-class based. She answered, “I would say like race definitely because I think that’s like how people first perceive you and it’s first impressions, so like if your like slightly different, they see you as just like it being entirely different from yourself” (Luisa 9). Other non-white students had similar things to say about this, hinting a true yet unfortunate existence of these racial barriers. These students noted that it is much easier for students of the same color or race to associate themselves with each other rather than branching out to students of different races. In one of the films we studied earlier in the year, Skin Deep, Brian Allen, a black student, expressed this same idea at UMASS: “I couldn’t really have as many interracial relationships. I tried if it happened, but I never really initiated them” (Reid et al, 18:54). The atmosphere at Trinity might be very different than what these non-white students are used to and this may suggest the reasoning for the development of racial barriers.
A common theme mentioned throughout the interviews was the racial separation that exists in Mather Hall. With the dining hall being one of the few places on campus where a majority of the student body visits each day, a few of the non-white students stated that it is where they actually feel conscious about their race. While none of the interviewed students mentioned social class division in Mather, 3 of the 10 non-white students presented the indication of racial divide at the dining hall. An Asian female student discussed how she did not see it at first, but after it was pointed out to her, the racial barrier was obvious. She marked, “Mather, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s very segregated in terms of seating area” (Kirsten 18). This idea was presented to us in one of our former readings, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, as Beverly Tatum discusses the racial identity development theory. Most students at Trinity would most likely disagree with the notion that many are still developing their own racial identity, but the barriers presented in the community may prove differently. Tatum explains the immersion/emersion phase for both black and white racial development in saying it is, “characterized by a strong desire to surround oneself with symbols of one’s racial identity” (Tatum 76). After reading many of the responses of the interviewees, there is a direct correlation between what they had to say about the racial divide among students and the idea behind this immersion/emersion period. The sense of being comfortable with those who surround you is desired everywhere, which may help explain the racial separation in Mather. While many of the white students may not be aware of this racial divide in the community, it seems to be a lot more prevalent for the non-white students, being a part of the minority at Trinity.
The second pattern that I depicted in reviewing the transcribed interviews was that many students noted that one’s appearance and clothing acts as a barrier in itself relating to social class. While 11 of the 18 interviewees reported socio-economic divides at Trinity, almost half of them brought up clothing and suggested that people dress a certain way depending on their social class. Some of these students offered the notion that lower class individuals at Trinity will dress nicely to try and hide their social background (Juan 5). When asked how social class is apparent at Trinity, one student, Andreas said, “Well I mean…basic apparentness is clothing. You know, clothing that…it’s apparent in clothing because you can tell kids that have more money…higher in social class definitely wear different clothes. It’s one of the things that are out there” (Andres 11). The 5 students who talked about clothing and appearance as a divide at Trinity all receive financial aid, showing that those who are not as well off notice these physical variances between those in different social classes. While many stressed clothing creating social divisions in the community, Juan elaborated on appearance and how your looks can determine the people you are friends with. He stated, “I’ve seen poor people who are of lesser means who are really good looking climb their way up popular ladder at Trinity just because they look good” (Juan 5). All of these 5 students were quick to say that social class assumptions are made based off of the way one dresses.
The social class division suggested by a group of the interviewees is not far from the ideas Hamilton and Armstrong delivered in Paying for the Party. The two authors preach that one’s college experience and the friends one has is all based upon social class and background (Hamilton, Armstrong 3). While this idea gives the advantage to those in the upper class, it is not surprise that the 5 students who mentioned they were more aware of their social class at Trinity all received financial aid. Hamilton and Armstrong explore three separate pathways taken by college students: the party pathway, the mobility pathway, and the professional pathway. In their random sampling, the first category they took into account when studying the given students was class background. The social class and organizational analysis theory talked about in Hamilton and Armstrong’s work includes the issue that people of the same social class tend to associate themselves with one another and this produces the experiences they encounter (Hamilton, Armstrong 4). Kaylie, a financial aid student, noted something similar to this idea and said, “I think that I notice that people attempt to wear same kinds of clothing and same brands and tend to stick together. If I am not wearing that particular jacket or pair of boots, they wouldn’t assume that I am on the same level as them” (Kaylie 36). As seen by our results, appearance was a concern for some of the students in how other individuals would look at them in terms of social class. This common theme goes hand in hand with the theory Hamilton and Armstrong relay in their work.
The responses to questions regarding racial and social barriers at Trinity from the 18 sophomores were very interesting as many patterns emerged. A fascinating theme amongst the interviews was the common perception that people of the same background tend to stick together and are more comfortable in doing so. Whether the similarities in their backgrounds lie in their social status or race, the interviewed students perceived that individuals are hesitant to leave the security of the groups they formed. These ideas expressed in the interviews may be alarming to an outsider of the Trinity College community, but first hand response shows what all different types of students think of the atmosphere.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations about Race, revised edition (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).
Frances Reid, Skin Deep (Berkeley, CA : Iris Films, 1995)