My Contemporary Civilization professor writes a question on the board: Do property rights exist posthumously? My classmates insist they must (or, at the least, don pensive looks and meow out a “maaaaybe”). They share stories of how their families “earned” their property through generations of hard work, unanimously insisting that our possessions are secured via our merits. I sit, red in the face. I do not know how to say, in appropriate academic jargon, that my family has never owned a home. I do not know how to say, philosophically enough, that I have never even had my own room. I do not know how to say, or if it is appropriate to say, or if I am even right to feel that my classmates are implying my family is not hardworking, that my family is simply not of the same caliber or mettle as the high-flying parents of my peers.
I do not know how to say “this is upsetting to me.” I do not know how to say “I am uncomfortable.” I do not know how to say “you are misunderstanding my circumstances.” I do not know how to say “you are dehumanizing me.” I do not know how to say “you are invalidating me.”
I left class that day ashamed that I could not force the words out of my mouth that would, perhaps, help my classmates understand. I felt guilty that, when presented with the opportunity, I had failed to speak against the dangerous misconceptions and stereotypes attached to poverty.
But in retrospect, I do not deserve to bear that guilt. You are all supposedly some of the smartest kids in the nation. So why haven’t you figured out how to talk like you don’t hate poor people? I’ll trust you when you say you don’t. But that derogatory dialogue seems to be stuck to the roof of your mouth like taffy.
Of course, I recognize that I am within a space of extreme affluence. I’ve quite literally had people tell me I am the only poor person they’ve ever met. But I am not accepting narrow frames of reference as an excuse for the gross language used in discussions of class. Columbia students pride themselves on cultural awareness, worldliness, and a greater sense for the problems of the world. But clearly, there’s a glaring blindspot. And if you’ve all (supposedly) learned how to navigate other cultures appropriately, I’m holding you accountable to offering the same level of respect to the impoverished.
Columbia as an institution is just as responsible in the failure to acquaint students with the appropriate dialogue with which to discuss poverty. I recall my Under1Roof session during orientation; the group explored race, gender, sexuality, disability, but never breached the topic of class. I remember staring at a wall specked with Post-it notes overwhelmingly reading “upper-middle class” and my own reading “low-income,” a flagrant intrusion. Our own President Bollinger, when confronted with the topic of food insecurity, seems to blame the circumstances on the victims rather than offering a solution, stating that “there are ways in which people can get themselves into trouble where it’s not the institution’s fault.”
So we acclimate to life at Columbia never bothering to filter the language we use to discuss poverty. Maybe that’s not such a loss. Poor kids don’t belong here anyway, right?
It’s hard to undo a lifetime’s language of misunderstanding. But there are more productive ways to put your money where your mouth is. Be precise in your language. Notice that even if your ideas may be well-intentioned, your language may still be violating the humanity of those you intend to help. If you think you’re being a jerk, just ask. Trust me when I say I will let you know.
And please, get that fucking meritocracy out of your mouth.
Alexa Roman is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English. She works with the First-Generation Student Advisory Board to address prominent issues in the low-income community on campus. You’re Still Not Middle Class runs alternate Mondays.
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