For a freshman beginning his education at the University of Michigan, navigating an overwhelmingly large campus can be difficult, especially if they come from a marginalized or underrepresented background. Unfortunately, just last year we have seen countless horrific examples of students and staff being attacked with abusive language, so this general fatigue and anxiety is understandable. However, the behavioral inertia of progress remains. The university is committed to acknowledging various aspects of social identities in order to build an acceptable and inclusive campus community.
A systemic infrastructure to encourage and celebrate cultural heterogeneity in the student body, including race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender, is essential to addressing the concerns that arise on a predominantly white campus. Even when active progress seemed to stagnate or virtually grind to a halt during the pandemic, the university was strategically aware of how its diverse student body would impact. In fact, in October 2023, the university will adopt DEI 2.0, an intricate and detailed plan that respects the fundamental and imperative principles proposed by DEI 1.0, while developing new institutional efforts to promote anti-racist initiatives.
DEI 2.0 involves the creation of more positions focused on DEI across campus, in a compartmentalized and departmental manner. We can also expect to see more seminars and public education focused on commemorating campus diversity. So while DEI’s efforts can seem mild and even muted at times, there is broad underlying progress and the Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has been well resourced and staffed to appreciate and welcome student diversity on campus To be called.
To move forward, however, the university must begin to address how classism affects the experience of so many students. Ann Arbor is plagued by wealth inequality and inequality, which is ironic given the city’s famously liberal culture. It is therefore important to shine a spotlight on this element of the psychological character of the students, as it can play such an important and monumental role in determining social and community well-being in a ridiculously wealthy city.
Ultimately, ignoring the impact of the stress that students from poor and underfunded communities live with is detrimental to their mental well-being. This can form an exclusive and hierarchical environment in a place that should primarily focus on merit. It’s really a dystopian idea where students’ college education is dictated by the depth of their parents’ pockets. It instills a distancing sense of subservience and shame for non-affluent students.
Not to mention that this affluence bubble creates a socio-economic barrier between UM students. I recently overheard a conversation that demonstrated such barriers: A group of four friends were planning to live off-campus for their sophomore year (because upon arrival at the university they found the dormitories were outrageously expensive). Three of them wanted to live in the Hub, a notoriously luxurious apartment building, while the fourth person was looking for a more affordable apartment on Packard Street. This set off an interesting cascade of conversations between the group, which had an intrinsic power dynamic.
Privileged and unmusical comments from the first three students, such as “I just really need a gym in the building” and “I don’t want to share a bathroom with anyone,” came across hurtful to the fourth student, who went home-hunting on their own. For this person, the distinction between wanting and needing was crucial for their choice of housing. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting certain amenities in a living space. However, it was an annoying experience for the person looking for cheaper accommodation. Inevitably, any student who can’t keep up with their friends’ extravagant lifestyles asks themselves this question: “Why am I not entitled to what my classmates are entitled to?”
For many students, college is the time when this cultural rupture occurs, and the reality of class thinking dawns in their eager but anxious psyches. Discriminatory affirmations like “I need my Starbucks in the morning!” are often innocent, subtle, and unpredictable, but they normalize and habitualize a snobbish expectation that emotionally hurts disadvantaged groups. They serve as a reminder of the harsh imbalance of power seen in interpersonal relationships. I am not trying to richly shame people who come from wealthy families; I am saying that utterances like the Starbucks joke mentioned above can have unintended consequences and reinforce toxic social class differentiation.
From an uncompromising commitment to building more skyscrapers at New York prices to tuition spikes, UM students’ economic backgrounds are becoming increasingly relevant to their college experience. Some students will never know the psychological torment their classmates endure every fall as they struggle to understand the bureaucratic intricacies of the IRS. This ruthless culture encourages beneficial campus life for spoiled students while shrugging off much of the student body.
As of now, when it comes to classism, the ideological problem and solution fall beyond the current DEI framework. For financially distressed students, a simple “recognition of their diverse background” at university or an appointment at CAPS will not solve the extensive and broader scope of the problematic class implications.
Current DEI policies are relatively effective when it comes to race and ethnicity, as they are able to distinguish different groups and respect them equally. But when it comes to class, the DEI model fails to preemptively balance the scales, instead identifying and paying lip service to less affluent social strata. This ultimately shapes into various accepted and predetermined societal beliefs about wealth that only serve to divide the student community. As the university continues to focus on embedding DEI into its institutional fabric, it is vital to address this ever-growing, bleakly skewed economic balance of power in a substantive and effective manner.
The socio-economic class struggle is rooted in the capitalist pillars on which the university (and frankly the whole country) was built. Unless there is a democratization of all major oppressive corporations in the coming weeks, this fight is a bit too big to tackle seriously in a 45 minute DEI seminar. In other words, there is no easy way to reinvent the cultural framework within which classist tendencies operate. However, the organization, funding, and maintenance of university aid opportunities can stifle our neoclassical campus climate. Additionally, to avoid the discomfort these students feel, raising awareness of the language we use when discussing wealth and privilege can shed light on the exclusionary and covert behaviors often seen in social circles. While this wouldn’t solve financial situations, it would at least limit exposure to the subtle classic nuances found in day-to-day conversations.
Ammar Ahmad is an opinion columnist and can be reached at [email protected]