When I arrived at McGill four years ago, my self-consciousness about my family’s social class really sharpened for the first time. Though I grew up in a wealthy town in Massachusetts, I had always had friends who were as poor as my family was. College, where students from wealthier families had suddenly unrestrained budgetary discretion, threw the differences between the working class and other social classes into stark relief. Now I understood just how impoverished we were. No one else seemed to have money problems on the same scale.
Complaints about being broke, for example, rang hollow to me when I knew the person talking would go home to three square meals and secure housing. When I went home, I wasn’t sure there would be enough food there. The meaning of “poor” took on a number of new connotations – some that felt less authentic than others.
That was first year. Things have changed: now I understand the parlous situation even middle-class families find themselves in; friends have revealed the precariousness of their family’s situations; working-class acquaintances have been made; a few discussions on wealth disparities have been held. But as for a campus-wide dialogue on what it means to be from the working-class at a world class university, we’re still lacking that at McGill.
My purpose in writing this article, then, is twofold: I want to open that dialogue, and I want to welcome all my readers to the Commentary section. Commentary is the part of The Daily where you can express yourself, no matter who you are. And it’s an especially vital place for those people who feel like their perspectives are not talked about, or whose lives are too often discussed by others – others who may not have those lived experiences. Whether you’re aboriginal and you want to speak for yourself, rather than be spoken for; or a person with disability, who prefers to speak out, instead of being spoken about; or anybody else for that matter – Commentary’s for you.
Studying at university puts poor students in a profoundly ambiguous position. Without the cash to be truly middle-class, but with too much education to feel very working-class, we are thrust into a liminal zone – between social castes, but still subject to their irresistible gravitational pull no matter where we go. At school, my ignorance about certain aspects of life betrayed my origins to my peers. (For example, I didn’t know what an avocado was until my second year.) At home, my interests and manner of speaking made me feel a traitor. My parents, both supportive and loving, didn’t exactly understand what I studied as an undergrad. As a consequence, communication about our lives became increasingly difficult. We inhabited two entirely separate discursive universes.
Like a lot of people associated with leftism, I would criticize bourgeois culture and denigrate middle-class aspirations. At the same time, my career goals took on an increasingly upwardly mobile orientation. When you’ve grown up without a stable home, embarrassed by your second-hand clothes, your mother mortified at the difficulties she’s encountered in providing for you and your siblings, your dreams are modest – even conservative. Middle-class life starts to look pretty appealing, even as it feels increasingly like a cop-out. Trapped in the fissures of conflicting class loyalties, I couldn’t take the label of “privileged” lightly, even if it wasn’t malicious or wrong.
It’s not like being co-opted by consumer culture hadn’t concerned me before. But to feel accused of privilege – to feel attacked for the legitimate desire to rise above the poverty of my childhood – irked me. Leftist discourse on campus too frequently fails to take into account the existence of working-class students at McGill and their valid urge to leave behind their caste. For a poor kid to buy into bourgeois culture and values lock, stock, and barrel might be tragic, but it’s also understandable.
I’m not writing to attack anyone, because I don’t think critiques of bourgeois culture are motivated by animus. On the contrary – I’m on the same page. But I find the campus media’s near-total lack of discussion of class issues – especially from a personal angle – suffocating. For four years, I wondering if anyone else felt the way I did. When a writer approached me last year to propose a column on working-class life at university, I was elated to find affirmation for once.
That affirmation was important. And that’s what I want Commentary to be for – for affirmation and exploration, for self-expression and critique. Everyone’s welcome to write, and I especially want to solicit the participation of people from marginalized communities. Not that I want to discourage those with privilege from writing – on the contrary, write as much as you want. But nothing trumps the first-person experience – so if you feel like problems facing you or the group you’re a part of just don’t get (accurate) coverage, then drop me a line. This is your paper.
Hope to hear from you soon.
William M. Burton is The Daily’s Commentary & Compendium! editor, BA ’10 Lettres et traduction françaises and currently a special student, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.