After enjoying a Thanksgiving feast in the dining hall, students gathered last night in the living room of Macmillan House to engage in conversation about socioeconomic class, an event which is part of another fall tradition at Bowdoin: No Hate November, which is a month of events dedicated to fostering conversations surrounding identity.
Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) hosted the student-led panel to discuss the role socioeconomic status plays in the experience of students on campus. The event this year is a new addition to the No Hate November program, and according to Mohamed Nur ’19, BSG vice president for academic affairs and an organizer of the panel, socioeconomic class is a topic that must be recognized.
“I think everyone can say something involving class and I think that is something that’s important for us—to recognize that privilege and recognize some biases we may have. I think it is important we recognize that class, recognize that privilege and work through that, ” said Nur.
While each student has the ability to share their own unique experience with class, as Nur explained, that does not mean they will. “I think class is one of the most difficult conversations we have on campus. So part of the program for No Hate November involves talking about things we do not really talk about,” he said.
To facilitate this difficult conversation, the panel enlisted eight students, each from different socioeconomic classes and backgrounds, to speak and answer questions from both the audience and a BSG survey sent to Bowdoin students earlier this month.
The perspectives on the panel represented these individuals’ experiences. Ural Mishra ’20, representative at large for BSG, explained that students were speaking not as spokespeople but as individuals.
“I think it is important to note that in organizing a direction for the discussion, the BSG tried to ask questions that did not force students to speak for a broader group,” said Mishra.
The anecdotes the panel members shared reflected a range of personal experiences from their early lives and their time at Bowdoin; the responses from the panel at large reflect the level to which one’s class is central to how they perceive Bowdoin’s culture and their place within it.
The conversation quickly turned to focus on areas of campus life where many students across socioeconomic identities struggle to fit in.
For some students, such as senior Phoebe Thompson, this area was the classroom. Thompson, who identified her background as lower-middle class, detailed how as a first year at Bowdoin coming from a public high school, she felt most self-conscious about her class identity in the classroom. During the panel, she revealed how the “eloquence” of certain classmates who came from private schools made speaking in class discussions intimidating.
Clothing also informed how people thought they were perceived on campus. Panelist Paula Petit-Molina ’20 brought up the importance brand names can have for lower-income students. Passing—potentially being seen as upper class, or just blending in—often comes down to what brand names you can or cannot afford.
“To be completely honest, it is completely an insecurity thing. I grew up in a rich white high school and it really made me insecure to think that someone could look at me and see how much money I have and see right through me” said Petit Molina.
“I completely buy into it. I may have easily bought it at a discounted price, but you would [have] never thought,” she said.
From L.L. Bean Boots to Canada Goose jackets, certain name brand clothing items quickly became focal points of the conversation, representing how certain high-priced goods play a role in creating perceptions of wealth on campus. Like many aspects of class at Bowdoin, the issue of fashion and its relationship to wealth is complex. Just because a certain clothing item may be seen to connote wealth, there are exceptions to those associations.
While some students can pass as upper-class with discounted name brands, others might deal with the assumptions other aspects of their identity, like race, bring to a discussion of class. Carolyn Brady ’19 who self-identified as wealthy and who is a member of the track team dealt with fallout after the “gangster” party, two years ago, when a less wealthy black teammate called her out on her class status.
“He was like, ‘I don’t think you know what you are talking about. You are not like us. You were not raised in the background we were. Your daddy could buy you all this,’” she said. “And I was so confused [because] I was not speaking for everyone. I was giving how I perceived this incident in my eyes, and he was like, ‘You cannot say this. Because you are of a higher class you do not understand what it means to be black.’”
Some students pass for wealthy but it also works the other way. Wealthier students sometimes buy clothes that disguise their class status as well, potentially “performing poverty,” as Saned Diaz ’20 described.
“To think students are ashamed to say their upper class is a major problem,” said Bredar. “If students cannot take the steps to acknowledge their privilege and acknowledge their backgrounds, then they cannot take the steps to go forward.”
After the event, students exited Mac to enter below freezing temperatures. In the coming weeks Bowdoin students will face this weather dawning different brands and styles. For some students, a Canada Goose jacket will be one option among many. For many others, not only is the pricey jacket not an option, but it is a reminder of the class differences present in many areas of academic and social life.
The panel last night not only fostered a conversation, it scraped at the perceptions entrenched in Bowdoin’s campus culture.
“I’m just really aware of trying to make people feel whatever situation they’re in, they’re not alone. I think that what I try to do when I’m candid,” said Petit-Molina.
Ellice Leuders contributed to this report.