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Community

Conversations
Readings for the
Class of 2014

August 31, 2010


Copyright ©2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Table of Contents

A More Perfect Union . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1


Barack Obama

Choosing to Be Black—The Ultimate White Privilege? . . . . . . . . . . . .2


Beverly Daniel Tatum

Every Asian American I Know is Smart . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9


Frank Wu

Opening Pandora’s Box: Adding Classism to the Agenda . . . . . . . . 14


Felice Yeskel

Choosing the Color of my Collar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .21


David Tebaldi ’10

Are You Cultured?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26


Brian Bolduc ’10

Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United


States: 2007 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
Unites States Census Bureau
Table 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
Table 2 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
Introduction
For many years, inspired by the vision of Archie C. Epps III, Dean of Students
in Harvard College (1970-1999), the Dean’s Office has assigned readings to
incoming first-year students, and has organized conversations with faculty and
administrators during Opening Days to address important questions raised in
the texts. The discussions, known as Community Conversations, have traditionally
offered students an opportunity to reflect on some issue that is of particular
significance to the College community.
As we welcome you, Harvard’s most racially and socio-economically diverse
class of first-year students, questions about identity and difference seem
especially important to consider. Community Conversations for 2010 will focus
on race, class, and the intersections between these characteristics. The readings,
chosen by a committee of faculty, administrators, and students, are intended
to help you become more aware of the diversity in society, to encourage you
to situate yourself within this diversity, and to promote communication. The
ultimate goal is to build a more inclusive and cohesive academic community.
The texts include a speech by President Barack Obama, essays by Beverly Daniel
Tatum, Frank Wu, Felice Yeskel, David Tebaldi ’10, and Brian Bolduc ’10, and
recent data from the United States Census Bureau regarding household income.
The committee considered readings by authors representing a wide variety of
racial, economic, and social backgrounds and made its final selections with an
eye toward presenting a set of readings that might prompt personal reflection
and group discussion.
The committee hopes that students will make their own meaning of the
selections and come to the conversations ready to share their views, keeping
in mind the relevance of the readings to their start at Harvard as part of an
exceptionally diverse class. The discussions, scheduled for August 31, 2010,
should provide an example of the intellectual give and take that is central to
a Harvard education and serve as a foundation for continuing dialogue on
important community issues. The emphasis is not on finding “right answers,”
but on figuring out where you stand on an issue and articulating your position
for the benefit of the group.
The Freshman Dean’s Office warmly thanks Laureen Esser for her assistance
with copyright issues.

Tom Dingman
Dean of Freshmen

On behalf of the Community Conversations Committee:


Terry Aladjem Riva Riley ’12
Inge-Lise Ameer Katherine Steele
Ned Hall Loc Truong
Kevin Liu ’11 Gregg Tucci
Robert Mitchell Tara Venkatraman ’11
Julie Berenzweig, Staff to Committee
A More Perfect Union
Barack Obama
The 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, J.D. ’91,
worked as a community organizer in Chicago before attending Har-
vard Law School. After completing his law degree, President Obama
returned to Chicago where he taught constitutional law and eventu-
ally entered politics. His speech “A More Perfect Union,” delivered in
Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential campaign, addresses “the
complexities of race” in the United States and sets forth a vision for
the future of race relations.

Rather than reading the transcript of President Obama’s ‘A More Perfect


Union’ speech, please view the speech online. In order to access the
speech, go to www.youtube.com and type in the search phrase “Barack
Obama: ‘A More Perfect Union’ (Full Speech)”. The full link is:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrp-v2tHaDo.

1
Choosing to Be Black—
The Ultimate White Privilege?
Beverly Daniel Tatum
Beverly Daniel Tatum is the President of Spelman College. As a clini-
cal psychologist, she is renowned for her research on racial identity
and racism. She is the author of numerous articles and books on
these issues, including “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together
in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversatizons about Race. In her essay
“Choosing To Be Black, the Ultimate White Privilege,” Tatum com-
pares and contrasts racial and economic privilege.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of first-year students at a


small selective liberal arts college in New England known for its liberal campus
environment. It was the beginning of the new semester, and I was the opening
speaker for their orientation program. The auditorium was packed full of the
eager and wide-eyed faces so characteristic of the first day of school. It was a
diverse group, young men and women, white and of color, sporting a range of
hair and clothing styles. While waiting to be introduced, I noticed shaved heads,
dreadlocks, hair dyed bright blue and red, bodies pierced in various places, and
a slight buzz of excitement that suggested to me that this would be a lively
discussion. And in fact it was.
My book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other
Conversations About Race, had been assigned as required summer reading for all
first-year students, and I could tell they were already talking to each other about
it. I was eager for them to talk to me about it too, and after a few introductory
remarks, I invited them to ask me questions about what I had written.
The first was about affirmative action. A young white woman said that she
had read my chapter but was still confused by the concept. Wasn’t it really just
“reverse racism?” I responded at some length by talking about the many ways
that racism still systematically provides white people with greater access to
education, employment, housing, quality health care, and media representation,
just to name a few examples.
On the blackboard I drew a diagram of a seesaw, one end tilted down,
representing the accumulated effect of racial discrimination on people of color,
and one end tilted up, representing the elevating effect of white privilege. We
need action—affirmative action, I explained, in order for us to reach the ideal
of the “level playing field”; in order for us to counter the insidious ways that
American cultural messages and institutional policies and practices still benefit
white people in educational and employment settings.
I also talked about why at a college, for example, diversity in the student body
as well as in the faculty and staff was important, and how students of color need
to see themselves represented in their environment just as white students almost

2
always do. It was clear by the heads nodding in the audience that many students
agreed with me, but it was certainly not unanimous.
In fact, a young white man standing in the back of the room spoke repeatedly
about his belief that the emphasis on race in affirmative action was misplaced.
“The issue,” he said, “is class, not race.” This blond-haired, blue-eyed freshman
did not see himself seated on the elevated end of my seesaw. “I grew up in the
inner city,” he said. “I went to the same crummy schools that the black kids did.
Most of my friends were black. What systematic advantage did I have?”
It was a question that I have heard before, and I invited some of his classmates
to respond to his comment. They did. Without minimizing the economic
struggle that this young man had experienced, classmates, both white and of
color, pointed out the benefits that come simply by virtue of skin color—when
dealing with the police, when shopping at the mall, when sitting in a class with
white professors. One young woman, a Latina, who had attended the same high
school as this young man, pointed out the benefit of the tracking system that
had disproportionately advantaged the white minority in the school, and the
ways whiteness conveys the benefit of the doubt in many situations. But the
young man remained unconvinced.
At the conclusion of the evening’s presentation, a number of students lingered
to ask individual questions, and this young man was among them. When
everyone else was gone, he told me more about his experience growing up in
a poor family, one of few white children in his neighborhood, the first in his
family to go to college. He resented racial categories, and rejected the label
white.
As he spoke earnestly about his identification with the black people with whom
he had grown up, I couldn’t help noticing how literally white he was—his pale
skin, blue eyes, and Nordic blond hair. And then he startled me by saying that
as his own personal protest against racial categories, when asked to indicate his
racial group membership on institutional forms, he always checked the “black”
box.
Up to that point, I had been sympathetic to his perspective. The intersection
of race and class is not always what the stereotypes would predict. I know that
from my own experience. People often assume that because I am black I grew
up poor and in an urban ghetto or that I am a first-generation college student.
None of these things are true. I grew up in a small, predominantly white
New England town in a solidly middle-class family, the daughter of a college
professor and an elementary school teacher. Even in my earliest memories of
school, I knew I was going to college: there was no question about it. Everyone
I knew in my family had.
In fact, not only am I a fourth-generation college graduate, I am a fourth-
generation college professor. Education has been the family business since the
early days of institutions like Tuskegee Institute and Howard University. I was

3
born in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court
decision outlawing legalized school segregation, and my educational experience
is unique in this regard—every school I have attended or taught in has been
predominantly white. My children’s experience mirrors mine. They are the sons
of college-educated parents, both of whom are college professors. They have
attended excellent schools, though deficient in the diversity of their student
populations.
As I stood talking to this young man, I realized that he was in many ways the
polar opposite of my son, also a college freshman at a prestigious New England
college. While this young man grew up poor in an inner city, my son had
always experienced relative suburban affluence and has had the educational
benefits found in that environment. I imagine that both of these young men
are excellent students—I know my son is, and I imagine that this young man
had to be in order to be admitted to his college. What meaning does race-based
affirmative action have in the context of these race and class reversals?
It is a question my own son has asked me. When he was in the tenth grade, he
had the opportunity to participate in a summer program designed to encourage
students from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in science. It was
not for students of color exclusively—white students from isolated rural areas
were included in the definition of underrepresented groups—but clearly the
majority of the participants were of color. My son read the materials describing
the program, concluded that it was designed for disadvantaged youth, and
questioned its appropriateness for him. “I am not disadvantaged,” he said.
“It is true that you are not economically disadvantaged,” I replied, “but as a
young black male, you are underrepresented, and that is a different kind of
disadvantage.”
Our class status provides many benefits but it does not protect my children
from the relative absence of positive images of black men and women in the
curriculum or in the media. It does not protect them from the assumptions
others make about them solely on the basis of their skin color, reflected in
women’s nervous clutching of purses or the sounds of automatic door locks on
cars as they pass by. It does not protect them from teachers who don’t know
their parents and who may make erroneous assumptions about their ability or
potential as “troublemakers.” It does not protect them from the real threat of a
deadly encounter with police officers. It does not give them the benefit of the
doubt that white skin so often conveys.
Of what value is the benefit of the doubt? Priceless? Certainly its value is
frequently underestimated and perhaps more often completely unacknowledged
by white people.
This point was brought home to me in a 1994 study conducted by a Mount
Holyoke graduate student, Phyllis Wentworth.1 Wentworth interviewed a

1 P.A. Wentworth, The Identity Development of Non-Traditionally Aged First-Generation Women College
Students: An Exploratory Study (Master’s thesis, Department of Psychology and Education, Mount
Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, 1994).

4
group of female college students, who were both older than their peers and
the first members of their families to attend college, about the pathways that
led them there. All of them were white and from working-class families where
women were expected to graduate from high school and get married or get a
job. Several had experienced abusive relationships and other personal difficulties
prior to coming to college. But I was struck repeatedly by the “good luck”
stories they told: stories of apartments obtained without a deposit, good jobs
offered without experience or extensive reference checks, encouragement
provided by willing mentors.
While the women acknowledged their good fortune, none of them discussed
their whiteness. They had not considered the possibility that being white had
worked in their favor, that being white had served to give them the “benefit
of the doubt” at critical junctures. This study clearly showed that even under
difficult circumstances, white privilege still operated.
While I respected the young man’s sincere discomfort with the “white” label
society forces him to wear, I resented his unwillingness to acknowledge the
racial privilege that comes with it, whether he wants it or not. Choosing the
“black” box does not change that.
But what did this young man really hope to convey by choosing the black box?
Was he being a “race traitor,” as Noel Ignatiev would call him? Ignatiev and his
coeditor John Garvey wrote in the inaugural issue of their journal Race Traitor,
“The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned
to it to place their racial interests above class, gender, or any other interests
they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a
determinant of behavior will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse. . . .
Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”2 I’m not sure that my conversation
partner had ever heard of Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, or their journal, but it
was clear he wanted to defect. Why?
One reason is that the label “white” did not convey to the world his economic
struggle as someone who had endured a life of poverty. Calling himself black
was a statement about that pain. Was it also an expression of solidarity with those
whose poverty and neighborhood he had shared? I suspect it was, and in that
sense his desire to be an ally is commendable. But can one really be an effective
ally without acknowledging one’s privilege?
His escape from his inferior high school and the poverty of his neighborhood
to the private college campus where we both stood was made statistically
more likely by his white skin, and, as an ally, I expected him to acknowledge
that. I now wonder what he expected from me. Did he want a greater
acknowledgement of my class privilege than I was willing to make?

2 John Garvey and Noel Ignatiev, “Editorial: Abolish the White Race—By Any Means Necessary,”
Race Traitor, 1:1 (1993); 1-8.

5
As we stood there engaged in our dialogue, we embodied our multiple
identities—he is white (however reluctantly), male, poor, young—I am black,
female, middle class, middle aged. I am also heterosexual, Christian, and
currently able-bodied. I don’t know how this young man identified on those
dimensions—but it was clear that each of us was speaking from the part of our
identity where we have felt the most targeted. He wanted to emphasize class. I
wanted to emphasize race. Our conflict was not surprising.
In her essay, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,”
Audre Lorde captured the tensions between dominant and targeted identities
coexisting in one individual. This self-described “forty-nine-year-old Black
lesbian feminist socialist mother of two” wrote:
Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical
norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.”
In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young,
heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical
norm that the trappings of power reside within society. Those of us
who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are
different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression,
forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we
ourselves may be practicing.3
It is easy to feel impatient with white people who appear not to recognize their
white skin privilege. But my own impatience is tempered when I remember
how much of my life I spent oblivious to the daily advantages I receive simply
because I am heterosexual, or the ways in which I may take my class privilege
for granted. I know I am still a work in progress, capable of distorting others’
differences, but that did not change the fact that I was irritated by this young
man’s choice to check the black box.
Why did his decision so bother me? In the context of our conversation, it
symbolized to me the essence of unacknowledged privilege. He said he was
making the choice because he felt he had more in common with black people
than with whites, but could the situation be reversed? Could a black person who
had grown up in white neighborhoods and felt identified with white cultural
norms and experiences realistically choose the “white” box? What would
happen if someone did? Historically we know what has happened.
Consider the case of Susie Guillory Phipps, a Louisiana woman who checked
the wrong box. In 1983 she was denied a passport because she had checked
white on the passport application although her birth certificate designated her
race as “colored.” She was a victim of the “one-drop rule,” the legal and social
practice that classified anyone with known African ancestry as “black,” or in this
case “colored,” and reserved the label “white” only for those with no known
African ancestry. In this instance, the “colored” designation had been made by
3 Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in P. Rothenberg (Ed.),
Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study (3rd ed.) (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
1995), p. 446.

6
the midwife who had delivered her, presumably based on her knowledge of the
family’s status in the community; but the information came as a shock to Mrs.
Phipps, who had always considered herself white.
She asked the Louisiana courts to change the classification on her deceased
parents’ birth certificates to “white” so that she and her siblings could be legally
designated as “white.” They all appeared to be white, and some were blue-eyed
blonds. At the time, Louisiana law indicated that anyone whose ancestry was
more than one thirty-second black was categorized as black. In this case, the
lawyers for the state claimed to have proof that Mrs. Phipps was three thirty-
seconds black, which was more than enough African ancestry to justify her
parents’ classification as “colored.” Consequently, she and her siblings were
legally black.
The case was decided in May 1983, and in June the state legislature gave parents
the right to designate the race of newborns themselves rather than relying on the
doctor or midwife’s assessment. In the case of previous misclassification, parents
were given the right to change their child’s racial designation to “white” if they
could prove the child’s whiteness by a “preponderance of the evidence.”
But the 1983 statute did not abolish the one-drop rule. In fact, when Mrs.
Phipps appealed the case, the state’s Fourth Circuit of Appeals upheld the lower
court’s decision, concluding that the preponderance of the evidence was that
her parents were indeed “colored.” In 1986, when the case was appealed to the
Louisiana Supreme Court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, both courts
refused to review the decision, in effect leaving the one-drop rule untouched.4
The case of Mrs. Phipps is not unique: a lot of so-called white people have
unacknowledged African ancestry, while it is estimated that 75 to 90 percent
of black Americans have white European ancestry and about 25 percent have
Native American heritage. Most biologists and physical anthropologists tell us
that racial categories are social constructions that have little biological meaning.
Though populations from particular geographic regions can be distinguished
from each other by commonly occurring physical traits such as hair texture,
skin tone, facial structure, or blood type, there is no such thing as a “pure”
race. All human populations are “mixed” populations. Yet the categories have
power because they have been imbued with social meaning. Does checking the
“wrong” box change that social meaning or challenge the social inequities that
have so long been associated with our systems of racial classification?
I know that for many reasons, perhaps most notably the dramatic increase in
biracial children being raised in multiracial families, the use of those boxes is in

4 See F.J. Davis, Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State
University Press, 1991), chapters 1 and 2.

7
flux. In reality we could all check new and unexpected boxes—but without a
commitment to other strategies for social transformation, our systems of social
inequity remain unchanged, and ultimately that is my concern.
I know this conversation has not ended. The young man took my e-mail
address, and I fully expect to hear from him. When I do, I will introduce him
to the work of David Wellman, a white sociologist who grew up in a black
neighborhood in Detroit. In an autobiographical essay about identity, Wellman
wrote: “Until recently, my racial identity had no name I would answer to.
Whiteness was never an unmarked category for me. I’ve not taken my whiteness
for granted, or experienced it as normal, invisible. My self-conception has been
in a permanent state of war with the socially constructed version of who I’m
supposed to be.”5
Like that of my young friend, Wellman’s construction of his life experience
did not fit with the white label. But there is a crucial difference: Wellman has
recognized the inescapability of his privilege. Describing himself as a “border
person,” one who has learned to juggle cultures and move between multiple
communities in a pluralistic world, he acknowledges the privilege embedded
even in this identity, writing: “The borders I live on are porous. My crossings
are opportunities as well as options. I can choose to live on borders, or avoid
them. That choice is privilege, even when experienced as pain. My colleagues
of color don’t choose border identities. They can’t refuse them either. And they
can’t move between them as easily as do I. The elements of choice and privilege
in my life mean I cannot be otherized in the same way as people of color.”6
That is the point I want this young man to understand. Wellman’s awareness
comes from experience and thoughtful, sometimes painful, reflection. Mine
does too.
Perhaps my young friend and I will never come to an agreement on this point,
but it was a conversation worth having. We are all works in progress.

5 David Wellman, “Red and Black in White America,” in B. Thompson and S. Tyagi (eds.), Names
We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 29.
6 Ibid., p. 38.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. “Choosing to be Black—The Ultimate White Privilege?” When


Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront their Personal Histories. Ed. Bernestine
Singley. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002. 215-223. © 2002
Beverly Daniel Tatum.
Printed with permission of the author.

8
Every Asian American I Know is Smart
Frank Wu
Frank Wu is a professor of law at Howard University. He also has
served as Dean of Wayne State University Law School and has taught
at several universities in the United States as well as Peking University
in China. His works include Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and
White, in which he seeks to broaden the discussion of race. In his es-
say “Every Asian American I Know is Smart,” Wu explores the founda-
tions and flaws of stereotypes associated with Asian Americans.

As a middle-school student in the 1970s in metropolitan Detroit, I once told


a teacher with whom I had a dispute over homework, “Well, every Asian
American I know is smart.” Perhaps I made this obnoxious comment out of
vulnerability as the only Asian American child in the class. I was not aware at
the time that I was merely repeating a cliché.
It turns out that many people, Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans
alike, believe more or less what I asserted. The model minority myth continues
to endure as the dominant narrative about Asian Americans. It is a wonderful
celebration of immigrant success. The media and the popular culture have
promoted it as if awestruck, ever since the 1965 immigration reforms allowed
large numbers of Asians to arrive on these shores.
According to this story, the parents, who are fleeing famine, war, and repression,
arrive here possessing only the American Dream and a willingness to do
whatever it takes to acquire it. They work 24/7, without complaining, and they
encourage their children to study with similar single-minded dedication. They
are clean, industrious, and well behaved. The elders make every sacrifice for the
next generation and beat their youngsters for receiving an A-minus. In turn, a
succession of child prodigies named Kim, Patel, and Ng win every music recital,
spelling bee, science fair, and math competition. They dominate the top ten of
the high school graduating class, win scholarships to the most elite universities,
and then overwhelm those campuses. Their cousins follow them, repeating the
cycle.
Together, their example proves to all citizens that their nation is genuinely open
to people of all races, colors and creeds. As a corollary, their accomplishments
provide reassurance to observers that racial prejudice is no longer a serious
problem. Our respective stations in life are determined by our own skills and
willingness to apply ourselves, rather than inherited privilege such as royal titles
or historical problems such as the chattel slavery and subsequent Jim Crow black
codes. If we face obstacles, we can overcome them if we have the will to do so;
it’s essentially a matter of whether an individual chooses to apply himself.
The model minority myth is doubtlessly appealing. There are even self-help
books purporting to offer lessons for parents who wish they, too, could raise
a child just as Asian American families would. It would seem to be bizarre

9
“political correctness” for a people to complain about a complimentary portrayal
of them as uniformly upwardly mobile. Asian Americans are reputed to be too
polite to do so anyway. We should be grateful for the opportunities offered to
us, the model minority myth posits, which would not have been available to our
ancestors.
Nonetheless, the model minority myth is a racial stereotype. As such, it is
dangerous. It takes nothing away from the Asian Americans whose lives are
in fact modern-day Horatio Alger “rags to riches” stories with a Confucian
theme, to suggest that it might well be problematic to make assumptions about
those who share with them nothing more than skin color, texture of hair, and
shape of eye – if even that much. Although the individuals who have done the
impossible of lifting themselves “up by their bootstraps” still deserve admiration
if not envy, the group image invites thoughtful criticism as well.
At the most basic level, the model minority myth has a germ of truth, which
becomes exaggerated and distorted. Its platitudes cannot be applied to some
fifteen million individuals of dozens of lineages, immigration statuses, languages,
ideologies, religions, classes, and professions. Among them are fifth generation
Japanese Americans, “fresh off the boat” (in the pejorative phrase) Southeast
Asians, mixed-raced celebrities, and adoptees raised by Caucasian parents. The
sole feature they have in common is that they trace their roots to a continent
where they would not have perceived of themselves as united in any meaningful
sense. For in Asia, pan-ethnic “Asia” is associated with imperialism and idealism.
It is true that, on average, some Asian ethnic groups have better family incomes
than the average for the general population. Indians, Chinese and Japanese
compare favorably to white ethnic groups. But on average other Asian ethnic
groups have low family incomes. Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong, as well as
Pacific Islanders, are comparable to other people of color. If gross generalizations
are to be allowed, Asian Americans differ from other Americans in key respects
that affect their income: on average, they are more highly educated, more likely
to be self-employed, and tend to have a higher number of individual wage-
earners contributing to the overall household.
To the extent Asian Americans enjoy high status, their position reflects other
patterns. Many of the Asian immigrants who appear to be self-made millionaires
actually represent “brain drain” from their nations of origin. They have acquired
a coveted green card, because of demand for their skills: they are doctors,
engineers, and professionals whose levels of education give them greater human
capital than either their compatriots back home or their new neighbors in
the United States. Their American-born progeny are likely to prosper in the
same manner that the children of an M.D. or Ph.D. of any heritage are likely
to do well. The triumph of Asian Americans is a consequence of the selective
nature of immigration policies. It continues because of the importance of family
background, rather than ethnic identity, as a determinant of socioeconomic
status. There are poor Asians of course, but they by and large remain in Asia.

10
Given the volatility of racial categories, however, even the most positive
portrayal of Asian Americans can contain its negative counterpart. The
notion that Asian Americans are all doing well not only whitewashes racial
discrimination and social problems, but also leads to racial resentment and
backlash. Asian American claims of workplace bias, even if it is the well-
documented problem of the “glass ceiling” (sometimes called a “bamboo
ceiling”), are dismissed as implausible. Individual grievances that would be
recognized and remedied, if presented by persons of other backgrounds, are
ignored or denied. After all, everyone knows Asian Americans have “made it.”
Even worse, the sense of Asian American prosperity inspires racial bitterness
– especially because the perpetual foreigner syndrome leads other Americans
to perceive Asian Americans, whether native-born or not, as outsiders. Racial
stereotypes are susceptible to reversal. The traits that should be praised are
instead condemned: to be hard-working is to be unfair competition, to be good
at math and science is to be not well-rounded and lacking in people skills, to
have strong families is to be too clannish, and so on.
In a society that celebrates the underdog, Asian Americans seem to be too good
for their own good. We are “overachievers” who have exceeded expectations.
The very term “overachiever” is ambiguous. Asian Americans have more
than their fair share of awards and recognition, opportunities and jobs. With
an acute sense of global competition, white students and their parents have
started to assert that they are being forced out of the best schools, because Asian
Americans are wrecking the grade curve. In areas of heavy Asian American
migration, such as Monterey Park, California, or Flushing, New York, non-
Asian Americans have joked about the last American left turning out the lights
and complained that they have become foreigners in their own land.
Ironically, the basis for Asian American academic achievement is universal and
not some sort of innate Oriental secret. The possibility that Asian Americans
are hardwired to have higher IQ scores has been debunked. We actually have
slightly lower average IQ scores. Studies also confirm that anyone can copy the
approach of Asian Americans with similar effects. It requires a belief that effort
brings rewards, within social networks that promote academic life. Perhaps the
popular perception will change, so that a desire to do well in school is regarded
not as “acting white” but as “acting Asian.”
Equally troubling, the celebration of Asian Americans can be false flattery. It
can be a none too subtle means of denigrating African Americans with the
inflammatory taunt, “They made it, why can’t you?”
In the original magazine article introducing the model minority myth, which
one scholar has called “the most influential single article ever written about an
Asian-American group,” sociologist William Petersen described, as his title put
it, a “Success Story, Japanese American Style.” Published in 1966 by the New
York Times, the essay explained, “[B]y any criterion of good citizenship that
we choose, the Japanese-Americans are better than any group in our society,

11
including native-born whites.” The point, Petersen explained, is that “generally,
this kind of treatment,” meaning historical discrimination, “as we all know these
days, creates what might be termed ‘problem minorities.’”
The same year, U.S. News & World Report ran a similar piece about Chinese
Americans, concluding, “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of
billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000
Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own, with no help from anyone
else.”
The pair of articles is representative of the trend they began. The comparison of
Asian Americans as the model minority versus African Americans and Hispanics
as the “problem minorities” is invidious, turning Asian Americans into a wedge
group. It is an inapt comparison. Asian Americans and African Americans have
different group histories. Almost all of the former have come on a voluntary
basis, while many of the latter are descendants of those who came through
chattel slavery as human property. They also face different contemporary
challenges, as the model minority myth itself reveals. African Americans have
long faced the most negative images about intellectual capabilities, the opposite
of Asian Americans. (It is no accident that the most troubling studies suggest that
African Americans who are academically talented are adversely affected by the
stereotype of their mental inferiority.)
The model minority myth, then, is fairly characterized as an updated version of
the Yellow Peril menace of a century ago. Non-Asian American citizens who
take for granted that the nation belongs to them have had a long-standing fear
that Asian Americans will somehow take over. The bases for the anxieties were
the same as the model minority myth: Asian immigrants were hard working, too
hard-working; they were smart, too smart. In an earlier era, those sentiments
led to the rallying cry, “The Chinese Must Go!” as part of a campaign that
culminated in the exclusion acts, so that Asian immigrants were barred from
entry for the most part and the few who were here were prohibited from
naturalizing as citizens; Alien Land Laws that ensured Japanese Americans could
not own land and thrive as farmers; and, finally, the internment, motivated by
a desire to be rid of the population more than military necessity during World
War II.
Despite its suggestion of Asian superiority, the model minority myth constrains
the lives of Asian Americans. The model minority myth creates extreme stress
for Asian American youngsters. We must be geniuses or else. Asian Americans
are not allowed to be normal or ordinary; we cannot be artists or athletes,
leaders or protestors. Asian Americans are denied the full range of human
activity and emotion. What they have done well becomes an example of what
they do poorly: for instance, the Asian American pianist is criticized because she
is too technically perfect and thus lacks soul.
The model minority myth has allowed Asian Americans to cross the color line,
though, even as it reinforces that hierarchy for other racial minorities. Asian

12
Americans are becoming white for some purposes. In historical contexts and
overseas, it is not unheard of for Asian Americans to be deemed “honorary”
whites. Some writers have even said that an Anglo-Asian “overclass” is
emerging in contrast to the African American-Latino “underclass.”
The clearest example of the phenomenon is the treatment of Asian Americans in
affirmative action programs. Asian Americans are acquiring a new racial status,
thanks to the affirmative action debate. In 2003, the United States Supreme
Court decided a pair of cases involving the University of Michigan admissions
policies. In declaring that diversity could be pursued and finding that it was
important to enroll a critical mass of people of color, upholding the program
at the Law School and striking down the program at the undergraduate level, a
majority of the Justices ruled that race could be considered as a factor in high-
stakes decisions. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, an institution that
is both public and elite, generally considered Asian Americans as the equivalent
of whites in its race-sensitive processes. The plaintiffs who filed suit argued they
were representing the interests of Asian Americans along with whites. The only
means for Asian Americans to face discrimination as a direct result of affirmative
action is if it favors whites – that is, if rather than affirmative action promoting
racial diversity at a school it is used to stabilize the proportion of whites there.
Over the years, I have learned enough about Asian American experiences to
realize it is foolish to believe all Asian Americans are anything – except perhaps
individuals. Although like other Asian Americans I undoubtedly have benefited
from the model minority myth, I have concluded it is crucial for all Asian
Americans to reject it as damaging to our shared ideals of democracy. The
reality of Asian American lives is much more complex and worthwhile.

© 2009 Frank H. Wu.


Printed with permission of the author.

13
Opening Pandora’s Box: Adding Classism
to the Agenda
Felice Yeskel
Felice Yeskel is co-founder of Class Action and United for a Fair
Economy and an adjunct faculty member of the Social Justice Educa-
tion Program at the University of Massachusetts. She has led numer-
ous workshops about healing divisions based on class, race, gender,
and sexual orientation. In her essay “Opening Pandora’s Box: Adding
Classism to the Agenda,” Yeskel examines the nature of class privilege
and why the topic of class is difficult for many to discuss.

Imagine sitting in a room in a circle of chairs. Across from you is someone who
grew up in a small mansion where servants, responding to a bell, served meals.
Her current net worth is over 14 million dollars. To your left is someone with a
net worth significantly less than zero, due to health care debts. He grew up in a
trailer and never attended college. She was raised with unexamined and unaware
class privilege, while he was raised with the humiliation of public assistance. Six
other people, with various class experiences, also sit around the circle.
Most of us had never really discussed our own class experiences with anyone,
nor shared our feelings about our class differences with others. I helped form
this Cross-Class Dialogue Group1 a little over ten years ago when eight of us
began a journey of dialogue about class issues. Four of us were millionaires and
brought up in privileged families. Four of us were raised poor or working class/
lower middle class. We all passionately desired a world with greater equality and
justice.
We began this journey with the belief that we had to talk to each other across
our differences if we wanted to really understand one another. We believed
we must know each other if we are to allow compassion, rather than fear,
guilt, anger and resentment, to determine our strategies for social change.
We wondered if there was a way to make sense of our diverse experiences
and emotions and bridge the class divide. Starting with an attitude of
experimentation, we weren’t sure what we would find or how useful it might
ultimately be.
Our group met monthly for about six hours over six and a half years and
became a learning laboratory for understanding class differences and dynamics.
Although I had been an activist, teacher and author for many years — exploring
class issues on a personal level, experiencing some cross-class relationships,
organizing activities on issues of economic inequality — never before had I
explored the depth of feelings and experiences as I did during those six and a
half years.

1 I would like to acknowledge Jennifer Ladd, who started the group with me.

14
At the age of five, I was sent from my neighborhood in New York City to
Hunter College Elementary School on 68th Street and Park Avenue, to a
school for “intellectually gifted” kids. I not only crossed the miles on the way
to school, but the cultures too. I learned to act differently, talk differently and
basically to pass as middle class. I never invited anyone home from school
because I was ashamed of where I lived. In our dialogue group I met someone
who came from a super-privileged family who never invited anyone home
either because she was embarrassed by her big, fancy house. I was surprised we
shared that common ground.
We learned that the person who came from the most poverty wasn’t saving
for retirement, not because they couldn’t have done so financially, but
because it was hard to imagine living that long. Most of his family members
had died well before 60 due to work-related causes. It was an illuminating
and liberating experience for all of us in the group. As our group came to a
close, we wondered how we might bring some of the lessons we learned out
into the world so that others, who weren’t likely to spend six and a half years
in dialogue, could benefit from what we were learning. It was out of that
experience that Class Action2 was born.
Class: Our Collective Family Secret
Walk into any hospital cafeteria and you’ll seldom see the class lines broken. At
lunch or dinnertime there will be tables of nurses, tables of doctors and tables of
working crews (maintenance, food service, security, etc.). This same dynamic
is replicated in many other workplaces across the U.S. The divisions aren’t only
based on race or gender; they are based on class — what Noam Chomsky calls
“the unmentionable five-letter word.”
Class is our collective family secret. We pretend it doesn’t exist and if it
doesn’t exist how can we talk about it? This invisibility and lack of attention,
unfortunately, is often as true among diversity professionals as it is in society at
large. The idea of adding issues of classism to our existing list of issues causes
discomfort. We worry about what might happen when we open this Pandora’s
box.
Workplaces are one of the few places where there is any cross-class contact.
Most of us tend to live in a class segregated world. Because of the way housing
works, our immediate neighborhoods are usually homogenous. So, too, are our
social circles. Even those of us who regularly socialize with folks of varied races,
ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations, don’t typically spend social time
with folks different from us class-wise.

2 Class Action has developed a variety of resources including a wonderful website full of useful
resources. We publish a monthly e-newsletter that highlights resources, actions and events. If you are
interested in subscribing please visit our website. Class Action helps organizations better fulfill their
missions by reducing class barriers and facilitating cross-class connections.

15
In many of the workshops I facilitate, I ask people how many have graduated
from a four-year college. I then ask those who have a college degree or more,
how many have friends who didn’t go to or graduate from college. Very few
hands are raised. Since only 28 percent of those over age 25 have graduated
from a four-year college,3 random odds tell us we would have a decent
percentage of friends who didn’t go to college. But there is nothing random
operating; we are experiencing the systemic effects of class segregation and
classism.
When I recently asked this question of diversity professionals in a train-the-
trainer session focused on class issues the response was the same. If we are the
folks who make a living teaching others the importance of valuing diversity and
how to eliminate systemic barriers and discrimination, then why isn’t this on
our agendas? There are many reasons for this and one is the lack of clarity and
consensus about what we mean by class. Fifteen years ago I wanted to write my
dissertation on anti-classist training and education. After spending eight months
trying to define “class” to the satisfaction of my committee, I switched topics.
There are no commonly agreed upon definitions because different disciplines
focus on different aspects of class. Some economists focus on income strata
as the main criteria, such as whether someone is in the bottom or middle
quintile. Some sociologists tend to focus primarily on occupational status; is
someone white collar, blue/pink collar, etc.? Still others focus on the issue of
ownership, power or control; does someone sell their labor or own the means
of production? For others it is how much control does someone have in the
workplace and over the conditions under which they work? Still others talk
about class as culture, which includes values, cultural capital (what you know)
and social capital (who you know). If we don’t have clarity about class, social
class or socio-economic class how can we tackle classism?
Many Americans take pride and comfort in the belief that all people have
boundless opportunity. We believe that since there are no landed gentry,
aristocracy and titles based on birth, that class no longer matters today — that
class was a problem of a different time and place. However, the gap between
rich and poor in the U.S. is the greatest it has been since 1929. Since the late
1970s, the wealthy have gained a bigger share of the nation’s private wealth; the
richest one percent of the population now have more wealth than the bottom
90 percent. Income inequality has grown as well. Average Americans were
actually making less, on an hourly basis, at the end of the 1990s than they made
in 1980.4
3 In 2005, 85 percent of all adults 25 years or older reported they had completed at least high school.
More than one-quarter (28 percent) of adults age 25 years and older had attained at least a bachelor’s
degree. October 26, 2006 Census Bureau News Release, “ Census Bureau Data Underscore Value of
College Degree.”
4 Collins, Chuck & Yeskel, Felice, “Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic
Inequality and Insecurity,” New York: The New Press, 2005.

16
Classist Ideology and Mythology
In addition to these material realities, classist ideology and mythology shape the
beliefs that provide the rationale for such excessive inequality. The American
Dream — the belief that people in this country can attain enough income to
own their own homes and provide comfortably for their families if only they
work hard enough — is pervasive. The fact that most Americans can point to at
least one example where this is true reinforces the myth of class mobility and the
assumption that those who don’t move up the class ladder lack a strong work
ethic. We locate the credit and blame for success or lack of success solely in the
individual.
While it is true that there is some class fluidity, and that our class position may
change over the course of a lifetime, the current reality is that economic class is
much less fluid than most people think. A series on class in America5 reviewed
research on class mobility and concluded that, “mobility... has lately flattened
out or possibly even declined.” At the same time, according to a New York
Times poll conducted in 2005, “More Americans than 20 years ago believe it is
possible to start out poor, work hard and become rich.” There is a cruel irony to
this situation; people are more likely to believe that they can make it, while in
fact they are less able to succeed economically. People in this situation, without
an adequate systemic understanding of how class works, often internalize
classism and blame themselves. They find scapegoats and blame others. They
buy lottery tickets and engage in some level of fantasy that they too will some
day be rich.
Particularly during periods of social and economic stress, in the absence of a
framework for understanding classism, people often turn to scapegoats and
distractions. Thus the underlying factors6 that create vast inequalities in wealth,
along with the beneficiaries of these policies, remain largely invisible.7 Instead,
people on welfare are blamed for causing our budget woes; urban young men
of color are blamed for crime; immigrants are blamed for taking away jobs;
working women, gays and lesbians are held responsible for the breakdown of
the nuclear family and the moral decay of society.
Issues of class and classism also intersect with every other form of oppression.
Race and class in particular are very intertwined in the U.S. While about half
of all poor people are white, wealthy people are disproportionately white. Poor
people are disproportionately black, Latino/a and Native American. The racial
wealth divide is even wider than the income gap: for every dollar of assets
owned by Whites, people of color own about 18 cents of that dollar.8

5 The New York Times, May 2005.


6 For example, domestic tax and spending policies, U.S. imperialism, war, global trade policies,
multinational corporate power, etc.
7 Collins & Yeskel, 2005; Kivel, “You Call This a Democracy?” New York: The Apex Press, 2004.
8 Lui et al., “The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide,” New York:
The New Press, 2006.

17
People living in poverty are more likely than others to be disabled, and
disabled people are more likely than able-bodied people to be poor. A far
higher percentage of people with disabilities live in households that are below
the poverty level (29 versus 10 percent overall), and a similarly proportionate
number report not having adequate access to health care or transportation.9
The feminization of poverty over the last 30 years has increased the classism
and sexism connection. There is the two-job phenomenon for women, who
still perform endless hours of unpaid work caring for children and the elderly at
home on top of their paid work out in the world.10 Men are socialized to equate
self-worth with what they produce (their net worth) and women performing
comparable work to men are still not paid an equal amount.
Beyond the Economic Realm
The harms from classism, however, extend far beyond the economic realm.
Prejudice exists in our language, in words such as “trailer trash,” “white trash,”
“redneck,” “ghetto,” “low-class” and “classy.” The same prejudice is manifested
in the treatment of service workers; underpaying them, disregarding their
humanity and often creating unnecessary tasks for them to do. Popular culture
and the U.S. media are full of classist stereotypes. Working-class people are
often portrayed as dumb buffoons while poor people are depicted as criminals,
tragic victims or heartwarming givers of wisdom. Wealthy people are rendered
as shallow and vain or as evil villains. “Normal” is portrayed as an expensive
upper middle-class lifestyle that no more than ten percent of American
families can actually afford. This combines with manipulative advertising to
fuel consumerism, the overemphasis on buying more and better things as a
component of happiness, which in turn fuels excessive consumer debt.11
The lives of many working-class people, especially those of people in poverty,
are full of stress. The shortage of options and scarce resources take an emotional
toll.12 Bad health outcomes, such as shorter life expectancy, higher infant
mortality and more preventable diseases are prevalent among working-class and
poor people. These stem not only from inferior health care, poor diet, long
hours and physical work that take a toll on workers’ bodies, but also from the
stress of living in a society that looks down on them. Disrespect is harmful.13
Interestingly, it is not just poverty that creates bad health outcomes. In a given
population where basic needs are met, greater levels of economic inequality
correlate with negative health outcomes for everyone. People higher up the
economic spectrum as well as those lower down have worse health outcomes
when the inequality is greater.14

9 National Organization on Disabilities, 2000.


10 Folbre, “The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values,” New York: The New Press, 2001.
11 Degraaf, Wann, & Naylor, “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic,” San Francisco: Berrett-
Koehler Publishers, 2001; and Frank, “Luxury Fever,” Princeton University Press, 2000.
12 Sennett & Cobb, “The Hidden Injuries of Class,” Vintage Press, 1973.
13 Lawrence-Lightfoot, “Respect: An Exploration,” Perseus Books Group 2000; and Miller & Savoie,
“Respect And Rights: Class, Race, And Gender Today,” Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002.
14 Wilkinson, Richard G., “The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier,” New
York: The New Press, 2005.

18
Classism, like other forms of oppression, can be internalized causing self-
blame, shame, low expectations, discouragement and self-doubt, particularly
about one’s intelligence. Internalized classism15 can also be manifested through
disrespect towards other poor and working-class people, in the form of harsh
judgments, betrayal, violence and other crimes. Upward mobility, far from
bringing relief from classism, can bring culture shock and painful divided
loyalties.16
Professional middle-class people are harmed when they’re isolated from
working-class people and taught they are superior to them and should be in
charge. They are harmed by misinformation about how society works (they
are sometimes less clued in to social and economic trends than working-class,
poor or rich people), and by conditioning that shapes their behavior to a narrow
“proper” range.17 In addition to the same isolation and lack of awareness that
impacts middle class people, wealthy people also find that others sometimes
connect with them primarily in relation to their money, and they may have
trouble trusting others’ motivations. Some develop a sense of entitlement and
arrogance that makes them unable to connect across class differences.
Many of the ways we “read” someone’s class, or “size someone up” in terms of
class (a process that can be quite unconscious), is based on our own class culture,
which includes normative behaviors such as language use, manner of dress and
the “proper” guidelines for conducting ourselves. While these things can be
learned, the process is not easy. We also judge others’ cultural capital, which
refers to their familiarity with cultural objects such as books, fine art, theater,
restaurants, vacation spots and jewelry.
Encouraging Diversity Professionals to Step Up
Part of the challenge of adding issues of class and classism to the agenda is the
prohibition on talking about it. In the U.S., discussions involving issues of
class and money are often more taboo than discussing sexuality. Deep-seated
prohibitions about disclosing the facts of one’s class identity are learned quite
early in our lives. Shame of being poorer or richer than others leads to secrecy
and silence. This silence powerfully maintains the invisibility of class. Issues of
class may be less familiar than other issues of oppression partly due to secrecy
about the personal aspects of class identity and the confusion surrounding the
societal and economic aspects. Diversity professionals with math anxiety or who

15 People who are poor/working-class often internalize the dominant society’s beliefs/attitudes toward
them, and act them out on themselves and others of a similar class. The acceptance and justification of
classism by working class and poor people, plays out in feelings of inferiority to higher-class people and
feelings of superiority to people lower on the class spectrum. Often hostility and blame is projected on
other working class or poor people, including beliefs that classist institutions are fair.
16 Lubrano, Limbo, “Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams,” Wiley; 2003.
17 Leondar-Wright, “Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle Class Activists,” New
Society Publishers, 2005.

19
are unfamiliar with the economic basics, e.g., the difference between income
and wealth, or between salary and wages or the meaning of terms like Gross
National Product (GNP), often feel overwhelmed while tackling issues of class.
A central reason most diversity professionals don’t add classism to the agenda
may be because classism is a different type of “ism.” It is possible to imagine
working for equality between the sexes, or equality for gays and lesbians or
people of color, without necessarily eliminating gender, sexual orientation
or race as identities. However, by definition it is impossible to have equality
between classes while still having different classes. You can’t have an owning
class without having a working class, a serf without nobility or a slaveholder
without slaves. The existence of class necessitates class inequality. I think it is
because of this that the rationales that underlie class inequality are so strong and
persistent.
Ultimately, I don’t think we will be successful in any of our work against
racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc., until we begin to take on the issue of
classism. I encourage you to add issues of classism to your work.

Yeskel, Felice. “Opening Pandora’s Box: Adding Classism to the Agenda.” The Diversity
Factor. 15.1 (2007): 11-16. © 2007 The Diversity Factor.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

20
Choosing the Color of my Collar
David Tebaldi ‘10
Originally from Long Island, New York, David Tebaldi ‘10 was raised
in an area he describes as “predominantly lower-middle class, with
relatively persistent racial and economic divisions between neighbor-
hoods.” In his essay, Tebaldi reflects on how becoming a member of
the Harvard community and interacting with fellow students influ-
enced his personal sense of identity. He is currently working for Sears
Holdings Corporation in Chicago, as a Business Analyst.

I don’t come from a Harvard legacy. In fact, neither of my parents went to


college. My family doesn’t vacation on the Cape. We barbecue in our back
yard. My father is not a businessman, a lawyer, or a politician. He’s a well
driller. But am I white collar or blue collar? Is my identity tied to the intellectual
pursuits of my education or the manual labor of my family’s history? To tell the
truth, I don’t really know.
Defining one’s identity is a challenge that many students deal with at some
point during their time in college. Harvard, with all of its incredible diversity,
maintains a certain stereotypical, New England prep school image and culture.
If you ask someone in my own community what the average Harvard man
looks like, many are likely to conjure up some image of seersucker suits,
patterned ties, and boat shoes. Meanwhile, the popular image of a Harvard
woman might involve sweater sets, pearl earrings, and penny loafers. Certainly,
there are individuals at Harvard who do dress like this, but the image is hardly
representative of the majority of today’s Harvard students. Harvard is instead
a place where the average is without definition – a place so diverse that each
student is truly unique.
When I first received my acceptance letter, my family was happy beyond words.
To go from high school dropout to Harvard in one generation was amazing.
And it meant more to me than just an opportunity to go to college; it was an
opportunity to pull my family up along with me. I grew up with a relatively
large extended family, and, for much of the time, my brother and cousins were
my best friends. I was the first in my extended family to have the chance to
go to a private college, and I felt that the next four years would not just be a
learning opportunity for myself, but a chance to pave the way for my younger
cousins. A Harvard degree also meant a chance at helping my parents financially,
eventually paying for my own education, and providing them a retirement fund
that they never had. They’d sacrificed quite a lot to get me here, and I was eager
to give it all back.
What I didn’t realize that afternoon would take me nearly three years to truly
understand. Being accepted into Harvard meant acquiring a responsibility to a
new identity. That is, for the rest of my life, I would be connected to Harvard,
and it would become a large part of my own personal identity. It would soon

21
become an enjoyable and very valuable part of my identity, but it would also be
quite a big change.
I saw the results of this change almost immediately. Around my town and
school, I tried to be as modest as possible about my acceptance, and even
tried to avoid the subject in conversations, but from the moment I read my
acceptance letter until the day I left for my first day of college, I received mixed
reactions from my classmates. While most congratulated me on my acceptance,
others were hesitant. This hesitation came in two forms. First was the classic
response that so many Harvard students encounter – no matter how modestly
I would answer the question “Where are you going to college?”, almost every
reaction was negative. Even wearing my Harvard sweatshirt to school was
viewed as a pompous act, meant to tout my Ivy League status. The second form
was much more interesting, and foreshadowed some of my own feelings that
I’d encounter during college. Many of my closest friends, rather than praising
my accomplishment, gave me words of warning. “Harvard isn’t for people like
us, Dave, you won’t fit in.” This theme of social class differences was persistent
when talking with peers about Harvard – one student even took an extreme
stance, suggesting that if I decided to go to Harvard, I would become distanced
from the people I grew up with, and that I would end up “just like the rest,”
stealing from the poor to satiate my greed. While most didn’t hold such strong
feelings, the general message was clear – if I went to Harvard, I would never
be the same. A note written in my yearbook by a friend I’d known since
kindergarten highlights that very idea: “You were a good guy, Dave, don’t let
Harvard change that.”
When the time came for me to leave for college, I was unsure of what
to expect. I had certainly received plenty of praise from adults within my
community, but the warnings of my friends and negative reactions stuck in my
head. I resolved that if I could just get away from it all and start on a clean slate,
everything would sort itself out. However, I’d soon find out that the transition
was not nearly at an end yet.
My first impression of Harvard wasn’t bad in any sense – I absolutely loved the
diversity of students, and I looked forward to meeting new people and learning
about all of their different experiences. However, learning about others also
meant being subject to some harsh misunderstandings and biases. Personally,
these came in the form of assumptions about my class and background. I found
that being white at Harvard meant facing assumptions that you were from a
well-off, or at least college-educated background. When trying to right these
first impressions, I came upon difficult conversations. On one of my first days, I
was talking to another student about the experience of his being accepted into
Harvard. He was happy about it, but expressed quite a bit of resentment about
the cost. “It’s unfair that people like you and me have to pay full tuition, when
others don’t pay a dime.” Realizing his assumption that I wasn’t on financial
aid, I questioned him: “Well, why is it unfair, if they wouldn’t be able to attend
college without the aid?” He snapped back, “Because their parents shouldn’t be

22
rewarded for being lazy. My parents worked hard for their money, they should
be the ones benefiting.”
“They’re far from lazy,” I said, “and I wouldn’t be here without the aid.”
The conversation ended there. While the two of us are still acquaintances, we
haven’t touched the topic of class differences since.

As Felice Yeskel describes in her article, I found that people were generally
uncomfortable talking about class, and even more uncomfortable with the fact
that my parents hadn’t attended college. During the first few weeks, I must
have answered the question “Where did your parents go to college?” nearly a
hundred times - “They didn’t.” I certainly wasn’t ashamed of it, but it almost
always made those inquiring uncomfortable. I realized quickly that I didn’t
exactly fit the stereotype of a “white, male Harvard student.”
After a semester of struggling to figure out where and how I fit in, I found
a group that I could identify with, students with similar experiences, who
wouldn’t judge me because of my family’s background. Interestingly, it was
within groups like the Black Men’s Forum (BMF) that I was most comfortable.
I remember my surprise during the first BMF meeting that I attended. I’d
been invited by friends, but I never expected the warm welcome from the
members that I received that day. And soon after, I found myself branching out
to different and broader groups like the Black Students Association. I found
many people I could relate to within these groups, and it clearly wasn’t a matter
of cultural similarity – the members of these groups came from backgrounds
just as varied as the rest of the student body. It was a shared feeling of being
“different.”

In many ways, these groups gave me a home, a place where I could talk
about my life without second-guessing myself, and most importantly, a place
where I could engage in open and honest conversations about the reality
of class inequalities. And I found that within groups like the Black Men’s
Forum and the Latino Men’s Collective, I was able to provide a unique and
welcome view within these conversations. But, just as with my acceptance to
Harvard and my first semester, this transition was not simple – I faced a lot of
resistance. However, this resistance was not from within the groups, but from
the outside – from other whites. I once even faced the blatant question “Why
are you trying to act black?” And while these challenges occasionally made me
uncomfortable, they brought about new understanding. “Acting black” was just
another label that others were likely struggling with. As I was trying to shed the
“wealthy white” stereotype, many others were trying to rid themselves of the
undoubtedly more harmful “poor minority” stereotype. These assumptions were
terribly inaccurate – Harvard’s diversity permeates all social groups on campus,
regardless of any lingering stereotypes.
Unlike the young man who confronted Beverly Daniel Tatum, I knew that
racism and classism were two intertwined, yet independent problems. If I were
to claim to have had the exact same experiences as a black man, I knew I’d

23
be sorely mistaken. Perhaps his misunderstandings were drawn from a lack of
community. He may have felt alone, without a place to discuss his opinions,
and found equating them to other groups’ similar experiences as the only way
to explain his own. This lack of class-based community is an inherent problem
within college campuses. While differences like race and gender are readily
identifiable, and therefore easy to build communities around, social class is
difficult to identify and just as hard to define. This is why I found myself taking
solace in groups I never previously thought to be my own – I felt alone.
Over the next two years, I saw a personal transformation, and much of it was
the direct result of the open conversations about race and class that happen
often within the minority communities, but too seldom on the broader campus.
In my sophomore year, I reflected much on my own class identity. I began
to understand that within the working class mentality, there is a very serious
contradiction regarding higher education. Parents often teach their children
early on to respect manual labor – I learned this hearing stories about my
grandfathers, both construction workers and enlisted veterans, as well as through
helping my father with countless home improvement projects and repairs. This
sense of working class pride almost always comes at the expense of at least some
amount of respect for white collar work. However, these working class parents
often push their children to higher education, in hopes that they’ll be able to
attain greater financial success – and higher education means white collar work.
As my father always told me when I was a child, “Someday you need to go
out and get yourself a nice, cushy office job – don’t be like me.” And from this
arise the most persistent questions of my life: At what point do I lose my blue
collar identity, and become officially white collar? Can I be both? And most
importantly, can I respect myself as a white collar worker?
Thinking about these difficult questions every day, I entered my third year
with a realization – the only way I could be happy at Harvard was to define my
own identity, and refrain from leaning on traditional social or ethnic groups
in search of an incomplete comfort. With this realization, I felt freed. I truly
became an individual, and while I still appreciated and cherished the groups that
helped show me to this idea, I knew that I no longer needed to lean on them,
that I could become strong enough in my own identity to stand alone. Since
that time, I’ve become much happier, and much more confident. I’ve started
fighting for the recognition of others like myself at Harvard, representing my
experiences in both formal and informal discussions on social issues, and I now
see myself as a piece of the true definition of a Harvard student – a piece that
can help change that definition through open exchanges of personal experience.
Identity is a very elusive concept. In my own development at Harvard, I
found complications in my previous identity as a white working class male. I
found that the label “white” was not necessarily something that represented
my experiences, and that “working class” was harder to define than I’d ever
thought before. My time here has, in many ways, been a journey. And in the
end, I can safely, and gladly, say that not a single one of my own assumptions

24
has held true over time. Even some of my earlier difficulties have proven to
be misunderstandings. My first impression of white students as unreasonable
or uninformed was incorrect – in the last year, I’ve found many individuals
completely open to discussions on race and class. The only reason I didn’t
discover them earlier was because I never sought them out. Perhaps I should
have sought them out earlier, instead of avoiding the discomfort I first
experienced. But every decision, no matter what it looks like in hindsight, is a
small part of my journey. And I’ve come full circle - I’m still the same person
I was when I first entered Johnston Gate – but I am much better equipped to
understand and contribute to the world around me.
There are many different paths to take at Harvard, and thus, many unique
journeys. Many of us will confront similar questions of identity, and not just
at Harvard, but throughout our lives. And many of us will wonder why we
need such labels, dreaming of a world without them, in which all are equal.
But the reality is that the world will never be without labels. They are tools for
categorization, and we not only place them on other people, but on ourselves,
so that we might feel part of a group. Thus, the best advice I can give you is
encouragement to challenge and change the definitions of these labels. After all,
a label is defined by the individuals who ascribe themselves to it. Looking back
to the first days of my college experience, I’ve learned that rather than becoming
defensive or even combative about my experiences, I should instead try to
inform others, and change inaccurate views. If I could relive that conversation
I had about financial aid during my first few days at Harvard, I would not react
in such an aggressive manner. I would instead have tried to engage the other
student and challenge his conceptions about students on financial aid. Now
that I’ve learned so much about myself, I know that I have the power, and the
responsibility, to inform others about my experiences, and learn about theirs. If
we all represented ourselves as individuals, rather than as predetermined groups,
these labels would become tools of inclusion, rather than of discrimination.

© 2009 David Tebaldi.


Printed with permission of the author.

25
Are You Cultured?
Brian Bolduc ‘10
A 2010 graduate of Harvard College, Brian Bolduc is now serving as a
William F. Buckley Fellow at National Review. At Harvard, Brian lived
in Winthrop House, concentrated in Economics, edited The Harvard
Salient, and wrote a biweekly column for The Harvard Crimson. In
his essay, Brian argues for discernment and suggests that the defin-
ing characteristics of identity – mentioned in the other pieces in the
booklet – are too limiting.

Your identity is a pliant piece of clay. Yes, your experiences mold it, and those
experiences depend on tangible things like race and class. But your mind also
shapes your identity, and some minds can free themselves from their bodily
circumstances. At least I think so; I am a writer. For three years, I scribbled for
The Harvard Crimson, occasionally on topics like race and class. I argued that
your culture—that is, the mindset that you inherited from and developed with
family and friends—left a deeper imprint on your identity than these other,
more superficial characteristics.
Take race, for example. In her essay “Choosing to Be Black—The Ultimate
White Privilege?” Beverly Daniel Tatum praises a white man for recognizing
the “inescapability of his privilege” over black men. When her son wonders
how they—middle-class blacks—are less privileged than working-class whites,
she tells him, “‘as a young black male, you are underrepresented, and that is a
different kind of disadvantage.’” According to Ms. Tatum, race is an indelible
mark on her identity—a harmful one.
Walter E. Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University,
disagrees. For one thing, he disputes Ms. Tatum’s evidence. The fact that a
minority’s representation in a group is smaller than its portion of the population
does not necessarily indicate discrimination. For instance, blacks are 13 percent
of the country’s population but less than one percent of Montana’s. “To ‘level
the playing field,’ should we bus blacks into the state?” Mr. Williams asked me
during an interview in 2009, “I damn sure don’t want to go to Montana.”
You might counter that such discrepancies are legacies of slavery. “[They]
must have skipped several generations,” Mr. Williams quipped in another
interview in 2010. “Black academic achievement was far closer to that of whites
during the 1940s than it is today. Surely blacks in the 1940s were far closer to
slavery than they are today, yet the academic achievement was [more equal].
… [In addition,] today 30 percent of black kids live in two-parent families. In
yesteryear, it was close to 80 percent. … So this slavery story just won’t cut
much mustard.”
Rather, Mr. Williams believes that a person’s culture affects his character—and
thus his well-being—more profoundly than his race. In particular, he cites West
Indian Americans, who have shown resilience in the face of discrimination. “If

26
you look at West Indian Americans, they are slightly more represented among
professionals than Americans in general—yet they were enslaved. Does a racist
employer care whether an African-American’s ancestors came from the West
Indies?” he asked me in 2009.
Likewise, class is less determinant of well-being than Felice Yeskel suggests
in her essay “Opening Pandora’s Box: Adding Classism to the Agenda.” Ms.
Yeskel warns, “[E]conomic class is much less fluid than most people think.
… The richest one percent of the population now have more wealth than
the bottom 90 percent.” But she assumes that people stay in these statistical
groupings forever. In fact, people move. In their paper, “By Our Own
Bootstraps,” W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm of the Federal Reserve Bank of
Dallas report that of the families they studied, only five percent of those in the
bottom quintile in 1975 were still there in 1991.
Like racial statistics, economic statistics are tricky. Table 2: “Selected Measures
of Household Income Dispersion: 2007,” for example, says that the top 20
percent of households received 49.7 percent of income in 2007, while the
bottom 20 percent received only 3.4 percent. Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the
Hoover Institution, however, notes in his book Economic Facts and Fallacies that
the bottom quintile includes people like stay-at-home spouses, students, and
retirees. These people have low incomes but not necessarily small means.
The more you dig into the numbers, the more you realize how little they
tell you—how little race and class tell you. True, culture doesn’t tell you
everything, but it does tell you something. You may be unable to say that one
culture is superior to another in the absolute. But you should be able to say
that one is more conducive to a certain lifestyle than another. If Sparta honored
courage so highly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it forced every male to
start military training at age seven—or that it had really good soldiers. Different
ideas lead to different actions.
The terms of my equation are not interchangeable. Different backgrounds
do not necessarily lead to different ideas. Look at the authors in this packet.
Although each differs by race and by income, almost all stress discrimination as
a barrier to well-being. Now, look at your peers. Although they are the most
racially and socio-economically diverse students that Harvard College has ever
seen, if they are like their forebears—four-fifths of whom voted for President
Barack Obama—they largely agree politically.
I hope, then, that you remember this warning—that you consider whether what
you’re hearing is really different from what you’re saying. I hope even more that
you judge these competing claims. What defines your identity? Try not to be
a bobblehead—as I sometimes am—who merely bounces his chin to show that
he understands his neighbor’s point of view. Instead, challenge it. Awareness is a
virtue, but discernment is a higher one.

27
And it is worth the effort. My sophomore year, I published an op-ed in The
Crimson that made an argument similar to this one. It caused a bit of a stir.
Later that week, I was having dinner with some friends when I mentioned my
piece. A difficult conversation followed. It required me, a white conservative,
to explain to Hispanic and black liberals, why I thought racism was less of
a problem than they thought. Despite my misgivings, one of them told me
afterward, “You know, that is the kind of conversation I wish we had more
often. Thank you.”
So you’re quite lucky to have this conversation so soon. You might worry that
it will require you to become a courageous thinker by the first week. Not a bad
time to start if you ask me.

© 2010 Brian Bolduc.


Printed with permission of the author.

28
Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance
Coverage in the United States: 2007
Unites States Census Bureau
Each year, the United States Census Bureau issues a report on income,
poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States. The
report is based on data the Census Bureau collects as part of the
Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population
Survey, a periodic survey of 50,000 households conducted for the
Department of Labor. The following two tables are adapted from a
report released in August 2008.

The authors of the earlier readings have noted the existence of income
disparities based on a variety of demographic characteristics. The following
tables present data about income in the United States at the household level.
For purposes of the Current Population Survey, a “household consists of all
the people who occupy a housing unit.”1 The first table contains information
about median household income based on characteristics including family type,
gender, race, age, nativity, and geographic location. The second table presents
income distribution figures, which serve to place the data from the first table in
relative context. All of the data is for the year 2007 and reflects estimates based
on statistical models.

1 Current Population Survey (CPS) - Definitions and Explanations,


http://www.census.gov/population/www/cps/cpsdef.html.

29
Table 1
income and earnings summary measures by
selected characteristics: 2007
(Income in 2007 dollars. Households and people as of March of the following
year.)
2007

Median income (dollars)


Characteristic
Number
(thousands) Estimate
HOUSEHOLDS
All households 116,783 50,233
Type of Household
Family1 households 77,873 62,359
Married-couple 58,370 72,785
Female householder, no husband present 14,404 33,370
Male householder, no wife present 5,100 49,839
Nonfamily households 38,910 30,176
Female householder 21,038 24,294
Male householder 17,872 36,767

Race and Hispanic Origin of


Householder
White 95,112 52,115
White, not Hispanic 82,765 54,920
Black 14,551 33,916
Asian 4,494 66,103
Hispanic (any race) 13,339 38,679

1 Definition of family: “A family is a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder)
related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.” Current Population Survey (CPS) -
Definitions and Explanations, http://www.census.gov/population/www/cps/cpsdef.html.

30
table 1 (cont.)
2007

Median income (dollars)


Characteristic
Number
(thousands) Estimate
Age of Householder
Under 65 years 92,671 56,545
15 to 24 years 6,554 31,790
25 to 34 years 19,225 51,016
35 to 44 years 22,448 62,124
45 to 54 years 24,536 65,476
55 to 64 years 19,909 57,386
65 years and older 24,113 28,305
Nativity of Householder
Native born 101,104 50,946
Foreign born 15,680 44,230

Naturalized citizen 7,469 52,092


Not a citizen 8,211 37,637
Region
Northeast 21,351 52,274
Midwest 26,266 50,277
South 43,062 46,186
West 26,105 54,138
Metropolitan Status
Inside metropolitan statistical areas2 97,591 51,831
Inside principal cities 39,072 44,205
Outside principal cities 58,520 57,444
Outside metropolitan statistical areas 19,192 40,615

2 Definition of metropolitan area: “The general concept of a metropolitan area . . . is one of a


large population nucleus, together with adjacent communities that have a high degree of economic
and social integration with that nucleus.” Current Population Survey (CPS) - Definitions and
Explanations, http://www.census.gov/population/www/cps/cpsdef.html.

Table 1, Income and Earnings Summary Measures by Selected Characteristics: 2006 and
2007. DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census
Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-235, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance
Coverage in the United States: 2007, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC,
2008. 7-8.

31
Table 2
selected measures of household
income dispersion: 2007
(Income in 2007 dollars.)

Measures of Income Dispersion 2007


Household Income at Selected Percentiles
10th percentile limit 12,162
20th percentile limit 20,291
50th (median) 50,233
80th percentile limit 100,000
90th percentile limit 136,000
95th percentile limit 177,000
Mean Household Income of Quintiles
Lowest quintile 11,551
Second quintile 29,442
Third quintile 49,968
Fourth quintile 79,111
Highest quintile 167,971
Shares of Household Income of Quintiles
Lowest quintile 3.4
Second quintile 8.7
Third quintile 14.8
Fourth quintile 23.4
Highest quintile 49.7

Table A-3, Selected Measures of Household Income Dispersion: 1967 to 2007. DeNavas-
Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, Current
Population Reports, P60-235, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the
United States: 2007, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2008. 40.

32
notes

33
notes

34