Opinion: How to talk about SES on campus: A guide for students

Lauren Alley | Senior Forum Editor

It is no big secret that Washington University lacks socioeconomic diversity. We can blame the administration for this all we want—and we should. This, however, does not give students a pass to remain unaware of how they can interact with their peers positively. If someone is raised with money, it can be hard for to see the viewpoint of those who were not so privileged. This may lead to small, mindless comments that make others feel out of place, awkward or even ashamed. Here, I present a few of the more common things that I have encountered as someone with a low socioeconomic status. I hope it serves as a guide of what to watch for in your own interactions to try and prevent harm that many may not know they are causing.

You don’t need to say how much money is in your bank account.

This one may seem obvious, I know, but it is something I have come across time and time again. This often comes in statements such as “Wow, I only have $500 in my account.” Dropping a number such as this is so off-putting because you are setting a bar that the person you are speaking to will inevitably compare their own bank account to. For many, seeing a number as high as $500 in their account rarely happens outside of payday. Declaring your idea of a certain sum of money “as not good enough” can bring shame on those who would not agree. It implies that their monetary efforts, if lower, aren’t good enough either, causing more anxiety about their financial state.

Don’t complain about the money your parents give you.

I have heard people complain about withdrawal caps their parents set on their account. People complain that their parents have asked them to slow down how much they are putting on their credit card. Please understand that many people get very little to no money from their families. Students may even help contribute to their family’s finances. Acting like your parents are terrible people for only letting you withdraw a couple hundred dollars at a time or for wanting to limit how much money is charged on their credit is incredibly privileged. It can come off as judgement on the behavior of the families of others or cause tension in an already-difficult situation for many. Be grateful your parents are able to give you their credit card. Be grateful you have been given the privilege to have such financial support from home.

Know the implications of asking someone to cover you while insisting that you’ll pay them later.

You may have never felt that peak of anxiety as you run your card. You may not hold your breath while you wait for the card to process and pray that the little screen will say “approved.” Let me tell you, it sucks. Grocery shopping while having to write down every item purchased, account for every penny and hold off on basic items is painful. What is even worse is having your card pushed over because a friend asked you to get something for them and you are too ashamed to be honest and tell them you can’t afford it, because their IOU is not going to make the number in your account any higher. Having your card rejected with a line of people behind you is a very public and very painful shaming. Think twice about what you ask of others.

Don’t question what people order.

This one is simple. If you notice someone only ordering something small at a restaurant, it is best not to speak up about it. Many people scan through menus looking at prices first, ordering the lowest number on the menu rather than what looks tastiest. Going out to eat with friends is a very basic and pleasant way to be social. Growing up, I was taught a trick to maintain this social outing without draining my bank account: Eat something at home, then order a cheap side or appetizer at the restaurant. When people order like this, it is often purposeful. You are not owed an explanation. They know what they ordered, just leave it alone.

Don’t make snide remarks about jobs that you deem as unworthy.

This is something especially prevalent at Wash. U. Every student here receives a quality education and most likely has high career aspirations. Consequently, people often make snide remarks about jobs they see as lesser, using them as an example of something that they see as comically below them, or as something that represents a lowly life. Not everyone’s parents went to college. Not everyone was raised around doctors and lawyers and corporate executives. When you mock “blue collar” professions, you risk mocking the loved ones of those around you.

The majority of what can make low SES students feel unwelcome at Wash. U. are the little things. It’s the small reminders that they are not quite like everyone around them. Although many of these harms are done unintentionally, they are still painful. Watch what you say and how you treat those around you—you don’t know what they are working through day to day.