Cultural Conversation examines classism

The year’s first Cultural Conversation, held this past Wednesday, explored class identification and classism among St. Olaf students. The event was the first of a series of monthly discussions facilitated by the Multicultural Affairs office. Led by Professor of Statistics and Education Sharon Lane-Getaz, this first conversation asked students to honestly discuss their experiences within their social class and the impact their class identification has on their daily lives.

Lane-Getaz began the conversation by asking students to “make the room a safe space” and agree not to share anything said with anyone outside of the discussion. This helped participants feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with what, for many people, was a group of strangers.

Lane-Getaz said that the group’s collective goals that day would be to come up with working definitions of “class” and “classism” and to discover the students’ true class identities. Lane-Getaz specified one’s class identity as something one is born into.

“No blame, no shame, no credit,” she said. “Knowing that people are born from classes different than your own is part of being human.”

Post-discussion, participants were challenged to return to everyday life and treat everyone equally. Classism, Lane-Getaz said, “allows us not to be able to accept certain people for who they are. While class identities are important for individuals to remember, they should not color how we perceive others.”

Lane-Getaz first asked participants to go to one of six numbered stations around the room depending on how they answered four questions:

1. Identify your social class at age ten based on your parents’ level of education.

2. What type of work did your parents do when you were ten?

3. What was the status of your family home at age ten? For example, did your parents rent a home, own a home or own a home with the ability to trade up?

4. Consider which stations you occupied the most and decide on your social class.

Once the students formed groups based on identification with one of six given social classes low-income/poor, working class, working-middle class, professional-middle class, upper-middle class or owning class, a discussion of class strengths and limitations began. This allowed students to put their thoughts and feelings about social status into words and decide how their lives have been affected by class distinctions.

Finally, participants regrouped and began sharing with each other the advantages of living in the lower, middle and upper-middle classes. This focus on the positive reflected the overarching theme of this cultural conversation: to learn to accept class distinctions and celebrate people for who they are regardless of their station in life.

In her parting message, Lane-Getaz charged students with the responsibility to raise consciousness about this particular issue. She stated that most Americans believe we live in a classless society, and that 80-90 percent of people consider themselves to be in the middle class without understanding the implications. She mentioned as a great consciousness-raising tool.

In the coming months, more Cultural Conversations will be held on campus. On Oct. 23, Professor Kristina Media-Vilarino will facilitate a discussion entitled, “Is It Really Necessary to Feel Uncomfortable?” In November, Professor Ibtesam Al-Atiyat will talk about “Islam in the U.S. and Islam and the U.S.” With their wide purview and the broad range of perspectives among their participants, this semester’s conversation series promises to be both informative and thought-provoking.