What do sexually transmitted diseases, criminal records and affairs have in common? Americans would rather admit to having any of those than divulge their annual income. The taboo around discussing money in America is severe and impedes social and economic progress. It is time to talk about money.
I have been, at different times, in every quartile of the income distribution. My father has gone from being unemployed, to working odd jobs, to reaching a stable and high-paying career. Since my childhood, my mother has been in the military, unemployed or receiving military disability payments. I eventually landed in a very wealthy school district, and despite my family making good money at the time, I was one of the least affluent kids there. I never had the expensive shoes, or the nice car, or the fun international vacation stories. What struck me most about living in an environment of wealth and privilege after coming from relatively little was that people showed their wealth, but still avoided discussing it.
The proxies for wealth were on display (supreme, nice houses, etc.), but nobody openly discussed the money that they came from. When I gave specific numbers on my family’s income, my peers found it tacky. I could not understand. In this wealthy environment, it seemed that I had the most to lose by disclosing my family’s income, not the other way around. Similarly, I benefited from going to their lake houses and swimming in their pools – I knew they had money.
Since arriving at St Olaf I have seen no difference. The proxies for wealth are as prevalent as ever, but discussing money still carries a great degree of social stigma. If we were willing to address money, discussions about privilege would come from a far more legitimate place.
If a white student or a male student on campus acknowledges their privilege, it is seen as an important and valuable contribution. It seems like taboos around race, sexuality, and gender are starting to fall away. I do not imagine it is a controversial statement on campus to say this is a good thing. Individuals talking about how their backgrounds have influenced their beliefs (especially within the context of privilege) is crucial to actually understanding each other and having an open discourse.
Unfortunately, it does not seem that we are quite there when it comes to wealth. An unfortunate byproduct of this can be found in discussions of privilege. For instance, some people equate privilege from wealth and race. These factors are frequently aligned, which is a vital part of the discussion, but pretending they are one in the same marginalizes huge groups of people. A white man living in Wheaton, Ill. (where I went to high school) has had a different experience from a white man from the economically depressed town of Trinidad, Colo. (another place I’ve lived).
Equating racial and financial privilege also hurts racial minorities, as it implies that wealthy minorities do not face oppressive conditions, which they certainly do.
The matter becomes even more problematic when we examine it through an economic lens. Americans refusing to discuss incomes makes it almost impossible to negotiate fair raises, which compounds other workplace discrimination issues. It’s difficult for women and people of color to know whether or not they are underpaid if they do not know what their white, male coworkers make.
A more honest discourse around income where we avoid euphemisms such as “comfortable” and “upper middle class” would help us create more equitable and reasonable systems on our campus and in our country.
Lila Graham ’23 is from Warrenville, Ill. Her major is undecided.