"Coming Out" as Rich Kids: Holly Fetter

Holly Fetter, an undergraduate student at Stanford and praxis group leader, originally wrote this piece in STATIC, a site for Stanford activists to connect and create.
Holly writes of her piece: “This piece was written when I was first coming into my class identity and accompanying consciousness. Though my ideas and actions around class have shifted in the past year, it still feels important to share this with others. This particular post catalyzed the development of an RG Praxis Group and several class privilege workshops and cross-class discussions at Stanford University. If you’re interested in bringing RG to your campus or community, sharing your personal experience is a great way to start.”
As soon as the word “privilege” entered my vocabulary, I found myself unpacking an inundation of knapsacks filled with the stuff, frantically trying to unlearn 16 years of internalized racism, ableism, classism… My white identity was the easiest to grapple with because it was the most visible. So I spent (and am still spending) years reading, talking, and writing about whiteness so that I could begin to feel more comfortable living with the tension of being white in the United States.
But class was a different story. I didn’t want to even acknowledge my class identity because it made me feel guilty and ashamed. I worried about the (usually correct) assumptions that wealth carried with it, as well as how it might undermine my credibility as a budding activist. In high school, I avoided the topic altogether, choosing to make friends with other affluent kids because it felt a lot simpler. Class was apparent there – we knew what kind of cars our classmates’ had (or didn’t have), what their houses were like, and what their parents’ jobs were.
At Stanford, however, my class identity was a lot easier to hide. Suddenly, I was 1,700 miles away from my family, in a place where I magically became a “student” – a socioeconomic status that connoted egalitarianism and bean and cheese burritos at Treehouse. It’s easy for some people to hide behind this false class identity, especially students with wealth. We don’t need to confront class if we don’t want to. Our identity as “students” helps us hide our economic privilege, but it doesn’t erase it. And often, our class status doesn’t change much between The Farm and home.
But I’ve decided to come out of the class closet, and acknowledge my privilege and complicity as a part of the 1%. This process hasn’t been a particularly easy one, but it’s crucial to my development as an activist, an ally, and a friend. Because here’s what I know now: we cannot afford to hide our class identities. It’s destructive to our peers and colleagues as class privilege manifests itself in subtle but violent ways. Here are some examples that might resonate with you, based on a list provided by Resource Generation, a grassroots organization devoted to organizing young people with wealth to leverage resources for social change.
You’re abusing class privilege when…

  • You always insist on being in charge of a group, meeting, or conversation.
  • You are flakey and unreliable because you have yet to internalize the importance of dependence and commitment to a community or cause.
  • You assert that your politics are the best politics and that everyone else is wrong, without taking into account the importance of context and privilege in shaping one’s worldview.
  • You use your skills rooted in privilege (i.e., access to education and connections) to contribute to others’ projects and campaigns, but then insist on taking all the credit.
  • You assume that your degree from Stanford makes you an expert on the lives of others.
  • You see a problem and assume that you can fix it without consulting those affected by the problem itself.
  • You put too much emphasis on the importance of academic debate and analysis when contemplating a community’s issues.
  • You put yourself at the center of your work, which manifests itself in your actions in group spaces – you walk in and out of meetings as you please, you disrupt the space by leaving early or arriving late, or you make decisions about your life based on what’s best for you, and not for the community of which you want to be a part.
  • You undervalue or deride the expression of emotion by those affected by oppression.
  • You organize an event with a theme or activity that might make others uncomfortable. For example, a dorm meeting that is “homeless people”-themed, thus alienating invitees who feel connected to the experience of being unhoused. (This was actually going to be the theme of my freshman dorm house meeting one week…).

These are only a few manifestations of class privilege that can and must be unlearned if we are to work in solidarity across class barriers. And we must create movements that incorporate a variety of disparate political and personal perspectives (and thus a variety of class experiences) in order to successfully challenge and reimagine power. But one of the biggest struggles for privileged people is learning the value of interdependence. We have been socialized to believe that being independent is crucial to our success, and that our wealth allows us to be perpetually unrooted and unaccountable for our actions. By building honest relationships across class identities, we can begin to transform the problematic construction of “community” among the 1%, challenging dominant values of independence and competition that are at the foundation of the U.S.’ hypercapitalist culture.
This process may sound impossible, but it’s not. At Stanford, we’re surrounded by students from a variety of class backgrounds. Don’t be afraid to make friends outside your socioeconomic status. Visit spaces and events that make you uncomfortable. Have the hard conversations about your role as a privileged person in whatever movement you’re a part of. Engage with the Stanford First-Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP), and build community around socioeconomic experiences. A few months ago, I attended a special version of Crossing the Line that was centered around class, and I was the only person who crossed the line when upper-class identity was mentioned. In the debrief that followed, folks were both surprised and grateful that someone who didn’t identify as low-income showed up at the event. This reaction was frustrating, because it shouldn’t be a big deal if someone with class privilege shows up at a conversation about class privilege. As with privilege based on race, gender, or sexual orientation, we often assume that if we’re in the advantaged group, we don’t have to talk about it. But that ignorance reflects a damaging sense of superiority and innocence. It’s everyone’s responsibility to talk about class.
Last week, Salon published a profile on Leah Hunt-Hendrix, the granddaughter of a billionaire who has immersed herself in Occupy Wall Street. The article left me feeling conflicted, but she shared a few pieces of wisdom that I appreciated. One came from her thoughts on supporting the 99%: “There are two aspects to solidarity… One is standing with others and the other is an awareness of one’s own complicity in systems of oppression.” Aside from her use of ableist language, I like this quote. I think it speaks to the important part of privilege that we often overlook. As the 1%, we can’t deny the fact that we are benefitting from a system of inequality, a vast understatement that most of us would rather ignore. Instead of acknowledging and interrogating this experience, though, I see a lot of my wealthy peers try to escape their social positions by dressing like hipsters or living in co-ops. But when you hide behind a bohemian lifestyle, you aren’t building cross-class alliances or breaking down class barriers. We must own up to our privilege and begin to critically examine it so that we can move toward realizing justice in an empowering interpersonal and structural way.
The thing that leaves me feeling unsettled by the Salon profile is that there’s no perspective from the 99%. There’s no one but ourselves checking us on our privilege, and that can be destructive. Yes, having safe, homogeneous communities can be valuable when we begin our exploration of our privileged identities. But there needs to be space for us to work with others and get pushback for our implicit classism. When we get in these therapeutic spaces centered around self-congratulatory storytelling, we lose our effectiveness as allies. So I want to leave this post open to your criticism and questions. And I want to share some of my own as well: how (if at all!) can people with class privilege be in solidarity with those without it? Can we be authentically engaged with grassroots organizing? What does it mean to go from OWS during the week to a yacht on the weekend, as was the experience of Ms. Hunt-Hendrix? Can we benefit from economic injustice while fighting against it?
For now, I’m going to work on alleviating the side effects of my class privilege. If you’ve ever worked with me, you know I have a lot to fix. I’m going to be more honest and vulnerable with others, and continue to engage with conversations around class at Stanford. I only wish that I’d come out sooner, but part of class privilege is the privilege not to have to acknowledge it. I regret the countless microaggressions that my friends and classmates must have dealt with as I clumsily negotiated these cross-class relationships over the years, wondering why it took them so long to trust me. But now, I understand that I have a responsibility to enable trust and solidarity to develop within my friendships, and that I can’t expect that process to be quick or simple. I’ve finally learned to be okay with feeling awkward and ignorant, because that discomfort is productive.