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story | Wisha Jamal, Assistant Staff Editor
photo | Jane Zhang & Olivia Dure
Here at Yale-NUS College, we’re a community that celebrates diversity. We even have a whole week dedicated to it. On most days, I think we do a good job of engaging with difficult conversations surrounding the different identities of everyone on campus. Yet there’s one conversation that seems to repeatedly elude even Yale-NUS students: the one about money.
Recently, this has changed. The recent on-campus debate about the future and fairness of the Student Effort Contribution has helped bring issues of economic class to the forefront of discussions. This month, Student Government also introduced “In-Betweeners”, a support network for first-generation university students and students who feel they experience similar challenges as first-generation university students. The most visible representation of this change, however, was the “Money Matters” exhibition in the library, a collection of thoughts and responses from fellow students about their experiences with money at this school.
In the past few weeks, most of us would have rushed past the display boards set up in the library without so much as a second glance. But if you were one of the few who stopped to take a closer look, you’d know that those boards were a testimony to the conversations that many of us do not have. Set up for Diversity Week by Dean’s Fellows Jane Zhang and Olivia Dure, the “Money Matters” exhibit aimed to demystify the issue of economic class on campus. The exhibit asked important questions about class and shared the thoughts of various students on how and why money matters.
Why are we so afraid to talk about economic class?
Perhaps it’s the sensitivity surrounding the conversation about money that makes it so uncomfortable for many people to talk about. For those of us who already count pennies, our circumstances are not an easy truth to confront. And it can be equally unsettling for those who are better off financially to confront their privilege.
Ms. Dure and Ms. Zhang said, “From what we’ve heard from students, students with marginalized identities don’t know who to talk to about this without being perceived as ungrateful, or like they are asking for too much, while people with class privilege are unsure of how to talk about it with sensitivity.”
An anonymous contributor to the exhibit echoes this sentiment, writing, “If you’re middle class you either really play it down or you just pretend that class is not something that bothers you… I feel that it’s a very weird place to occupy”.
Another student clarified that it is not that students are unwilling to engage with class, but that they don’t know how to, writing that “the curiosity exists but we don’t know how to process it in a meaningful way”.
Why do we need to talk about it?
Despite the difficulty people face in starting conversations about class, many contributors argued that it is time to face the music. Some went as far as to say that conversations about class should not be optional, because it’s when we stay silent that misconceptions translate into resentment and stereotypes.
Another contributor argued that engaging with issues of class is a matter of morality, especially if you’re privileged. Even if you think this conversation doesn’t affect you, you should be asking: “Is this right? Is this fair?”
Ms. Dure and Ms. Zhang take a similar stance, saying, “To pretend that everyone has the same degree of access, the same experiences, or the same background invalidates people’s experiences and ignores the reality of economic class inequity.”
How do we start talking about it?
Well, the exhibit is a good start. One of the exhibit testimonials writes, “Class is not really something you put on a bio […] in the way that other forms of identity-based support would be”. Because of this, many of us might not realise that the challenges we face because of our class are not experiences wholly unique to us. The exhibit does a good job of reminding us that we are not alone.
But just because there are more outlets to talk about class on campus, does not mean that the issue has been paid its due attention. This conversation cannot be had until we challenge our own discomfort and listen when others talk. The conversation has begun, but ultimately it’s up to us students to keep it going.
Ms. Zhang and Ms. Dure said, “Outside of our roles in this community, we both have hopes and envisionings for a future where privilege is challenged as an integral part of community life and community responsibility. Here at Yale-NUS, that future needs to
be determined by the folks within this community. We hope that our exhibit has opened a space for such conversation.”
While the exhibit has come to an end, this conversation has only just begun.