“Coming Out” Among Southern Elite

The debutante tradition originated during the seventeenth century in order to recognize the coming of age amongst the wealthy. Young women were presented to the European court. The tradition has become a part of affluent Southern American culture (Knudsen 1968). While it may seem to be a harmless celebration to some, the practice is rooted in a sense of opulence, social superiority and inequality.


I personally am contemplating the decision to participate in the debutante tradition. After all, the ball is a fun celebration amongst family and friends. However, as I look at the process objectively I recognize the culture of privilege and the elitism it perpetuates. I am from Charlotte, North Carolina, a city rich in social tradition where social status matters amongst the Lulu Lemon-wearing, yoga-going, gossiping moms. Women network with other women to be asked to join one of the two debutante clubs to prove their social worth. Memberships in churches, country clubs, supper clubs, as well as the private schools one’s children attend (or an occasional reputable public school), distinguish the separate social circles of each of the two clubs. Girls are ‘put up’ [i] in a debutante club automatically if their mother, or grandmother is a member. Although the members of the club are anonymous to the outsider, on the day the debutante class ‘comes out,’ [ii] the participants’ names are listed in the newspaper. The affluent class is therefore presented to the whole city. Continue reading ““Coming Out” Among Southern Elite”

It’s Time to Move beyond Numbers!!

Having grown up in Tokyo, a racially and ethnically homogeneous city, I had a utopian image of American society before arriving here. I thought in the United States, people respected all kinds of social differences, including race, ethnicity, and nationality. Unfortunately, the reality was far from my imagination; the affluent American society I was exposed to at my boarding school was surprisingly homogeneous. I constantly felt a strong pressure to be like my peers, most of whom were wealthy white students from the East Coast. In fact, I still feel a similar pressure at the small liberal arts college I currently attend.

Why was there such a large discrepancy between what I believed and what I experienced in terms of racial and ethnic diversity in elite higher education?

One important reason I thought was the schools’ focus on the numbers of racial diversity. Stevens (2007) shows interesting examples of how colleges use statistical figures that are “the most flattering,” “accurate,” and “defensible (47) in order to improve their image. The statistic on diversity is no exception. Some colleges “round up” the number of students from underrepresented groups. Other colleges in their pictures on recruiting materials include proportionally more minority students, especially African Americans, than are actually attending the school (Pippert, Essenburg, and Matchett 2013).

By focusing on surface-level representations of minority students, elite schools overlook a crucial piece in diversity: student experience. Unfortunately, superficial forms of diversity do not automatically translate into positive experiences for students from underrepresented backgrounds in historically white academic institutions. Warikoo and Deckman (2014), for example, show that students from two equally “diverse” schools in terms of numbers of underrepresented groups of students have completely different experiences with respect to integration into campus life. What determines the student experiences is how each school approaches the topic of diversity.

One school takes the Integration and Celebration approach. This school focuses on racial integration and offers events for all students to enjoy learning about different cultures. Consequently, both white and minority students in this school have positive experiences with regards to social diversity. However, since the school does not offer much programming to educate students on the structural racial inequalities, students often do not develop the ability to critically address those issues in a deeper way.

The other school takes the Power Analysis and Minority Support approach. This school focuses on the needs of minority students. It offers programming for minority students on the systems of racial oppression. Unfortunately, this programming creates a division among students. Minority students who actively participate in diversity programming, feel empowered by the knowledge and skills they gain in understanding how racial inequalities operate. Other mainly white students who do not participate in diversity programming feel marginalized and frustrated by the division that such programming creates.

The takeaway point from this comparison is that numerical diversity does not tell the whole story. It does not reflect college policies and campus cultural climates that significantly impact students’ experience and quality of life on campus. Although numerical diversity is an important step towards true diversity, it is not enough. It is time for us move beyond numbers and promote efforts in inclusion and education on structural inequalities for all students in elite higher education, regardless of their racial, ethnic, national, socioeconomic, sexual, or any other identities.


The Sad Truth About Manufacturing

If you’re like me, you’re usually excited about job creation. So, if you’re like me, you’re happy when you hear that a new manufacturing plant is being built, because you think that people are getting good jobs.  It seems so simple: new factories mean good jobs, right?


Between 2010 and 2012, the manufacturing industry has grown by 4.3 percent (Wessel and Hagerty, 2012). But in 2007, the median wage of manufacturing workers dipped below that of the rest of the private sector. It and has continued to go down since (U.S. Census in Ruckelshaus and Leberstein, 2014).

Why are workers’ wages dropping like this?  It seems to me that there are two main reasons.

The first is that corporations can often lower these workers’ wages with impunity.

In order to boost job creation, states offer major financial incentives for companies to open manufacturing facilities.  According to a 2014 article, however, corporations do not have to meet any wage requirements to receive benefits.  Many corporations even elect to build plants in the south, where the labor standards are lower.  The Manufacturing industry does create many jobs, but it does not create good jobs.

But why do the corporations behave this way?

According to Karl Marx (1888), it is because this is what happens in a capitalist society.  Marx believes that capitalist societies are always a battleground between the working class (the proletariat) and the owning class (the bourgeoisie).  As Marx says, capitalism “[leaves] remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self interest” (Marx, 1888).  Marx believes that members of capitalism’s owning class (in this case, the manufacturing corporations) always act exclusively in pursuit of their own ends.  According to Robert Reich (2007), American shareholders are following this pattern by inciting corporations’ “the obsessive drive to meet or exceed Wall Street’s estimates of pending quarterly earnings”.  Clearly, America’s bourgeoisie is trying to maximize profit for itself.

What most of us don’t realize, though, is that it’s not just the corporations’ fault.  And this leads to the second reason why wages for manufacturing workers are falling:  

The American people push these corporations to expand.

Nine out of ten Americans believe that manufacturing corporations create good jobs, and many listed a manufacturing plant as one of the top facilities they would want to be brought into their community to create jobs (As cited in Ruckelshaus and Leberstein, 2014).   Because of this, Americans push the government to use tax dollars to incentivise large corporations to build more manufacturing facilities.  We only focus on the number of jobs that the industry can create, and do not realize that we are contributing to a system that hurts workers.

So, is it possible to reverse this trend?

If the government places more regulations on corporations, those corporations will be less likely to set up facilities in this country.  If we do nothing, however, manufacturing workers’ wages may continue to drop.  We are reminded of Marx’s prophecy about the end of capitalism, where the entire system crumples because the bourgeoisie has oppressed the workers to the extent that “the slave cannot exist within his slavery” (Marx 1888).  If we cannot do something to fix this problem, this prophecy may come true.

There are no easy solutions to this problem, but if we do not try to solve, it this…

Modern Factory Worker
Sam Churchill, Flickr

…may become this again.

Factory Workers During the Great Depression
Lewis Hine, National Archives and Records Administration


What I Learned in Boarding School Is…

Heart thumping. Hands shaking. Anxiety building. “VIEW DECISION” appears on the screen. My heart stops. I hold my breath and click the button. “CONGRATULATIONS” catches my eye. I can breathe again.

As a high school freshman, I never imagined going to an elite college like Hamilton. For two years, I attended a public school of about 1000 kids in a middle class community. In 2013, my school graduated only 86% of its senior class. Of those students, 47% attended Massachusetts state universities or community colleges. With my average grades, I am convinced that if I did not go to prep school, I would not have been admitted to Hamilton. Why?

Sociologist Mitchell Stevens (2007) in his book, Creating a Class, spent a year observing the admissions process at an elite college. He argues that because of their abundant resources, including experienced college counselors, applicants at prestigious high schools have a huge advantage in college admissions. As a result, a higher proportion of prep school students, compared to public school students, are admitted into top colleges. In 2013, one boarding school sent 18 of their 323 graduating students to Harvard University. Harvard accepted only 13% of its 35,000 applicants that year.

So how do prestigious high schools get disproportionately high percentages of their students into elite colleges and universities?

Reason #1: Learning to be Comfortable with Authority Figures

At boarding school, students live with authority figures. Teachers are also coaches and dorm parents, so students learn how to appropriately interact and form intimate bonds with them. These increased interactions provide a strong foundation for mature relationships with college professors and, later down the road, employers. In Privilege, Shamus Khan (2012) suggests that learning how to build intimate relationships with people in positions of authority, without acting as if you are an equal, prepares young people to succeed in elite environments.

Reason #2: One-on-One College Counseling

Private school college counselors focus only on getting their students into college. Public school guidance counselors, however, work on academic, social, disciplinary problems, and college/career development with their students, and thus, spend significantly less time on college counseling (see figure below).

College Counseling: Private school vs. Public School

I started meeting with my college counselor junior year of high school. The first few meetings did not involve college. He asked about my family, interests, and aspirations. Good college counselors take time and get to know their students on a personal level.

My college counselor made me a list of schools to visit based on the characteristics of my “hypothetical dream college”. Later, he edited my supplement essays, reviewed my common app, and prepared me for interviews.

Reason #3: College counselor-admissions officer relationship

The college counselor-admissions officer relationship is essential to the admissions advantage prep school students acquire. Stevens (2007) finds that admissions officers build relationships with counselors at elite high schools who can send the college academically capable, well-rounded applicants.

When reviewing applications, college officers are often faced with tough decisions. However, the more an officer knows about a student, the easier it is to make that decision (Stevens 2007). College counselors become acquainted with their students and write them exemplary recommendations. These letters are honest and include detailed reasons why the student would fit in well at the college. This is where a good relationship helps. If a college counselor repeatedly sends the college intelligent students who contribute to the college’s athletic or art programs, the admissions officer will trust the counselor and be more likely to admit the student. This often helps less qualified students at prestigious high schools get into elite schools, instead of similarly qualified applicants from schools with less college preparation resources.

Many public school students do not have this privilege. Each guidance counselor has several students, so they write the seniors short, vague recommendations. The less information a college officer has on an applicant, the harder it is to admit that student.

Boarding school facilitated my college admissions process. Because of abundant resources, my classmates and I had an advantage when applying to elite colleges. Due to similarity in admissions processes, Stevens’ (2007) findings at the elite liberal arts college can be applied to numerous elite colleges and universities. Although this is true, it demonstrates class inequality. Wealth should not determine whether or not a student is admitted into an elite college. If all schools had similar college counseling resourses, there would be less of a socioeconomic class advantage in college admissions.





Black Skin, “White” Speech: an Analysis of Code-Switching

“Why you sound just like those white kids at your school?”

“Yo, you’re wildin’. This is my voice. I don’t know what you’re talkin’ ’bout,” is my typical response to a question like that. Whenever I spend time with friends back home during breaks and/or talk to them on the phone, I am bound to get that question. I am still not sure how to avoid “sounding white.” I question whether or not I am “black enough” for my friends at home.

I’d imagine that the most salient change in my life was the transition from a predominantly black public high school to a predominantly white private college. Whether I knew it or not, during my transition, I altered the way I communicated with certain audiences; I maintained two separate identities made possible through language and expression. I was code-switching.

Code-switching refers to the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations (Deggans 2013). It occurs daily and, for me, is most noticeable in greetings. Back home in Brooklyn, NY, I’d greet a black friend by saying, “What’s good?” By using this language, it sends a message to my friends that I know the jargon of the “hood” and it reaffirms my blackness. On the contrary, at my current school, Hamilton College, I tend to greet my white friends with, “Hey. How are you?” in a very lively tone to convey that I am friendly and welcoming like every other student. Essentially, code-switching involves a certain particularity with one’s word choice and expressions whether speaking to friends, family, teachers, coworkers, etc. Words must be tuned to fit the context in which they are situated.

W.E.B DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” connects this concept of double consciousness to race. Referring to blacks, Dubois states that “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face” (DuBois 1903), Blacks must navigate two culturally separate identities and communities. While I assume my Negro identity at home and use the African American Vernacular English with friends, I make a conscious effort to be grammatically sound when in a white environment. When Standard English is most valued in our prestigious institutions, blacks must not only show that we are “articulate” enough, but enunciation and articulation become strongly emphasized. We can’t comfortably drop the “g” at the end of our words or mess with the syntaxes of our sentences.

However, in retrospect, the subconscious, yet sometimes conscious, changes in my tones, inflections, and accents mean something significant. Code-switching is not just a valuable skill but is essential to maintaining our dual identities. Restricting the use of Standard English in a predominantly black community enables one to not be seen as elitist, pretentious or as “acting white.” Being able to switch back into Standard English with white friends allows me to avoid being constantly corrected and displays that I am “articulate” enough to be a student at Hamilton College.

Code-switching IS taxing work. While I am developing the cultural capital necessary to be successful in lucrative white-collar jobs, it comes at a cost. My on-off switch seems to be malfunctioning. I may use words like “superfluous” in place of “mad extra” or “egregious” instead of a phrase like “yo that’s wild crazy” when talking to my black friends. I find myself struggling to communicate with friends, as if we don’t all speak English. And maybe we do, but just in different ways. However, as long as I find myself in two different social contexts, code-switching will continue to be a necessary tool for survival.

Whiteout: The Social Roots of Oscar Glory

A nervous energy filled the Beverly Hills theater on the morning of January 14, 2016, as agents and reporters sipped coffee, made predictions, and rubbed sleep from their eyes. It was a lull before the storm, the very seconds before the announcement of the 88th Academy Award nominations. For a moment, Hollywood stood united, excited and prepared to honor the most spectacular achievements in film. But when the four presenters stepped onstage and began to speak, all sense of unity disappeared.

For the second year in a row, all of the nominees were white. Moments after the 5:30 A.M. announcement, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began to trend on Facebook and Twitter. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith took to Twitter to call for a boycott, causing Mark Ruffalo (nominated for his work in ‘Spotlight’), George Clooney, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Matt Damon (nominated for ‘The Martian’) to similarly admonish the lack of diversity in awards shows. Even Saturday Night Live joined in, airing a sketch in which the “best actor” trophy was awarded to “all white guys” (Oswald 2016).

oscarssowhite Capture

Charlotte Rampling, nominated for her work in “45 Years,” sang a different tune, commenting that all performances should be judged equally and that “maybe black actors didn’t deserve to be in the final stretch.” Rampling found herself within minutes labeled as insensitive and prejudiced. To many, Rampling’s statement only validated the claim that Hollywood is inherently racist, and that changes must be made (Sage 2016).

So who is right? Is the Academy comprised of racists, as Jada Pinkett Smith suggests? Or is Rampling correct in suggesting that this year’s minority performances were subpar? A close study of the voting Academy and of the film industry as a whole reveals truths in the arguments of both Smith and Rampling.

The nominations are less surprising (but no less noteworthy) with an understanding of Academy demographics. In 2012, the median age was 62, with voters under 50 years of age making up only 14% of the Academy (this makes voters less likely to support a profane film like “Straight Outta Compton”). In 2012, the Academy was a staggering 94% Caucasian, with African-Americans comprising only 2% of voters, suggesting a fundamental racial inequality of representation. (Horn, Sperling, and Smith 2012). The Academy is therefore what sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter would describe as a “skewed” group, containing “a large preponderance of one type (the numerical “dominants”) over another (the rare “tokens.)” Kanter’s theory of tokenism holds that interactions and perceptions inevitably form around stereotypes imposed by the majority and sometimes accepted by the minority. This subconscious racism applies directly to voting biases and their roots (Kanter 1977).

The problem is both with the “skewed” Academy and with a shallow, white-dominated industry. Minority actors are often given the spotlight only to portray characters which are either underdeveloped or shaped by harmful stereotypes. For example, many black actors fall into type casting, playing maids or slaves. This underscores Kanter’s aforementioned theory that minorities tend to accept imposed stereotypes. University of Connecticut professor Matthew Hughey discusses this phenomenon in his book The White Savior Film, focusing on films where a “white messianic character saves a lower- or working class, usually urban or isolated, nonwhite character from a sad fate,” using Oscar-winning examples like “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and “The Blind Side” (2009).

Portrayals of black characters as poor and in need of saving only reinforce a harmful and historically supported power dynamic, reminiscent of the American notion of the White Man’s Burden. The representation of “nonwhite characters and culture as essentially broke, marginalized, and pathological,” reveals within the industry a deep bias; the product of both subconscious racism and rampant type casting. This bias keeps minority actors out of the juiciest roles, and therefore out of Oscar contention (Hughey 2014; 1-2, 10). Should minority actors be given more complex, abundant roles, their names would show up alongside those of their white peers on nomination day.

But how much does this matter? Does the racial composition of an awards show which bestows privilege upon the most privileged bear any apparent weight? During Gina Rodriguez’s tribute to actress Rita Moreno at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, she spoke of seeing Moreno on screen and realizing for the first time that Puerto Rican women could be actresses. “You gave me hope, you gave me a reason to fight and to speak up, you gave me a voice,” she said through tears (Brucculieri 2015). When the Oscars aired on February 28th, young children of all ethnicities watched as white actors won gold statutes. For any racial minority, dreams of becoming an actor seemed that much less attainable. Just like that, dreams stayed dreams, and stars were unborn. This is why Hollywood is angry. This is why it matters.

The Academy should nominate the actors who give the most outstanding performances of the year. That’s it. No race. No campaigns. No politics. In a society characterized by subconscious racism, this is no easy task. But after accounting for the limitations and prejudices of the industry, I am confident that through increased awareness and calls for industry-wide reform, changes can be made. Actors can transcend race. They just need to be given the chance.