by Saffron Forsberg
[originally published Sep. 2019]
Last night, I posted a handful of childhood photos of myself on my Instagram account. They’re funny because they’re so…me, so Saffron-esque in their silly intensity. The photos show an eleven-year-old me dressed as the feminist icon Gloria Steinem; The woman who infiltrated the New York City Playboy club in a cottontail, detailed her experiences in a slicing investigative piece, and went on to form the feminist publication Ms. Magazine, among other triumphs. I am in disguise for my fifth-grade penny arcade, an event in which the sea of my eleven-year-old peers and I dress as adult figures we admire and perform short speeches for anyone who will throw a penny in our paper cup. My embodiment of this less than radical figure will probably not surprise most at Oberlin College. However, standing next to a student dressed as Robert E. Lee in a place filled with Confederate memorabilia, I stood out in my suburban Texas town. In my neighborhood, it was common to hear people express, with the confidence of a Fox News commentator, how abortion is murder and Obama wasn’t born in the United States. I came of age in Seabrook, Texas—with chunks of time in rural Louisiana—in a working-class neighborhood where places like Oberlin College didn’t seem to exist. Dressing up as a feminist activist, no matter how cheesy, was a big deal. I remember it as so much more thrilling than projected in the photos I requested from my parents last week. I remember being questioned by the insulted parents of my classmates, who sneered at me, asking who put me up to this. For someone from my upbringing, attending a private liberal arts college is whimsically unthinkable, until one is seated in a college town café in a spirited sweatshirt, almond milk latte in fist, and even then there is the ordeal of fighting off the guilt, alienation, and elitism that accompanies this economic divide.
Before starting my first year at Oberlin College, I knew I’d have a hard time relating to my peers on a socioeconomic level. If I hadn’t known this, scoping out the private art high schools and prestigious summer programs within which my peers prepared for their college careers since adolescence on the Oberlin 2023 Facebook page would have filled me in. I still, however, maintained my enthusiasm. I’d always wanted to be around this breed of people: accomplished Manhattan teenagers with educated parents and mouths spouting a near-constant stream of intelligent cultural references—that brilliant film director, this experimental musician, that college program, this industry connection, and that amazing underground haunt in a city I’d never visited—they were everything I’d ever strived to be and everyone I’d never met before. But, upon arriving on campus, I realized that beautiful outer sheen of cool kid progressivism often manifests in subtle elitism and insincerity. I think we would all be lying if we didn’t admit to being acquainted with quite an array of trust fund punk-rockers, upper-middle-class anarchists, and the socialist offspring of ivy league professionals. Me? I am the daughter of a retail employee and a disabled (and, because of this, unemployed) volunteer nursing home ombudsman, and I am proud. I am conscious of my class, and I am not ashamed, nor writing this out of personal insecurity. I am writing this out of frustration.
Perhaps you’re reading this with a smirk. Why must my class define me so? Why can’t I come from wealth and also promote anarcho-socialism and avant-garde music? It’s not as if the money my parents have made and the atmosphere I grew up in is anything I can control! Aren’t you the one with the “Die Yuppie Scum” button on your army jacket, anyway? And, sure, I suppose you’re right. But just because your class is something you could not opt out of does not mean it is something you cannot recognize, not just as an economic barrier but as a cultural barrier. On the walk home from an introductory club meeting last week, I jokingly said something to a friend that, looking back, is rife with truth; “I didn’t come from a place like Brooklyn or San Francisco, I had to make my own culture! I had to seek it out!” In this, I mean that I did not grow up in a cultural hub. The art, music, literature, and academia I consumed to create the sort of person I am now was not fed to me, but was something I had to actively search for and establish. Thus, when someone who has grown up in a place similar to my hometown is criticized or alienated for not being knowledgeable about a certain art form or social movement, it is not simply the act of a pretentious college kid that is sullen to be so distanced from a Seattle mosh pit, it is an act of elitist classism. The thing is, even if we would like to believe that by living in this idyllic little college town together, we belong to an equal educational and social playing field, this is not the case, and an Oberlin student is not the product of a homogenized experience.
Having a political stance that benefits people of lower economic statuses is important, but economic status is also a deeply social issue. Understanding the cultural impacts of privilege creates an environment that is not just inviting to those of the same neighborhood, but to academics and artists with differing perspectives. Recognizing the value of working-class experiences is crucial, and elitism acts as a silencer for those of us who have worked hard to break the barriers that held us back from the experiences of our peers. The voice of our community shouldn’t be one that quiets perspectives, but rather, amplifies them because of their freshness.