Struggling with Privilege: Part 2

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A Chat with Nick Barber

Recently, a friend of mine, Nick Barber, wrote an opinion piece for the Harvard Crimson titled “Struggling with Privilege.” Within the article, he discusses his observation that Harvard students of similar socioeconomic groups, especially the most elite, tend to stick together. The article had a strong following on Facebook; his post has over 200 likes, 21 shares, 22 comments, and has additionally been posted by many of his friends. It seems as though recently, the most popular or controversial articles from the Crimson bombard my newsfeed, and Nick’s piece was no exception. Most people agree that the article did not necessarily present new information, but instead, simply got people talking about a subject that can cause discomfort. I met with Nick to further discuss the content of the article and the responses it generated.

Q: So Nick, what inspired you to write this article? Was there something specific someone said or did?
NB: I was inspired to write this article coming down the home stretch of last year (my freshman year). I think it took a whole year of experience with the social scene here at Harvard to really start understanding and come to terms with what was happening, and furthermore, that nobody wanted to talk about it. But no single experience or person was the cause of my ideas or article. However, I did have a very important conversation with a good friend who is now a senior (who I know from home in New York City). My conversation with her helped me crystalize some of less formulated feelings about this NYC social dynamic.

Q: Do you think that the wealth inequality is greater at Harvard than at other schools/places? Or do people simply show it more here?
NB: I don’t think wealth inequality is greater at Harvard than any of its peer institutions. In an earlier draft of the article, I quoted one of my best friends from home who now goes to Northwestern University. He said there too students of privilege stick together. But I think Harvard has a very high concentration of very privileged people (especially when compared to less selective colleges and other places in America), just because of the nature of the admissions process. I think we can clearly see a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country because of the makeup of the Harvard class, and, more generally, the social dynamics of college.

Q: So my high school’s motto is “Be worthy of your heritage.” You say, “If I got here because of the advantages afforded me by my background (heritage), then what does that say about my worthiness?” Could you say that you simply need to show worthiness of your background so you don’t need to feel “self doubt”?
NB: The point I’m making in that quote is that there are students at this school, who have achieved incredible things (I mean they got into Harvard!) with less of the opportunities that I had. That is to say, when I compare my own accomplishments to their accomplishments, I feel this sense of self-doubt. I think for most people, whether they admit it or not, seeing classmates who have made it here with a lot less than they did (home resources, school resources, etc.) makes you question your own abilities. To answer your question more directly, being worthy of your own heritage is absolutely something to strive for (i.e. I shouldn’t waste the greater opportunities I was afforded), but it’s not something that you yourself worked for. You were dealt a better hand than some of your classmates. Thus, when you succeed, it sometimes feels like it means less. That’s the point I’m trying to make.

Q: Many of the comments from this article reference finals clubs and the privileges that they have and give.
NB: The Final Club angle to this whole article has been incredibly interesting. I don’t mention final clubs at all in my article, but everyone seems to assume that I directly address them (some people from Final Clubs who I talked to also seemed to think this). So maybe, if we’re trying to become more “socially responsible citizens,” as I say in my article, Final Clubs are not the place to do it. Or, at the very least, they weren’t the place that I thought I could do it. I think Final Clubs are definitely complicit in this social dynamic. I think they’re more of a symptom then a cause. Do I think that doing away with Final Clubs would solve our problems with confronting privilege? Probably not. Might it help make for a more inclusive, healthier social scene? Absolutely.

Q: How do you suggest Harvard ameliorate this issue? Should we call it an “issue” or is just a state?
NB: I think that’s definitely where you get to the tricky part. I think having a college dean like Rakesh Khurana is a step in the right direction. So much of what we hear from the college is about academic success: how do we grow intellectually (the Gen-Ed program and all of those kind of liberal arts ideas)? I think there is often a vacuum of voices from the college encouraging this kind of personal/social development. I also think there are examples of places where the college lacks sensitivity about how to avoid this wealth stratification. One example is the Dorm Crew pre-orientation programming. I think pre-orientation programming is incredibly important. It’s great to get to know people in a smaller community setting before the daunting “opening days”. I met my current roommate on my FOP trip. Dorm Crew, however, seems to predetermine this socially stratified dynamic. Financial aid for programs like FOP is limited, and many of the students who do Dorm Crew are doing it to make some extra money that those from privilege don’t necessarily need. I think dorm crew as a job during the year totally makes sense; it’s a good job to get around campus. However, having it as a pre-orientation program seems to set us up for failure in creating an inclusive socioeconomic social dynamic.
The main takeaway from my article is that, individually, we each need to do some soul-searching. Are we challenging ourselves personally and socially? Are we branching out? But like I said earlier, I don’t think it’s just a Harvard problem; it happens everywhere.

Anonymous hopes this interview will expand the discussion.