Is There A Price For Black Excellence? Combating Classism & Elitism in Our Community

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by Imani Davis, Editor-In-Chief

The most vivid memory of my first visit to Penn is the teeth. Campus was already overwhelming, and my mom was trying to help, but there was only so much she could do–this was the first college tour she had ever been on. Nevertheless, so many people that I interacted with opened their mouths to speak, and there they were: so bright and straight that mine seemed duller somehow, so crooked that I was ashamed of my smile. I could count on my fingers how many times I’d been to a dentist, and marveled at how many people here were able to afford the luxury of braces during their pre-college lives. This was my introduction to how class works at an institution like ours. It’s subtle, surfacing in little things: dentist work, sneakers, offhand comments. And as silly as these things seemed, they all worked to communicate a common message: that I was just an exception to the Ivy-League-normative rule of wealth. Their privilege made me all the more conscious of my disenfranchisement. If Penn’s history would have it, that is still how’d I’d see myself today. If Penn’s history would have it, a Black freshman from a low-income background in the years to come will feel as alone as I did that day. I challenge us as a community to work towards a more class-inclusive future to prevent that from happening.

Part of being a carefully conscious member of Black Penn is knowing when community growth is in order. We are nothing if  not our continual embrace of positive change. Over the course of the past few days, a number of students have engaged in really useful discourse on elitism that I believe calls us in as a collective to actively combat that force in our spaces and our minds. As I think of last night’s Kwanzaa celebration, I have a renewed hope for the possibility of what true and fully realized unity in the Black Penn community could look like. We all deserve to occupy space here, so how can we work together to ensure that we all feel that way? I believe that starts with accepting every intersection of our identities, not just our Blackness alone. With all of that being said, I’ve compiled a list of some ways that we can work to understand and deconstruct classism and/or elitism in our Black Penn family.

#1 Be genuine.

As a community, we come from such an expansive landscape of lifestyles, all of which we have room to be honest about in language and action. There’s no limit on our definition of what Blackness can look like. In fact, speaking candidly about one’s own lived experiences can help our fellow community members expand their thinking about the material realities of their classmates. We’ve come from all over, but we’re here together now. Let’s take this opportunity to learn from each other.

#2 Acknowledge privilege and act accordingly.

Perhaps more than anyone, Black folks are aware of the power that other groups of people exercise over us, at times without even realizing it. Similarly, people of economic privilege might not always realize that their actions are doing harm or isolating other community members. So I challenge us to think, thoroughly and deliberately, to identify how we might hold power over one another, and to think twice before speaking over anyone’s class experience.

#3 Listen to one another.

This should go without saying. There is nothing quite so belittling as the feeling of not being heard.

#4 Be Accountable.

As with anything, there will be times when we fall short of our goals. That’s okay! Acknowledging that, and working to rebuild our relationships with one another afterwards, is how we can train ourselves to adhere to a higher standard. Rome wasn’t built in a day, y’all.

#5 Lead with love

Sometimes, it feels like we are the only ones on this campus who truly care for us. We have seen each other through injustices, grief, joy, and more. That wealth of feeling, that community, is too valuable to treat carelessly. As Brian always says, “We got us.id

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