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Class Act: Breaking Society’s Silence About Wealth

Opinion | October 7, 2013

In the past few decades, society has seen an incredible dismantling of many taboos. In a few months, Tufts students will scream “Vagina!” and its many synonyms on stage in a performance of The Vagina Monologues. The normalcy of such an event illuminates the extent to which we as a society are increasingly embracing the controversial. Sexuality, religion, politics, and drugs are becoming common topics of conversation, yet one taboo that still remains: money.

Despite a penchant for materialism, Americans appear exceptionally uncomfortable when discussing wealth. It is considered impolite to ask questions about the cost of someone else’s belongings, and downright rude to discuss income. While the motivation behind this silence might not be malicious, the consequences of our unwillingness to discuss wealth could prove to be dire.

While many politicians insist that we are “losing the middle class,” most Americans continue to identify themselves as such. Even those with incomes high above average prefer to call themselves “middle class” or, at most, “upper-middle class.” According to a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Americans with incomes exceeding $100,000 a year consider themselves a part of the middle class, regardless of the fact that median household income for this period was $51,017. The upper class are not the only ones who misread their financial standing—on the opposite end of the spectrum, 35 percent of people with incomes below $30,000 also see themselves as being “middle class.” Somehow, in a society in where uniqueness and individuality is increasingly encouraged, our biggest secret has become our economic status.

In a world dominated by consumerism, it is surprising that appearing rich has become unfashionable. Flaunting wealth is considered tasteless. This summer, the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby was an unexpected flop, turning only a mild profit at the US box office and receiving much negative criticism, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 49 percent. CNN’s Tom Charity criticized it for being “audaciously, passionately artificial.” Charity’s opinion was echoed by many critics, as audiences seemed to flinch away from gaudy depictions of unrestrained extravagance.

So is great wealth no longer the American Dream? The Pew Research Center reports that 56 percent of adults rate wealth as “very” or “somewhat important,” yet we certainly seem to be rejecting outward projections of materialism. Ripped jeans and thrift shop finds have become wardrobe staples. While many businesses have suffered in the past few years of economic downturn, sales within resale establishments have been rising rapidly at a rate of 7 percent per year, according to the Association of Resale Professionals. In high fashion, pauper is the new black and styles like “homeless chic” and “grunge” grace the pages of magazines. Yet it is equally common that these new designs are just as expensive as the rejected elegant ones; they only appear to be less ostentatious. This trend even extends to the class of celebrities-turned-designers—Kanye West recently released his “Hip Hop T-shirt,” a plain white shirt priced at $120. It sold out immediately.

In this age of consumerism, we don’t actually wish to have less money, but no one wants to be perceived as excessively rich. Even the word “rich” is often preceded by “disgustingly” or “absurdly.” To be “rich” is often considered something to be ashamed of, and the term is often evaded with euphemisms like “well-off,” “wealthy,” “upper-middle class,” and “affluent.”

The shame associated with discussions of money has led some to drastic measures in efforts to conceal their wealth. On September 18, Powerball announced the winning numbers for its $400 million dollar prize, the fifth-largest sum ever awarded by a US lottery. The winner chose to remain anonymous. Was his motivation to maintain his lifestyle without intrusion from the press or jealous acquaintances, or was his reasoning for hiding his wealth more complex? The ostentatiously wealthy among us experience a great amount of antagonism from the public, and movements like Occupy Wall Street might make someone hesitant to admit to being a part of the 1 percent. Many pass judgments based on how individuals spend their money. We often defend our favorite celebrities on the basis of their philanthropy and the extent of their charitable donations. It is almost as if the rich must be redeemed by giving to charitable causes, as if their wealth were something to be counteracted.

So why are we so uncomfortable with wealth? I, myself, am not immune to this phenomenon. I have often skirted the question of my own economic status, and constantly tried to convince myself that I was only on the high end of middle class. I’d gotten my definition of wealth from watching Gossip Girl and reading magazines. My perspective was only further skewed by my participation in competitive horseback riding. The girls I rode with had backyard pools, beach houses, and private school educations, so my own relative privilege was hard to recognize alongside theirs.

One of my horseback riding friends once complained about her budget while on a trip to buy a new horse, exclaiming, “50,000 dollars! My mom is cheap!” I was half-horrified and half-captivated. While I lusted after the luxuries that my riding peers enjoyed, I knew that at my school, my class status was abnormally high. I attended an extremely diverse public high school, and I found myself feeling ashamed of my position on the relatively higher end of the financial spectrum. Questions of “I like your dress, where’d you get it?” provoked enormous anxiety for me. “I got it as a gift,” or “I can’t remember,” I’d squeak.

I couldn’t figure out why, but I felt ashamed—guilty, even. It was as if my personal financial situation made me culpable for global economic inequality. This may be a bit of an overstatement, but I cannot deny that I feel trapped in a system dependent on poverty. Simply in virtue of living and participating in society, I find myself complacent with sweatshops, unfair labor practices, environmental degradation, and a host of other atrocities. I cannot buy clothing, coffee, food, or pretty much anything without the transaction trickling down to affect someone negatively. I think this is why we feel so uncomfortable when we discuss wealth; our guilt about our privilege is more than just a lack of understanding of our luck. It is the realization that we are rich because others are poor. This is not to say that the wealthy are to take full blame for this predicament. But in avoiding questions of wealth, we are consenting to the silent perpetuation of our current system.

Wealth is not the first controversial issue our society has been hesitant to discuss. Until recently, sexuality was a forbidden topic, and those lying outside of the norm were encouraged to keep quiet. While perhaps uncomfortable at first, discussions of sexuality have proven incredibly beneficial. With many states passing same-sex marriage laws, these discussions eventually promoted equality. Similarly, a greater overall promotion of sex education and consent culture has led to improved public health.

Wealth is something that we hate to love. It is shiny, easy, and utterly seductive. Yet, deep down, we know it is something that can only exist at the expense of others. Avoiding the question of wealth will do nothing to lessen these inequalities that make us so uneasy. Opening up the conversation on the topics of race, gender, and sexuality has provoked enormous positive social change. We must use this model to inspire our discussion of wealth; if we are ever to move towards equality, we must be vulnerable and honest in exploring our own role in existing systems of inequality.