I am in a jet somewhere over the Pacific, and a friend is offering me Grey Goose and cranberry juice. We are both seventeen, but no one is enforcing drinking laws—we are the only two passengers. This is a private plane, because the private island we’re heading towards doesn’t have a commercial airport. We sprawl across leather seats and continue to raid the bar and talk about college plans. We both want to go to Princeton.
This experience was not wholly atypical to my life in high school. One of our neighbors wasn’t shipped to Exeter or Andover, but was instead homeschooled by private tutors. One classmate’s father was instrumental in the mortgage crisis, and their home sits empty while the family takes refuge in Europe. Another friend’s father recently purchased an 82 million dollar vacation home—the same month, he’d purchased a quarter-million dollar horse for his daughter. I read about it in the paper while procrastinating an econ problem set.
I did not know that it was not normal to grow up down the street from some of the most powerful families in the country. I did not know that it was strange to run wild through sprawling mansions; to find my neighbors’ names on the fronts of banks, bottles of household products, and the backs of cars. On trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stop to find their names on lists of trustees or over certain wings. I’ve started playing a game here at Princeton, to see how many buildings are named after people I know. I’ve hit the double digits.
Entering college is an eye-opening experience for any undergraduate. Once removed from our homes, we can attempt to understand them. I am fascinated by the world I have left behind, but wonder how much of it I’ve taken with me. How much it matters.
* * *
The facts of the fantasy world I grew up in are these. My town was founded as a farming village during the Revolutionary War. At the end of the 19th century, it became a country retreat for New York tycoons, who founded a foxhunting club that became a draw for the equestrian-minded. It is comprised of estates—mansions modelled on English manor homes on 20- to 1000-acre parcels. The size of the homes and the scope of land are both enormous, but set back from the sleepy dirt roads so as not to draw attention. Many homes are accompanied by stables—it has one of the highest concentrations of horse farms in the United States. It is beautiful country, reminiscent of rural England. Rolling hills, rivers, and thick woods are cut through with bridle paths. The most shining commendation: there are coffee table books dedicated to the houses in my town.
Wealth is concentrated in many places, but the small population and expanse of land in my town makes it especially insular. The culture of horses and estates means that not just anyone can buy in to this zip code. Established, old money is a culture more than a simple economic indicator. It has a steep learning curve.
I know how to properly throw or attend a black- or white-tie event for a hundred people. I can put together an outfit for a summer steeplechase; I know how to play tennis and squash and will reluctantly swing a golf club. We learn these sports for “networking” purposes, because later in life they will help us seek people like us. Privilege is knowledge of this closed culture, being at ease in situations that take place behind the closed doors of a country club. It allows you to group together. It creates a class, separate from one’s income bracket—though the “new” wealthy may have more resources, they do not have the knowledge required to break into the class of old money. The country club down the street requires only a six-figure fee to join; the one up the hill requires members to be nominated and voted upon.
* * *
Growing up, I knew, based on the numbers, that I lived in an absurd cocoon of privilege and wealth. But it still felt normal, as all of our realities do; I could not have grown up any other way, and its proximity made it difficult to evaluate objectively. Incredibly, the strangeness of my upbringing didn’t quite hit me until I came to Princeton—this alleged bastion of elitism and wealth. My attempts to explain my hometown to friends or people who ask where I am from have forced me to reconsider its normalcy. I came here thinking that I had a solid understanding of what was typical. I have travelled extensively, and seen true poverty in this country and abroad, but I realized later that I separated those from my idea of the “typical American upbringing.” I still considered them exceptions, and my own childhood as normal.
I’m never entirely comfortable describing it, which is why I write this anonymously. Friends will discern exactly who I am. That’s fine, because they know me beyond what I reveal here. But I would not like this to be the first impression for those who have never met me. It’s not that I am ashamed of where I grew up. I am enormously thankful to have these privileges. But I know that people might assign what I write here to my personality or character, for better or worse.
It’s also difficult for me to write this because of the way I was raised. It feels like betrayal of the values I grew up with. I was not allowed to wear logos, brag about vacations or the prices of things, or ask questions about income or even someone’s means of employment.
The way my class is revealed is something I have struggled with at Princeton. At home, the omnipresence of wealth renders it unimportant. In part, this is because when everyone has a certain standard of living, it becomes normal. It’s also due to a culture of modesty and strict social rules. My friends at home never discuss money or salary or prices. We complain about being “broke,” and all of us have jobs babysitting, waitressing, or working retail. We are expected to work, not live off trust funds or dynastic fortunes.
Most importantly, we were raised to believe that wealth is not something fit for discussion. The word “rich” draws an involuntary grimace. Money is so universal and entrenched that it can be hidden away. Not talking about money is its own sign of privilege; it means that we do not worry about it, that we take it for granted. It is a culture of understatement made possible by outrageous wealth. No one seems to have noticed the irony.
Discussing the value of anything, even grades, makes me nauseous. It is fine to have things, as long as you don’t tell anyone about them.
“Rich” is not an appropriate adjective, where I come from. It is not a way to establish status, superiority, or social gain. Money is a means by which one can access valuable experiences—books, traveling, a better education. One’s wealth might be made obvious by certain activities—tennis, squash, polo lessons. It’s implicit in discussions of yachts or cars or vacation spots, or knowing which forks to use at a charity ball. It is bringing a friend home and having your parents quiz them on college/prep school affiliations, yacht and country club memberships, or vacation spots until a common denominator is found. In this way, “old money” is a social, even more than a monetary, institution.
But at Princeton, we live in the same standard dorm rooms, eat in the same dining halls, take the same courses. I thought that the importance of wealth would be erased. Given the relative homogeneity of our lives at school, how could one’s background be revealed?
Rather than erase class, I’ve found that the absence of certain markers of wealth (home, family) makes people desperate to assert themselves. I was shocked at the discussions of money and class that I found here, behavior that I would consider to be bragging. Some are overt: mentioning the price of an item of clothing, talking about vacation homes, or making obnoxious or ignorant comments about class. There are more subtle markers as well: a knowledge of preppy or expensive sports, eating on Nassau despite a meal plan or club membership. Shopping online at Saks during lecture.
And other people assign identities to their peers, a strange experience for someone who had never heard someone be praised for being rich. I’d never been called “WASP” to my face before; it’s a word that makes me flinch. It sounds like an accusation, like I have failed to hide my upbringing through immodest behavior or revealing sensitive information. Once, I confessed to a friend that my ideal career would be that of a writer. “But it’s not practical or lucrative,” I said—a valid concern for any young person seeking employment in an extremely competitive and low-paying field.
“You don’t need to worry about that,” he replied, stabbing at his seitan. “Your family can just support you.” To a boy sitting next to me, my friend declared—words laced with venom—“She’s a Daughter of the American Revolution. She’s the WASPiest girl in the world.” I was too shocked to offer a defense. I knew he was joking, but there was still something raw and accusatory in his tone. I didn’t talk to that friend for a long time.
Being called a WASP bothers me, but the real concern is that celebrating one class inevitably leads to the subjugation of another. What’s truly troubling are the hushed discussions of disadvantaged students; I once overheard a girl claim that a boy had committed a criminal act “because he’s on full financial aid.” Spiteful sophomores have been heard to whisper, “She can’t even afford the club she got into.”
Perhaps the problem of class envy and obsession with money is particularly notable here at Princeton because so many of us were successful, competitive students. We were told that we had to work hard in school to get a good job—meaning, one that pays well. Money is the end goal of our years of hard work and suffering at the hands of academic demands. It’s a tangible marker of accomplishment, a gold medal for the winners.
Our social institutions also exemplify this tension. Many of our traditions were started hundreds of years ago, at a time when Princeton was still exclusively male and upper-class. Even today, membership in Greek life costs hundreds if not thousands of dollars—not to mention the clothing, costumes, and assorted items required for social events. Financial aid still does not cover junior and senior dues at any club. And yet, 60% of upperclassmen join a club. Social life revolves around these institutions. Although passes are free, independent students miss out on the ease of getting into a club as a member, and may not have the connections to club members that Greek life tends to facilitate. There are other social events made available, but by definition limiting a certain social event to those who can pay is exclusionary.
Princeton’s history as a WASPy, preppy, elite institution is flaunted, whether it’s the clothing worn at Lawnparties (allegedly as irony, I know, but there’s an element of celebration to these costumes), or admissions materials featuring photographs of men dressing for dinner, or stories of our glorious alumni. We are told that a sign of success is putting your name on a building; our university’s position as one of the best in the country has been funded by vast amounts of money, by means that are not always honorable. We joke about our endowment, and occasionally touch upon the incredible waste that occurs—do we really need fourteen study breaks a week? Another junky water bottle with a Princeton logo?—but accept these gifts as standard. Money keeps Princeton students happy; it keeps them from questioning the status quo.
And I’ve found that students tend to romanticize wealth and old-money culture. Is this linked to school pride? To the success that wealth signifies? In certain circles, students with resources are admired and talked about for no reason other than financial circumstances that are out of their control. When I came here, I learned that being “rich” could be one of the positive things that attracted people to one another, much like talent, humor, or attractiveness.
“His family has tons of money,” I’ve heard people discuss at brunch, in awe of someone they see across the room. As though this makes someone interesting or worthy of attention. Some people hang out with individuals only because they have a lot of money. What about this is attractive? Maybe it’s the hope that rich kids have made the most of opportunities to travel, learn about culture, or gain new perspectives and are therefore truly fascinating individuals. More cynically, perhaps it’s a belief that proximity will lead to a small transferral of the social privileges wealth affords. The Midas touch of social interactions. It’s easy to hang out with rich kids. They are able to participate in a wider variety of activities, to have fun without worrying about cost. Sometimes, they’ll even pick up the tab.
They can get away with a lot more. I’ve listened to acquaintances laugh about the shenanigans of a frat bro whose behavior is otherwise condemnable. They rationalize their admiration because he is wealthy—the same way someone might describe someone as funny or kind. Conversations like this make me anxious, and I wonder, “Is this the only reason you like me, too?”
Wealth and status do not make people good or interesting or worthy. Remarks about finances are a comment on one’s family, lifestyle, or home. It is tied to class, not the objects that are markers of this characterization. It’s endorsing the means by which this wealth was gained, and fetishizing a culture that has a lot of problems.
Money tends to smooth away the consequences of life decisions, whether these are college major choices or employment ambitions or engaging in risky behavior. In high school, I watched my friends drink and drug and go to rehab. I witnessed the way their DUIs and legal consequences were quickly sorted out by lawyers their families kept on retainer. Money allowed them to explore these vices, and money negated all their punishments. In my town, we know not to talk about money, but we still suffer its consequences.
And I’ve realized that my idea of my home as a place where class and money are treated with more modesty and respect than Princeton’s wealth-obsessed campus is not entirely accurate. Money is not unimportant in my town; it has simply been replaced by certain markers of class and belonging. We are not willing to talk about it because it would force us to consider its source—exploitation of low-wage workers and natural resources and financial markets—or the fact that it allows our children to squander the opportunities they’ve been given. Insulating one’s self against “gauche” and “crass” discussions of income and opportunity does not protect one’s hands from smelling of cash; their refusal to discuss class does not make them innocent of perpetuating its many consequences.
I cannot stress how thoroughly I appreciate my upbringing, and the opportunities that this has allowed me. But my (family’s) finances are private. What I am concerned about is the way this very personal and utterly arbitrary facet of our lives is revealed at Princeton, and how it becomes an identifier that has nothing to do with who I am as a person. What I am concerned about is the idea that it might not be so superficial after all, that class still plays an enormous role in our social and academic lives at an institution that purports to offer equal opportunities to people of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. If we’re so striated at a university that claims to do everything in its power to erase class lines—offering the same housing, meals, and opportunities to each of its students—what does this say about the outside world, where efforts to provide equal opportunities are far less comprehensive?
* * *
It is only behind a mask that I feel I can discuss this. Class is America’s last taboo. We can argue about religion and women’s rights and politics, but honest discussions of class and wealth are still off-limits. The flaunting of expensive clothing and activities, as well as the hushed, awed conversations about these markers of wealth, are a sign that we are curious. We want to talk about class, but we haven’t figured out how. I realize that this might seem contradictory, as I write this article under a pseudonym. Part of this is that I still struggle to talk about money, after being raised to treat it as a taboo topic. But I feel that anonymity might actually emphasize my point. Rather than putting my name to a public article about class, I would like this to catalyze discussions with my friends and peers—in person. People who like me for who I am, not because of the culture I seem to represent. I am also reluctant to speak for class as a whole at this university, because I have a very particular perspective shared by a small percentage of the population. I do not know what it is like for low-income students at Princeton. I want these narratives to be voiced, instead of day-after stories about the legendary escapades of rich kids. I know that simple discussions are not enough, but maybe it’s a start.
* * *
The first time I returned home for break, I went for a run on the dirt roads by my house. You can’t see many of the houses from the road, which is intentional. You need to be invited up (a process that often involves gates and pin numbers and security cameras) to know exactly where they are, to truly see their scale. It’s not enough to buy a palace; you have to know how to use the key to the front door.
It was late October, and the trees overhead dropped golden leaves across my path. I passed the palatial white home of an aging tobacco heir, tucked deep in the oak trees. I wound in front of the towering brick-and-iron gates of an automobile executive’s five-hundred acre estate—I used their mile-long driveway for driving practice when I was sixteen.
I came across a riding ring, and stopped to stretch as I watched two grey horses practicing dressage. The ring was set in the middle of an immense clover field, with rolling hills in the background. Phantom chimneys rose from hidden castles, tucked inside the rolling hills. The sky was overcast. I could see the glint of pearl earrings worn by the two riders, their plaited hair tucked neatly into hairnets and under velvet helmets. It was a Thursday afternoon, and they were riding, each commanding fifty thousand dollars of horseflesh with a single tap of their silver spurs. It was all perfectly normal.