Parvati-the-witch was born in Old Delhi in a slum which clustered around the steps of the Friday mosque. No ordinary slum … although the huts built out of old packing-cases and pieces of corrugated tin and shreds of jute sacking which stood higgledy piggledy in the shadow of the mosque looked no different from any other shanty-town … They found tin huts, and police harassment, and rats…
– Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie describes the slums of Old Delhi in his landmark novel, Midnight’s Children, painting a gruesome picture of rusty shacks lying in the shadow of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the sprawling Indian city’s largest mosque. Rushdie quickly moves beyond just slum life, artfully capturing the intricacies of India: its winding history, pungent odors, dazzling hues. It’s important to keep in mind that regardless of the caliber of Rushdie’s craft, he is one person; the perspective of an individual cannot capture an entire country. But in parts of the American collective consciousness, India is flattened into a single characteristic: its poverty. In the same way that people are tokenized (“the black kid who can dance!”; “the nerdy Asian!”), the middle-class American collective consciousness often erases the complexity of India and understands the country solely as slumland, a place chiefly composed of extreme poverty, hunger, and suffering. For our generation, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire takes a large share of responsibility for the American perception of India as the land of stray dogs and amputee children.
Such notions not only erase the vast complexities of the Subcontinent, but they suggest that America is somehow free of poverty and place privileged Americans (i.e. the kind who go to Princeton) on a pedestal. These misconceptions insinuate that we, as Americans, are in a position to teach India how to better manage its inequality and poverty. I concede that the magnitude and reach of India’s poverty is greater. But American poverty certainly exists. It is from privileged American shoes that we look at India and pity those living in roadside shacks and labyrinthine slums, not from the shoes of the Americans who squat in colonias along the Mexican border or those who are funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline. It cheapens the experience of Americans living in poverty to look abroad with pity, acting as if poverty is something that exists only thousands of miles away. In reality, just miles from Princeton’s campus are communities that have been plagued by poverty for generations, stemming from systemic prejudice and institutional inattention.
I lived in India for a year before coming to college. Before I left, many people in my community warned me to brace myself for the level of suffering I would encounter. Poverty was certainly real: I vividly remember that my first day in India, I was shocked by the sea of people sleeping alongside Delhi highways. A beggar accosted me and I recoiled; today I remember him missing a limb—maybe two—with a face scarred-over, perhaps burned, with tattered clothing and a walking stick. Like many “volontourists,” I went on a “slum tour” with the Salaam Baalak Trust. I was squeamish. How could things like this exist? I thought. But what I realized after nine months of being in India is that I did not need to leave America to see poverty. If I wanted to see poverty before college, to treat it like an ethnographic study, there would have been no need to jet halfway around the world to Varanasi, India. To see a poverty in my native tongue, one less “exotic,” I could’ve driven a couple of hours southwest of where I had lived my whole childhood. I could have driven two hours to get to Camden, NJ, where 56.7% of children lived below the poverty line in 2011.
The hallowed halls of Princeton, with its sprawling ivy and posh clothing, were a major culture shock after my nine months abroad. In the dizzying first few weeks of freshman year, I found myself lost on campus. I did not yet know the names of the vaunted Eating Clubs, nor did I have any conception of “late meal.” I cannot recall the conversation in which I first heard someone refer to “the junior slums.” I was baffled, but soon learned that he was referring to the buildings on the west of campus that primarily house juniors: Laughlin, Foulke, Lockhart, Pyne, etc. I remember seeing these structures for the first time after hearing their moniker: Collegiate Gothic, with shingled roofs and immaculate stone. I flinched. It felt like this nickname epitomized Princeton privilege, the lofty plane on which Princeton students often operate. I came back from my year abroad with a dual feeling of guilt and immense appreciation for my privilege as a middle class American. The “slums” are sometimes considered undesirable due to their distance from Prospect Avenue, where most juniors go to eat their meals. But this slang felt particularly pompous as I struggled to reconcile that things I had seen during my time in India existed on the same planet as Princeton University.
At different points early in my freshman year, I felt guilty for the decadence that Princeton often presents its students, and it felt like words like “slums” encapsulated this disregard for life beyond FitzRandolph Gates. Early last year, I read a story entitled “Eisgruber Excess” in the Nassau Weekly, in which Eliza Mott underscored how President Eisgruber’s over-the-top inauguration party represented the ways in which Princeton spoils its student body:
As I stood in a fifteen-minute line for Nomad Pizza last Sunday at the installation celebration for President Eisgruber, I felt more like I was at Chris’s personal episode of “My Super Sweet Sixteen” than his inauguration. There was a famous band whose booking agent lists their price at over $100,000, free pizza and ice cream, bubble tea, and tons of Princeton swag … I wondered whether previous presidents also used this rare occasion to further indulge Princeton students and demonstrate just how much school funding goes toward providing us with meaningless privileges.
My freshman fall, things like Eisgruber’s inauguration, ubiquitous free food, and our sometimes too-pristine campus made me feel like I was becoming detached from reality, and my reaction to slang like the “junior slums” made me believe I was among the few people who felt this way.
I soon realized that this is not true. I am definitely not the only one who sometimes sees Princeton as decadent and snobbish. But over a year has passed since I have been at Princeton and I find myself calling Laughlin, Foulke, Lockhart, and Pyne the “slums” without second thought. Calling the group of buildings anything else feels clunky. In the same way that Princeton has transformed my wardrobe, it has changed the way that I speak. The black-and-orange indoctrination is insidious. I recently purchased L.L. Bean duck boots, insisting to myself that I really just needed a good pair of boots for the winter, but I can’t help but wonder in retrospect how genuine my rationalization was. My initial disgust at the word “slums” has disappeared. I am desensitized. It is like any other part of my Princeton lexicon, ranging from “bicker” and “hose” to the Dinky and the Wa. Sometimes when I say it, I catch myself, fumbling to remember the actual names of the buildings to which I am referring. But I usually just give up and call them the slums. Even though deep down I know that I don’t think Laughlin and Foulke are anything like the corrugated tin shacks from my time in India, I am disappointed that I have capitulated.
I have thought about why we call these buildings the slums. I have tried to research the origin of the slang. I emailed the housing office, though I received a response saying that they have no clue when it came into use. I conjecture that it was born from the Princetonian penchant for hyperbole and irony. I imagine that it only was able to come into popular use because of the notion that actual slums are so far removed from our environs as Princeton students. Therefore, in some way, it is humorous and benign to call gorgeous gothic buildings slums. But it is only “ironic” because too many people forget that some members of our student body come from families below the poverty line and that Princeton is close to some of the most run-down cities in the country. The humor of “slums” is predicated on the idea that Princeton is indeed far away from poverty, even though Camden, America’s poorest city, is a 50-minute drive from Princeton. Trenton is a twenty-minute drive away and 36.2% of its children live below the poverty line. And right in our backyard, a mile or so off of Nassau, are communities of working-class Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, swathes of whom work on Nassau Street or conduct University operations.
Undoubtedly, when we say the “slums,” we are not consciously trying to sound pretentious. Many of the most socially conscious people I have met on campus say “slums.” But we are so accustomed to the nickname that the only time that we realize it sounds off is when people from outside our community hear us use it. I remember having a conversation with a Princeton friend while off-campus. A family member overheard us use “slums” in conversation and scoffed as if to say that we were fitting the Princeton stereotype perfectly. Were we being construed as ungrateful? Or rather, were we being thought of as hyperbolic and ironic to the point of pretension and callousness?
The Princeton student body tolerates anti-poor and classist language. The popular use of “slums” is a manifestation of Princetonian indifference towards poverty or anything below upper-middle-class. For the most part, the Princeton student body does not openly use racial epithets, barring instances of drunk students revealing deep-seated prejudice or ignorance. (Last month, while standing in line for pizza in Frist on a Saturday night, I heard a drunk non-black student call another student the N-word.) Many Princeton students hold deep-seated racial prejudice for fear of being openly shamed but have learned to sublimate their prejudice into subtler actions. For example, White Princetonians will not call Asian Princetonians “chinks” or “gooks,” but there is little social consequence in many circles for making fun of East Asian tour groups or calling Asians unattractive or plain. The Princeton student body tolerates subtle racism. I bring up the way Princeton deals with race not to undercut the importance of the on-going conversations and the amount of ground that we still need to cover as a student body, but to show how comparatively insensitive we are when it comes to class. “Slums” is not subtle; it is not a behind-the-back chuckle about the brand someone may be wearing or a boast about vacation destinations. The slang represents the economic vestiges of Princeton’s Old Boys culture that we, as the student body, have yet to vigorously challenge.
Words have power. They shape the way we perceive our world, our lived experiences sculpted by the words we use to describe them. Recently some friends started referring to the third floor of Frist as “the sweatshop,” exaggerating the intensity of the study space. I started using it, but I’ve tried to wean myself off, just like with slums. It is accepted by many linguists that different tongues cause their speakers to think in different ways. A 2010 New York Times article, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” described how researchers asked native Spanish speakers and native French speakers to assign male or female voices to inanimate objects. In Spanish, fork (el tenedor) is masculine, and in French, it (la fourchette) is feminine. When presented with a fork, Spanish speakers overwhelmingly assigned it a man’s voice, whereas French speakers made it speak like a woman.
Similarly, when we use words like “slums,” I fear that the word may acquire too much power to be just “ironic.” I fear that by calling gorgeous buildings “slums” and benign study spaces “sweatshops,” I am losing sight of my privilege, self-awareness, and understanding of real suffering in the world—suffering beyond getting a lousy room draw or being buried by papers and problem sets. Regardless of my intention, when I say slums, at the very least I am fulfilling the Princeton stereotype of pretension, which has been established by Princeton’s historical racism, sexism, homophobia, and astronomical wealth. Even though we do not know when slums came into use, history lives on in our language, and I want to choose which parts of Princeton’s legacy I help live on with my words.