The musky scent made standing in the trailer doorway almost unbearable. Blotches—each a varying shade of brown—peppered the aged carpet and peeling wallpaper of the abandoned room. The odor and stains, the origins of which ranged anywhere from soda to blood, mandated that my friend, who owned the trailer, move out temporarily. Living there over the coming months wouldn’t be ideal, but it was better than the previous weeks’ arrangement: sleeping in the park. It wasn’t as though my father would provide any assistance. He “wouldn’t have no Godless fags” to keep him company. It was in these circumstances that I rested my head on the floor, pulled out my Wesleyan acceptance letter, and imagined the inclusive community I’d soon become a part of.
It was with great relief that I left my friend’s trailer to arrive, only a few hours later, on Wesleyan’s campus. Walking from Usdan to Butts A, I admired the grandiose architecture, but the way the buildings loomed over me, the stark contrast between the environment I was in and the one I had just left made me feel somewhat small and out of place. Whatever concerns I had were soon overshadowed as I became enamored with the quality of the food on campus. I no longer had to subsist on Maruchan ramen and toast. Better yet, I didn’t live or die on my tolerance for rude customers at Dollar General in order to pay for said toast.
Perhaps most enlightening, though, was the drastic increase in the quality of my education; most of my childhood peers went directly into homemaking or the oil field after their high school graduation. Wesleyan’s amalgamation of people, cultures, and disciplines made me feel as though my bouts with income inequality were behind me. Many of my assumptions, for better or worse, would be disproven over the coming days.
“Wesleyan should, like, spend money on building a massage parlor.” Her comment was punctuated with a “yaaaaaaaas, girl” from her friend. This person couldn’t have known it, but her comment displayed her ignorance of low-income issues. Our load was already large, seeing as I still at times had difficulty making ends meet and others, with much heavier burdens, struggled to send money home to their families. Was our load to be made larger in the name of having on-campus masseuses?
This, and many similar occurrences, unveiled a truth that was becoming increasingly apparent: Wesleyan’s student body does everything they can to complicate low-income livelihood. They don’t mean to; in most cases, they just don’t understand what they’re doing. A “massage parlor” comment here. A Canada Goose jacket there. These things, of course, likely seem minuscule to people who’ve spent their lives surrounded by such a culture. To an outsider, though, they serve as a reminder, constantly insisting that you aren’t welcome.
While Usdan isn’t my favorite on-campus restaurant, getting to hear “NEXT IN LINE” is one of the only reasons I wake up in the morning. About a week ago, the eatery was—as is occasionally the case—swarmed. My friends and I walked from the quiet side to the loud side: no vacancy. Downstairs was similarly full. Sitting on the window sill, I pulled out my laptop, opened MS paint, and started work on a meme, which I later submitted to Soggy We$ Memes. My submission’s reasoning was simple: if you aren’t eating, and someone else needs space, practice common courtesy and leave.
A few hours later, I received the first negative comment: “This is the dumbest meme.” Internally, I agreed; it was low-effort, serving as more of a vent than anything. Something about the comment’s sharpness was off-putting, though. As the comments continued, I noticed a pattern: the vast majority of the criticism came from people who I knew had money. As an experiment, I edited the post to include a jab at “entitled rich” Wes students, which unsurprisingly resulted in rebuttal memes.
So, here I am, attempting to convince a group largely consisting of the “massage parlor” variety that their disregard of my inclusion in their space and subsequent mocking backlash is an issue. I can understand how abstract my complaints might seem to a student body replete with people who had very limited exposure to poverty growing up. To most students who grew up in luxurious lofts or even just modest middle-class homes, space isn’t a commodity; rather, it’s expected. To students who grew up with periods of displacement or homelessness, space is a privilege. Hopefully, it isn’t difficult to associate the entitlement to space with wealth. Since there is a correlation between one’s childhood living circumstances and one’s trivialization of space, I stand by my position. Still, there are many counterarguments. I’d like to address several.
“Worrying about minor issues like this undermines greater issues.” Again, I agree that the trivialization of space is—in a vacuum—seemingly insignificant. It’s when such microaggressions ceaselessly find their way into my everyday life that I become frustrated.
There’s also something to be said about these “greater issues”—it isn’t the responsibility of an ally to explain to the marginalized what constitutes a “greater issue.” Wesleyan students, seemingly, have a firmer grip on this in other sects of social justice, yet they always struggle as it relates to income inequality. One wouldn’t expect a cis-male Wesleyan student to correct a non-male-identifying peer on issues like preferred pronouns, regardless of how absurd or irrelevant the issue may seem to cis-male chauvinism. One would, apparently, expect a wealthy Wesleyan student to correct a low-income peer on issues such as space entitlement on the pretense that the link isn’t clear. Again, it isn’t the responsibility of an ally to explain to the marginalized what constitutes a “greater issue.”
To play devil’s advocate, there are—in fact—low-income students who disagree with my sentiment. My intention isn’t to rob them of their voice, as is so commonly the case with detractors of income inequality initiatives. Rather, I believe that differences in upbringing and histories with institutions/people of oppressive wealth have molded unique understandings of what is and isn’t problematic in the low-income community, including the issue of space entitlement. I respect and welcome discourse from my low-income peers.
“It’s the administration’s fault. They should provide more space.” This brings to mind the “massage parlor” comment. The fact that Wesleyan students think this IS the problem. If Wesleyan were to allocate funds to pay for additional space, certain initiatives would lose funding. Given the administration’s demonstrated distaste for financial aid, it’s reasonable to infer that at least part of the cuts would come from initiatives vital for keeping poor students here year-by-year. My expenses aren’t getting any cheaper. Why, then, should my load be made larger? Low-income livelihood shouldn’t continue to be overlooked merely because Wesleyan students are resistant to admitting entitlement, especially when—frankly—the solution isn’t complex at all. If you aren’t eating and someone else needs space, practice common courtesy and leave. Refrain from turning the request and the frustration underlying it into a joke merely because you can’t relate. I don’t expect most Wesleyan students to relate; I expect them to listen.
As I lay in my friend’s trailer, it hurt to know that I wasn’t welcome in my own house. At times, Wesleyan’s pervasive anti-poor culture make me feel as though I’m not even welcome here. Though oxymoronic, the words of my close friend, Ricardo Vega ’21, ring especially true: “Wesleyan is selectively inclusive. Students usually only address the issues that affect them personally and disregard everything else.” The issue with this arrangement is that low-income students, for obvious reasons, have little presence on the campus of a university with a $70,000 cost of attendance. My negative response to the Usdan memes has been entirely rooted in a desire for low-income students to finally have the voice they need. For many people reading this, space hasn’t been, isn’t, and won’t in the future be an issue, so I fully expect even this article to be joked about in Wesleyan’s halls. Considering that, perhaps this article, along with my aspirations of finding inclusivity at Wesleyan, are futile. I have no control over whether the student body takes my word on an issue they don’t and—in many cases—can’t understand. Wesleyan isn’t the inclusive community I had hoped for, but it could be.
Joshua Reed is a member of the Class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.