If you can afford Cartier

in formation

"If you can afford Cartier, who can stop you?"

At a panel on beauty standards organized by Duke Student Government’s Equity and Outreach Committee, first-year panelist Cara Smith articulated a common conception of wealth and status. Her statement, intended as a comment on the rich-poor divide that is polarized by social standards of beauty, is truthful. However, it does not confront the circumstances that inform such a perspective.

In short, we can easily admit that affordability is subjective—a better question becomes, why so? For example, although two individuals may share the means to apply for a job and have access to free public education that teaches the necessary skills for the job, their differing backgrounds will translate to only one of them receiving the job. In other cases, differing wages will be offered despite the equal work they will perform.

What their “shared access to free public education” neglects to reveal is how much the zip code of their public school system determines the quality of their education. What their “shared ability to apply” for the position neglects to reveal is how much personal networks can influence a hiring decision. The list goes on but the point remains.

The divide between students from different socioeconomic classes can be overt such as with hiring practices, but it can also be revealed subtly—from cautious budgeting contrasted to nonchalant spending, to local versus exotic options for spring break trips, and the mere clothing on one’s back.

On the colder days of winter, it is not hard to spot someone wearing a Canada Goose coat on campus. These jackets, some of which cost upwards of one thousand dollars, offer remarkably durable quality and are protected by lifetime warranties.

Their owners, rightfully entitled to pursue their pragmatic, fashionable investment, are a sure minority on campus. However, their presence is a testimony to the remarkable breadth of backgrounds represented at Duke.

But clothing is not the only factor indicating difference in socioeconomic class at Duke. In the Class of 2019 alone, 23 percent of students attended a private secondary school. Globally, the percentage of enrollment in private secondary education has been gradually increasing, but Duke bears a stark contrast to the national statistic of 10 percent.

Importantly, socioeconomic diversity does not place an institution of higher learning one step ahead. It simply means equalizing the ground on which visionary minds can attend a world-class university built for individuals of outstanding character and ability.

A study published in January looked at anonymous tax filings to find that a majority of Duke students come from the top 10 percent of wealth in this country. It is not enough to acknowledge this and move on. It is neither the fault of the rich nor the poor, nor anyone in between. Still, the contrast is gripping. It is not the wealth itself that proves unbearable—it is the unawareness of some to this divide.

As is with racial minorities, the burden of recognizing economic difference falls on the shoulders of the out-group’s members. In other words, the well-off are less likely to recognize their privileges in a world where not everyone falls within their family’s tax bracket.

Wealth is no fault. As indigestible as the prospect is to some, we cannot police richer individuals simply for being rich. While we can rightfully interrogate the origins of wealth, it is unconducive to disparage its recipients just for their ability to buy Canada Goose coats. Rather, we can push for awareness of these inequities. All can advocate for reducing the socioeconomic barriers facing students at Duke, regardless of background.

On a personable level, individuals have the obligation to become informed and cognizant of their unique socio-economic privileges before large scale transformations—like vouchers for students staying on campus during prolonged breaks—come into play.

Otherwise, DukeEngage participants will continue to make insensitive declarations on “how cheap everything is” in the developing countries where they spend their summers. Their remarks, insensitive to the unique privileges their stipends offer relative to the earnings of many locals, will parallel social discourse back on campus concerning what activities are trending, fun and “affordable.”

A valuable question can be posed for everyone from the Cartier diamond necklace-wearer to the thrift-shopping jean-hunter: how affordable is my affordable? For the latter, you would be surprised to reflect on the value of those pants in other parts of the country. And for the former, Cartier jewelry and other luxuries are called luxuries for a reason. Remain mindful when speaking about money and challenge the predispositions that beget crass remark.

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “in formation,” runs on alternate Mondays.

Sabriyya Pate

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.


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