‘Privileged poor’: Discussing money among affluent peers

Faijul Rhyhan

While browsing the New York Times Opinions page in an impressive bout of my senior slump, I came across an article titled “What the Privileged Poor Can Teach Us.” The privileged poor are lower-income students who were placed in private high schools, usually through community based organizations. According to the article, these groups of students go into college well acquainted with the inner workings of a primarily white institution. Consequently, they have an easier time succeeding than their lower-income peers who matriculated from public schools. I am ‘privileged poor.’ I was removed from my distressed public school, attended Prep for Prep, and was placed into a resource-rich private school, Horace Mann, in seventh grade.

I immigrated to the Bronx from Bangladesh when I was two. The odds of someone in my educational district graduating high school is 50%. I’ve received a better education than I otherwise would have received; our school’s 100% graduation rate is enough proof of that. This school year, through a combination of work and a lot of luck, I was accepted to one of the best colleges in America. Being ‘privileged poor’ has helped me achieve aspects of what many would call the American Dream, but it has also forced me to adjust to a community of mostly high-income students. In the process, I had to change my relationship with money in order to fit in with my peers.

My first memory of Horace Mann is seventh grade Dorrientation. After a weekend of boating, climbing the Odyssey, and playing card games, the new students sat in a circle in the main building to get to know each other better. The mentors did a great job of making everyone feel welcome and included in the conversations even though we were nervous to be meeting so many new people. Eventually, our small talk led to us talking about where we came from. I was excited to hear names like ‘Westchester’ or ‘Scarsdale’ because I’d never met anyone from those places. The Upper East Side was a mystery to me since I had never thoroughly explored New York City outside of the Bronx by that point. When I heard someone say that they were from Riverdale, the name clicked. It was the place near Horace Mann! I quickly replied, “Oh, that’s the nice part of the Bronx, right?” I was excited to meet someone else from my borough. She nodded approvingly, and the conversation continued. Shortly after; however, a friend who I knew from Prep swatted my hand and told me that I “shouldn’t be saying things like that.” I didn’t think much of it and moved on. Looking back now, I realize that this was my first encounter with the stigma surrounding money at Horace Mann.

Money is an important part of our school life.Having a lightweight laptop in your bag makes it convenient to do work at odd parts of the day, but may also set you back a fair amount. Maintaining a social life without a steady source of income is difficult, and although cutting corners and doing free things in the city is always a possibility, it eventually becomes embarrassing to be the friend that asks to change plans because something is too expensive. Although students have no problem showing off their wealth, when conversations acknowledging privilege come up, it’s suddenly taboo to talk about it. I’ve noticed that when I mention money issues with wealthier friends, the conversations become uncomfortable, disrupted by my friends’ uneasy apologies and awkward silence.

The frequency of uncomfortable conversations surrounding money eventually led me to stop bringing it up. When I had a personal issue that involved money, I kept it to myself instead of sharing it with friends. As a senior, I’ve learned to be unapologetic about my financial status, but as a younger student, I didn’t have the same attitude. Even as early as Dorrientation, I understood that my experience wasn’t something I could talk about. I felt like I had my experience erased, which made coping even more difficult. Not talking about the struggles of a significant part of the school community is discounting their experiences and marginalizing them.

Students shouldn’t have to avoid talking about income for fear that they’re making their peers uncomfortable because neglecting discussion of financial adversity perpetuates exclusivity and alienates lower-income students. Although these discussions may be uncomfortable at first, we, as a student body should push ourselves to be more open to engaging in difficult conversations about wealth, financial aid, and everyday struggles with money. The financial demographics of the school community do not mirror the real world; it’s time we step out of our bubble and acknowledge privilege so that we can create a more inclusive community.