Talking about inequality

This fall, I’ll be teaching a social stratification course for the first time. As I prepare my course material, I’m reflecting on a discussion I had with a colleague recently about fellow scholars who get shocked by the unfamiliar “other” – whether it is poverty, another place, or culture.  For instance, an academic acquaintance – at an elite institution – once told me that he didn’t enjoy a particular city in the developing world because people were not friendly. Others have remarked on seeing real “poverty” for the first time, or finally seeing a non-Western culture.

Indeed, witnessing different kinds of inequality or a different culture for the first time can be shocking. Travelling and seeing different cultures is important and life changing. I think everyone should do this. However, the aforementioned scholars were not visiting failed states, refugee camps, or informal settlements (slums). In fact, there is arguably more poverty/inequality in the United States than the places they visited. Correspondingly, their choice of words made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. As a person of color, and a scholar who writes on globalization and inequality (and has worked overseas), I was put off by their choice of words.

One of the things I would like to do is try to help my students (and others) speak appropriately about their experiences with inequality. Language is a powerful thing. We use it to bring others into our experiences. Yet, how one shares their experiences also reveals one’s privilege, ignorance, Eurocentric and/or colonial world view.

Here are some suggestions I have for those who wish to speak about inequality:
  • Ask yourself why you were surprised. Have you even seen inequality or experienced different cultures in the United States? Did you do enough homework on the place you visited?
  • Know the difference between poverty and lack/accessibility. Are you actually observing a lack of basic needs in the community?
  • Share your experience, but don’t turn your experience into a spectacle. This turns people and their homes into the “Other.”
This is just a short list and not conclusive. It is also – by no means – an attempt to block people from sharing their experiences. However, it is important to remember that how one shares those experiences is important as well.