Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Idiosyncratic disadvantage

Commenter (and college friend) Jena brought up a good point in the comments to the post below:

I see a second issue with the scholarship, too, but I'm having trouble articulating it beyond a few examples. I have friends who didn't apply for a scholarship for cancer survivors "because I was never an inpatient" and others who didn't apply for a scholarship for children of divorce "because my parents still like each other." There's already a lot of downplaying of health and family problems as "not as bad as others" - sort of an anti-one-upmanship? - which seems counter to the point of such scholarship. Sure, the writer doesn't have AS BAD a disadvantage as others ... but does that matter?
With scholarships, there are merit-based ones, need-based ones, and then special-factor ones, which may or may not be about obstacles overcome. But given that this discussion was in reference to the ones that are - inspired by the qualms of a grad-school applicant with hearing loss - let's focus on that angle. The following thoughts come out of some off-blog discussions of this topic, but it seemed worth bringing back to WWPD as well. Some more half-formed thoughts are below:

In principle, it seems like a good thing that scholarships acknowledge an ever-broader spectrum of disadvantages. One of the big problems with "privilege" as a framework, as it's generally used, is that we can kind of forget that all things equal, the white/male/rich have it easy, but that on an individual basis, obstacles come from a great many sources, and don't all fit into the (admittedly ever-expanding) list of generally-agreed-upon categories.

In practice, category-expansion (and we're using scholarships as the example) poses several problems. The first is that there will always be obstacles that fall through the cracks, that fail to reach the public's awareness, or that are just too idiosyncratic to get categories of their own. This, though, isn't necessarily such a problem, for the obvious 'why not do some good even if there's no fixing everything' reasons. That Person A comes from a messed-up family doesn't change the fact that racism continues to exist, or that those without rich parents have a tougher time paying for college. (Caryatis, does this at all address your concern?)

The second and more pressing is that the further you get from a category like race or class, the more likely you are to venture into the kind of territory individuals may not want to disclose about. Indeed, disclosure would be a strange phrasing if we're talking about putting "Pacific Islander" or bare-bones financial information on a form. It's not that race and class are always visible or (ha!) never sensitive. But think about this in terms what might constitute a privacy violation if shared about someone else. These are things about which someone has the option of not telling the entire world, and maybe they want to exercise that.

Giving these additional obstacles official recognition - as with scholarships - requires public (or quasi-public, if the funds are given somehow anonymously) admission of whichever obstacle, which is just plain going to be tougher to get in these cases than it is to convince someone whose obstacle is that their parents didn't go to college to put that on a form. Maybe you won't want to apply for the My Family Is Massively Dysfunctional Fellowship or the I'm Severely Deformed Under My Clothes Due To An Accident Scholarship, not because these weren't setbacks, but because that's not what you want to lead with in new situations. Or maybe whichever private trauma is too great for you to want to relive it by thinking about it, even if there's no line on your CV about it.

But there's also a third problem, which is that idiosyncratic obstacles are precisely the ones least likely to be overcome by throwing money at the problem. Obstacles not related to socioeconomic depravation are more likely to lead to things like lower grades and fewer extracurriculars than lower family income. Someone who faced terrible-but-unclassifiable obstacles as a child needs, I don't know, a GPA and SAT pseudo-boost, not necessarily a scholarship, any more than everyone does given what college costs these days.


Miss Self-Important said...

But why would you want to lead in with "I'm poor" or "my parents are uneducated" any more than you'd want to lead in with "I'm deformed"?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I suppose because there's a well-established tradition of believing that those who are poor or first-generation college students deserve a boost, which encourages those who are to be open about this. Whereas "I'm deformed" is more of a private concern, one that doesn't fit into some generally-recognized category of underprivilege.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think disability is a legally-recognized category, which makes it even stronger in some respects than the flexible social category of "poor." (Which of course demands, but HOW poor?) Still though, wouldn't you feel sort of ashamed to introduce yourself as "poor" or even "low-income" to strangers, even if so doing gave you a boost? It seems categorically different from saying, "I'm black," a descriptor in which there is no shame or blame.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

It's because this is how the privilege framework operates. There are certain categories that are generally recognized as obstacles. And yes, a visible disability would count. But basically, no, there's no shame, in a meritocratic-type context, in coming from a poor family and having achieved as much as someone whose parents also went to whichever Ivy. If anything, the reverse. Which isn't to say there isn't social exclusion if you didn't grow up going to whichever yacht club.

Whereas if you got straight As despite a dysfunctional childhood, or a serious childhood illness that left no visible trace, this is impressive, but also something where, however impressive it is, making the information public is difficult. Difficult both because of the sensitive nature of such things, and because they're not generally looked upon as making someone anything other than capital-P Privileged.

fourtinefork said...

Hmmm, I don't know about the lack of shame of introducing oneself as from a poor family.

My family isn't poor (midwestern working class, which is sliding into something else these days), but I certainly didn't want to trumpet my background when I was in college. Nor in graduate school. I'd occasionally get comments-- when people found out where I was from (mere location, without any further info on my background; for all they knew, my parents could have been small-town doctors or lawyers or factory owners)-- asking how on earth I'd managed to get where I was coming from where I came. It was, and remains, uncomfortable.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Oh, there's definitely shame - thus why most of the "poor" childhoods one hears discussed loudly are actually people who grew up somewhat wealthy but not quite as much so as those around them. Scrappiness oneupmanship tends not to be a game played by the actually scrappy. Meanwhile - I promise! - some of us who grew up in NYC to well-educated parents spend grad school self-flagellating over having not done anything all that impressive, considering. OK, I did - not sure anyone else does.

But there's still, I think, a certain relative social acceptability in having overcome socioeconomic obstacles as versus having overcome some kind of family tragedy that's both more idiosyncratic and difficult to convey. While the situations you describe were no doubt awkward, you must (?) have on some level realized that people making such comments were impressed by your trajectory. (Unless they were just being snobs. Also a possibility.) Whereas revealing a past of abuse/illness/miscellaneous severe dysfunction... an obstacle's still been overcome, but there's both more stigma, and, conversely, more of a sense that such an individual probably didn't have it so tough, if their family had money.