There is a public perception that the poor or disposed cannot be elites, just like the rest of us. Or they cannot harbor elite aspirations. We are shocked by media images, showing refugees leaving their homes, walking in the middle of everywhere, with mobile smart phones in hand. OR watching satellite TV, while living in squalid camps . Some question, how refugees can wear makeup, or brand name clothes or shoes? As well, we are surprised that the poor and homeless sleeping on streets, own mobile phones, or ‘plenty’ of property!
Oprah Winfrey, the queen of High Society, added weight to this thinking, back in 2007, when she said that US inner-city schools kids only cared for iPods and sneakers [as opposed to children in South Africa, who value for education].
But, can’t being “Elite” and “Poor” be two peas in the same pod?
Here is the definition of Elite, according to my Mac Dictionary,
• a group or class of people seen as having the greatest power and influence within a society, especially because of their wealth or privilege: the country's governing elite /the silent majority were looked down upon by the liberal elite.
By this definition, “privilege” comes to one via different avenues: education attainment, alma mater, residence, racial categorization, social circles or class, family background, gender, sexual orientation, and many more. The one I am most inclined to explore herein is “privilege through education”.
Education by attainment, grade completed or alma meter can ascribe elite status to a person, regardless of one’s social standing, or amount of money and wealth they possess, in a time period. Going to an Ivy League school already adorns one with privilege that can neither be denied nor wash off. One is plugged into a social circle that has “the greatest power and influence within a given society.” Often, “de créme de la créme”, who design the rules of engagement, decide what others should follow, design and invent all kinds of social material or cultural consumptions. They are the envy of those who might never have walked the same path of Ivy League status, and they wear the badge of “highest attainment” in society.
The emptiness of the pockets of an educated person at any time, does little to diminish her/his comparative privileged, or undermine the choices and options at our disposal. Education informs the jobs we pursue, the nature of employment we engage in and the salaries we accept. We even choose the neighborhoods we live in and the schools we scout for our children, informed by our education background. How we present ourselves in society, and who we interact with, is a symptom of our elitism.
While one may not be in good financial standing, at a time, have rich family, or grow up in underprivileged circumstances should not imply s/he has to present her/himself ruggedly or stop dreaming big. Yes, one can still aim for the iPhone, the big screen TV or the big purse. Education gives one the means, courage and networks to re-define oneself, on own terms. For instance, if one is trapped in undesirable circumstances, and ‘chooses’ to move to a new ‘safer’ location, guided by our privileged knowledge of the resources available, and the networks disposed to her/him.
So, why is society shocked when refugees, the homeless or poor seem to display elitism? Why are we shocked that the homeless desire the same things we do – a comfortable bed, healthy meal or a soothing drink? Can never fully forecast, predict or control how our lives [will] evolve? Anymore, anytime, can lose the security of income, home or social standing and become a pauper, yet still retain their elite ascription.
Don’t the poor and disposed belong to the “Educated Elite”, some with Ivy League degrees, only to “wake up one day on the wrong side of the bed?” That they aspire for an Ivy League education, a star on the Hall or Wall of Fame, and a seat not the board of the most prestigious football association or philanthropic organization? Once upon a time, they had the same privilege as we do, owned a home, belonged to a country or high class social circles, and will once again recreate those lives.
Pictures myself for a minute; I would imagine that, even without financial security, I would still have access to several resources for self-advancement or my children’s success. Without wealth, I could still enroll my child in academic and social programs that would enhance his own privilege. I could choose where to invest my money. I am privileged to value access to a mobile smartphone, and internet. Knowing how to write, blog, publish is a privilege of elitism.
If the poor desire sneakers and iPod, let them. Perhaps those material desires, like a first pair of hard-won sneakers, could be the beginning to many more. Better yet, their ticket out of the harsh conditions of their childhood, through hard work. Living their dreams in whatever form they maybe, could eventually transform their lives, and the lives of their immediate families, friends and the neighborhoods. By expanding their dreams [of owning [a] pair of sneaker[s] through hard earned money, their careers might in future become the building blocks for new sneaker shops in the “hood”.
Like Former NBA star, Devean George, who grew up in the hood. Recently, together with his former classmate, they are transforming his North Minneapolis “hood”, with affordable apartments, healthy food stores, children’s library, in a neighborhood where crime and violence ruled the days of his childhood. His childhood dream has turned into reality, and will transform education access, quality and attainment, eating and health habits, provide affordable safe housing and create employment for an entire community.
And maybe one day, the poor will start a journey of transformation into elitism. Because being poor and elite are not mutually exclusive.