This piece is part of the Are You Racist ANU? x Woroni series in association with the ANU Ethnocultural Department. Want to write for the series? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with a pitch or draft.
“I’ve been financially independent for 2 years, my parents just pay my rent for Bruce Hall”
Statements coated with the blindness of economic privilege like above are regularly heard on the ANU campus. University for many can be an isolating experience, however at the ANU, the experiences of coming from a low socio-economic (SES) minority background can isolate you almost completely. The ANU is unique in that a major proportion of students are determined by their economic ability to move interstate and abroad to attend in the first place. This essential barrier knocks out a majority of low SES individuals from attending the university in a fell sweep.
In my first year as a fresh Logan Queenslander youth I felt like someone who had just landed on an alternate private school campus. ANU has the lowest level of low SES student participation at all universities in Australia, (even less than Bond University)! In a 2008 study, the national average of most universities’ proportion of low SES students was 16%. ANU, on the other hand, had an abysmal makeup of 4.53% (notably the highest number they had ever had at the time)! This is reflected in the makeup of students on the campus, many who herald from elite international and private schools that reflect an artificial monied and controlled picture of the society they come from. These students often pride themselves on growing up with a diverse environment, going to schools overseas and interacting with people all over the globe, yet they never acknowledge the falsity of this diversity. The underlying makeup is that of wealth.
Lack of low SES representation for me has single handedly resulted in an isolating cultural difference. Having parents not on the dole, connections, a financially and emotionally supportive family network, holidays around the world and the polished spoken command private schools equip you with are prerequisites for participating in this university without feeling inferior. As a direct result the voices of people most affected by situations of strife tend to be drowned out by those who choose to speak on our behalf. It is as though low SES culturally diverse individuals are a foreign specimen in a David Attenborough documentary that requires the palatable translation of richer minorities from affluent families with the right degree of learned political correctness.
Being lectured by well-meaning friends about economic responsibility when they come from backgrounds of economic stability feels like a particularly insidious salt in the wound. Worse is when this kind of patronisation of experience comes from circles and groups meant to advocate for minorities. In my personal experience interacting with these spaces, a singular identity of palatable elitist politically savvy POC-ness is championed and catered to, and the diversity of thought is stifled as a result.
In my experience of most advocacy spaces on campus, those who speak up most and try to control the narrative tend to be from privileged backgrounds. Spaces cater to one type of POC-ness. There is little to no recognition that sometimes they share more in common with the rich white girls and boys of elite colleges and halls, than the low SES ethnic communities they try to represent, oftentimes ridiculing the same communities for not being acclimated to a white palatable ethnic makeup. The beauty of POC experiences feels diluted through this controlled lens. The often ugly, unfiltered, sometimes problematic and ultimately complicated experience is diluted when only represented through this filtered lens.
Weaponisation of the very real and personal experiences of low SES POCs as a medium to garner woke validation is reductive to the experiences of actual low SES people of colour. There’s an immense irony that those that will never have to deal with the intricacies of public housing, over-policing, and a myriad of other low SES issues, are the ones who try to dictate the narratives of these experiences.
Competitional poverty is a side hobby, rather than a lived reality for many of those who attend ANU. Race and class are all comparative, and there’s always someone worse off or better off. But I think more students at Australia’s most prestigious university should use the critical lens they apply to their readings to themselves and their cohort to keep their positionality in these institutions in perspective.
Changing the way ANU students engage with the low SES issue is important. Tokenistically pointing to the lack of low SES representation during stupol season, with empty promises of change isn’t enough. Changing the culture of how we as students comport ourselves, is important in order to not make university an even more isolating experience for those already marginalised by their background.