Innocent ‘Etiquette Dinner’, or class warfare?

By Katherine Orr

My sister will receive her BA this Wednesday from Ramapo College, a small liberal arts school (read university) in our home state of New Jersey.  In the run-up to graduation the school has been hosting events for graduates, parents and student organizations.  One such event that was publicized on the school’s website has caused a great deal of discussion over my family’s liberal dinner table.

Said event, hosted by the school’s President and his wife, was dubbed an “Etiquette Dinner” and featured “special guest” Theresa Salameno.  I was unable to verify any of Mrs. Salameno’s professional qualifications (the article states that she once served the British Royal Family in a Hospitality Management role) but with some very basic Googling I was able to find a laundry list of Mr. and Mrs. Salameno’s philanthropic efforts.  Mrs. Salameno sits on the board of at least two small liberal arts colleges, including Ramapo, and she and her husband give a great deal of money to education-based charity as well as to Mr. Salameno’s alma mater, Cornell University.  That is all well and good and, although her LinkedIn (which seems to have been recently removed but was here) lists her as an “Independent Philanthropy Professional” and not an Etiquette Expert, I have no doubt that Mrs. Salameno is more than qualified, by virtue of experience, to advise undergraduate students on appropriate social behavior.

The part of this obviously well-meaning event that I take issue with is that it was thrown specifically for EOF students.  The Equal Opportunity Fund is a state-administered program that strives to “provide access to higher education for economically and educationally disadvantaged students.”  The EOF assists motivated, low-income students with many aspects of higher education, from financial assistance to tutoring opportunities.

In hosting a “Manners Matter” event for EOF college seniors, who have now completed the same courses as the non-EOF students, who have achieved the same passing grades as the non-EOF students, who have lived in the same dorms and attended the same classes as non-EOF students and who have presumably had to overcome more to accomplish the same educational fetes (by nature of the requirements for EOF eligibility), the college has seemingly devalued the accomplishments of these students one last time before graduation.

The school did not provide an equivalent event for non-EOF students wishing to polish their social skills, so why single out EOF students in this way?  Bringing in a wealthy white woman from a very exclusive town in Bergen County, NJ (Allendale’s 2012 Estimated Average Household Income is $169,175 compared to the state average of $88,846 and its Estimated Average Housing Value for 2012 is well over twice that of the state at $727,439[1]) to teach underprivileged students “telephone do’s and don’ts, and proper attire” represents a troubling cultural stereotype.

This incident at Ramapo College is a micro-example of the cultural climate in America that has made “class warfare” rhetoric so popular with both major political parties.  To be honest (and probably redundant) I am certainly part of the 99% and I don’t see anything particularly false or hyperbolic about the President’s attacks on Romney’s privileged upbringing and his general vilification of the 1%, but this kind of rhetoric fails to address the overarching challenge for Democrats.  We acknowledge that there is a very great class distinction and believe that this mammoth cultural and monetary gap needs to be narrowed.  The President believes that it is necessary to take wealth from the top 1% to create opportunities for the lower 99%.  This solution addresses the monetary gap and makes for some entertaining sound bites about “silver-spoons” but neither party addresses the cultural divide that this “Etiquette Dinner” illustrates.

The condescending nature of this “Etiquette Dinner” sets a poor example for both students and for the public by perpetuating the stereotypes that these students have worked hard to overcome.  Is there a reason EOF students need this Manners: 101 dinner while non-EOF students do not?  I was under the impression that very few 21-22 year old undergraduates are fit “to juggle a cocktail in one hand and an appetizer in the other while at a networking event,” and that has nothing to do with their socio-economic status.  Until the 99% and 1% (and their political parties) can honestly address the cultural symptoms of the wealth gap, those who are living the “American Dream” by working hard to create a better life will be the casualties of Manners Matter-esque battles in American “class warfare.”

(This piece by Jules Witcover’s in the Chicago Tribune gives a helpful and unbiased overview of history of “class warfare” in American politics.)

[1] Source: Claritas

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1 comment
  1. Eamon Rooke said:

    Really brilliant, insightful piece.

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