Here is a fairy tale. Once upon a time in Brooklyn in the 1980s, a little girl from a working class, immigrant Chinese American family went to a very special private school. Her family told her she was lucky, her school told her she was lucky, and for a very long time, the little girl told herself that she was lucky, too. The school, everyone said, was magical, and it did indeed weave a special kind of American magic spell.
Years passed and one day, when the little girl was a woman, the spell broke.
I am an alumna of Saint Ann’s, an exclusive private school in Brooklyn Heights that brands itself as a “real-life Hogwarts,” with celebrity graduates like Lena Dunham and Zac Posen fueling its bohemian fantasy of producing members of the cultural elite. Recently, the stellar reputation of the school has been tarnished by scandals: first, a #MeToo scandal followed by a racism scandal. Critics characterize the administrative response to each as a masterful PR blend of lip service, pledges for future wokeness, and few consequences. Criticism notwithstanding, talk amongst alumni on social media revealed a contingent that seemed more concerned about protecting the male, mostly white faculty members from “false accusations” than they were about protecting the students, overwhelmingly female, who were harmed. Similarly, regarding the racism case where a group of white male high school students were caught making racist and sexist online posts — some of which targeted their female classmates — and got off with little more than a slap on the wrists, a fair number of alumni responded with shock and the belief that “back in the day,” Saint Ann’s would never have tolerated such behavior.
Institutions are fueled by their own mythologies, and in processing what I experienced at Saint Ann’s, the work of the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu is particularly helpful for understanding the class dynamics at play. In his terminology, my family lacked the capital that was the norm at Saint Ann’s. We had far less economic capital (wealth) than average, and no social capital (connections) or cultural capital (credentials) to speak of. If capital, particularly cultural capital, was what made Saint…