Redefining Class Disparities

A Capstone written for The New York Times Student Program at Oxford University.

From Oxford to London, rounds of tea in bone china pots and an arrangement of velvet sofas and rustic chairs contributed to some of the defining factors and divides between the social classes in 18th century England.

England–a place known in the past for its global powers and strong military command–is a modern day, popular tourist attraction for its fancy tea tradition that dates back centuries. The gap between classes was partially defined between High Tea and Afternoon tea. In this day and age, people come together from different stratas to take part in the art of tea time.

Traditions such as high tea and afternoon tea in the past have isolated groups of people. But, as cultures redefine the gap between not only class, but parts of society that separate us, perhaps this can be a way to reexamine our unconscious biases.

For generations, high tea has served as a necessary meal for many working class citizens. According to The Spruce, during Britain’s industrialization period in the 19th century delicate tea cakes and light desserts were the opposite of what was on the menu for high tea. Hearty meat and potato dishes were front and center of this “tea” scene as it was satisfying among hungry labor workers. In fact, “high” tea has little to do with social distinction: it simply referred to the types of tables and chairs used.

Afternoon tea, or “low” tea, took place between three and four o’clock in the afternoon. Tiers of scones, pastries, and clotted cream filled up the creaseless table cloths on the low tea tables. Only the affluent dined during this mid-afternoon “snacking” period.

The names of high tea and low tea can be misleading. Many assume that “high” and “low” defined the classes of people it served. But why would that be the case? Why would we group the working class with the word “low” and the wealthy class with the word “high”? It is no secret that these words are often used interchangeably. However, this may be another instance in which our unconscious biases creep into our frontal lobes, making assumptions and discerning certain ideas about things and people for us.

Neil Suchak, a 22-year-old student and employee at Oxford University, explained, “everything from the way you speak and the registrar of your voice informs someone’s perception of you.” Aside from living in London with his family, Suchak has visited the U.S a number of times.

The two countries have a long history, as the U.S gained its independence from the British in 1776 leaving some bitter feelings on both sides, or maybe not. The stereotypes formed from both Americans and the British are formed by many assumptions taken from both places. Suchak heard a joke, “in which a friend of mine told me. What’s the difference between Americans and a pot of yogurt? If you leave the pot of yogurt for 250 years, it will grow a culture.”

“It’s quite easy to form a negative perception of Americans, but I find American culture and society very fascinating. I think there is a different way of viewing life as an American. The idea that it is the land of opportunity is something which even though in a lot of realities doesn’t come to flourish, is held up as an ideal,” Suchak said. He added that despite many percolating negative stereotypes, “there are many stereotypes about American culture that aren’t valid which are prevalent in British media.” as well. These stereotypes could stem from the repercussions of history that continue to latch into the 21st century. ​

After a discussion on the various kinds of American stereotypes and how they are viewed, Suchak talked about how different British people were viewed by other British people. He indicated that class in England has more to do with “your voice” rather than your skin color which he thought was something more prevalent in the United States. However, he did mention the stigmas and prejudice towards people specifically from Southeast Asia, as many of them immigrate to Great Britain from other countries. ​

Meah Hamdoun, a 15-year-old Lebanese student at the Oxford Summer Courses Program, reacted to the moments of adversity and bias she encountered on Oxford’s prestigious campus. There are “people who hate Arabs and claim that they are all part of ISIS.” Hamdoun recounted. The assumption all Arabs as part of ISIS is an example of stereotypes and discrimination directed towards people. This is based on blatant ignorance or as a result of a lack of knowledge towards the culture and people. Like the two tea traditions, Hamdoun and Suchak’s experiences highlight the different ways biases and stereotypes separate groups of people.

All human beings have some form of bias. When one thinks of high tea many images may appear that may not be the reality but a skewed conception of it, like many larger aspects of life. We all judge each other and cultures easily, which oftentimes restricts the learning processes and our abilities to relate fully to each other. It is time to re-evaluate the norms and perceptions to all aspects of our lives.