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Why I no longer compliment my classmates on their home backgrounds

By Margaretta Maguire (282)

The zoom background has become somewhat of a focal point for the virtual workforce and student body. As one of the first things we notice about each other, it is, for many people, of pinnacle importance. On mute most of the time and armed with nothing much more than facial expressions, the virtual background has become one of the only ways for youth to express themselves; I’ve seen lots of posters, paintings, tapestries, and plants, among other things. We get to see a whole new layer of people we otherwise wouldn’t know very well. We also often see what other peoples’ houses look like. And, as has been the case with many other things in the coronavirus pandemic, there are stark differences being brought out in what the conditions of students’ homes are. 

At first, I found it pretty fun to see everyone’s houses. In the third week of school, my friend and I were face timing each other and decided to rank our favorite classmates’ backgrounds in a class we had together. The common denominator of our favorites was that they belonged to some of the highest income students in the class. It’s no secret that the nicest houses belong mostly to upper-middle-class white kids. Personally, as a middle-class white person, I feel very insecure about my socioeconomic status, and the online school has exacerbated this. I am very selective of what parts of my house I put on camera, somewhat of a highlight reel of my home. It might sound stupid, but, in my defense, it’s fairly easy to compare and feel insecure when your classmate is sitting in a granite countertop kitchen with Viking appliances and grandiose windows, while you have bright green plastic laminate countertops and a sea of weeds and trash cans in your yard. Halfway into the virtual school year, I wonder if it only adds to the privilege of children born into high-income families to compliment and celebrate the homes they have been born into. 

In pre-covid times, whenever I would go into a peer’s home for the first time, there were a series of compliments and remarks I would usually make, usually followed by either an enthusiastic “Thanks!” or an uncomfortable nod from the host. Having been on both sides of this interaction, it has always felt tense and uncomfortable for me. I would usually be scared that people think I’m jealous of their house, or that I was giving fake compliments just because I’m supposed to. And on the other end, I’ve never felt very comfortable accepting compliments for a house that I haven’t paid for, designed, furnished, built, or had much control over at all. For the most part unintentionally, this interaction becomes taking ownership of your parent’s or guardians’ possessions, even when you have done very little to nothing to make them the way they are. The normalized cycle of complimenting children on living arrangements they have had no control over and their acceptance of them greatens a socioeconomic divide between rich kids, poor kids, and everyone in between. 

The dilemma translates online as well. Offhanded compliments fly during class, always with the intent of lifting each other; but some kids never get compliments. That is not a child’s fault.

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