I’ve been guilty of it: celebrating something or someone as “classy,” or enjoying being described as “classy” myself. It seems fun and harmless, as if for a glamorous moment, I get to dabble in a sense of sophisticated belonging. But what does it mean to have “class?” Here on the State of the South blog, we talk a lot about wealth stratification and how a young person’s chances for economic mobility change based on family income and place, but these economic descriptors, while telling, don’t completely capture the cultural and social nuances of how we measure success and belonging in America. For example, I’m not just referring to economic success when I fix a shrimp and grits dish and brag to my friends, “this is some classy stuff.” So what do we mean when we describe people, places, and things as “classy,” and what does this imply about equitable access to opportunity if we also discuss economic success in terms of “class?”

Being “classy” isn’t exclusively about economic success—of course wealth and material comfort are associated with anything most people would describe as “classy,” but to be “classy” is also  the ability  to adequately prove that one belongs to a certain culture  that confers status and power. To be “classy” isn’t necessarily to be hard-working, educated, or ambitious—the ingredients we hope, in an equal-opportunity capitalism, would be valuable tools to attaining upward economic mobility. Rather, having “class” has more to do with the family you grow up in and requires a type of informal training on how to belong to the higher-status culture. And because this culture is associated with whiteness and wealth, it isn’t equally accessible to all.

Twentieth-century sociologist Pierre Bourdieu articulated this in his theory of three forms of capital: economic, social, and cultural. In short, economic capital is what you have, social capital is who you know, and cultural capital is what you know. Bourdieu describes these forms of capital as tools that help individuals navigate society and access economic and social success. But there’s not an abundance of these tools—on the contrary, they find their value in scarcity, and they’re not exactly tools you can attain with hard work. So the inaccessibility of cultural capital in America becomes particularly problematic considering that, as Bourdieu found, having this form of capital equips you to take advantage of opportunity needed to succeed.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that we think it’s important to identify and limit barriers that keep people in underserved populations from taking advantage of opportunity. This includes increasing access to education, affordable housing, transportation, and healthcare. But there are other cultural and social dynamics at play that not only keep some people stuck at the bottom from one generation to the next, but keep some anchored at the top, as well:

Economic Mobility in Raleigh: What are the chances a child raised in a given quintile of the income distribution will move to another quintile as an adult?


Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Because intergenerational “stickiness” is especially dire in the South, it’s important to take in the whole regional picture and the elements of Southern culture that could potentially contribute to inequitable outcomes. Sometimes this means turning the mirror on ourselves and seeking to change conditions by moving the lever not just on our economic systems, but on our cultural strongholds as well.

I came to understand one of these cultural strongholds better when I wrote my senior honors thesis on a dearly beloved Southern tradition that delineates the distinction between “class” and economic success: the debutante ball.

In my research, I looked specifically at the North Carolina statewide debutante ball that occurs in Raleigh once a year. About two hundred nineteen-year-old women from around the state are invited to partake in a summer of parties and dances, all culminating in a September weekend filled with luncheons, cocktails, dances, and—above all—a presentation ceremony, followed by a ball. Here, the symbolic purpose of the debutante ball comes to fruition, as young women are “presented to society” by an older man (most commonly their fathers) and presented on stage in long, white dresses while clutching a bouquet of red roses. One by one, the women are announced, until the whole group is asked to stand and is officially declared that year’s class of North Carolina debutantes.

To be invited to make your debut is an honor among the deb community, and indeed one must be invited in order to attend. The criteria for invitation remain largely mysterious, even after hour-long interviews with twenty-two debutante insiders. The most common answer is tradition—if your mother did it, or your father’s mother did it, and so on, you’re a shoe-in. Sometimes the answer to what merits an invitation is community contribution, yet the deb cohorts are consistently populated with white, affluent families, who are clearly not the only ones who contribute to the state’s well-being. It costs nearly $3,000 to merely accept an invitation to debut, and that’s doesn’t include the cost of the deb dress (often compared to a wedding dress), tuxedos, hotel rooms, limousines, and any other expenses that come along with the culture of participation.

The debutante tradition is largely about families, not the individual debutantes themselves, as the group of young women is lumped together without any substantial way to highlight their individual interests or accomplishments. Indeed, debutantes are introduced by their parents’ names, and many of the debutantes I spoke with told me that, although the parties were fun, they knew their participation was the result of their parents’ social connections and a desire to make their parents proud. Several debutantes I spoke with felt that family pressure meant that their not making their debut wasn’t even an option. For example, one young woman told me: “It was kind of a thing where I wasn’t physically forced to go, but [pause] I didn’t really have a choice not to go.” Parents have a vested interest in ensuring their daughters’ participation, because the debutante ball works, particularly in the South, to display families’ economic, social, and cultural assets and to reproduce elite status and social circles for the next generation. The result is that upper-class group boundaries are protected—children of elite families stay elite, and the deb ball does not welcome children of non-elite families to join “upper-class” ranks.

Again, there seems to be some ambiguity around what “upper-class” means. The term is bound up with all three types of Bourdieu’s capital, yet we like to talk about class in America as if it’s purely a matter of economic success and can therefore be attained with the right amount of persistence and hard work. But studying cultural phenomena like the debutante ball tells us otherwise. For example, during an interview with a man who had been attending the debutante ball since the 1940s, I asked him if it was possible for someone fairly new to North Carolina to be invited to debut. He told me: “Not unless they had money. If they had money, that other group would reach out to them, I guess. They figure, oh, they got money, so therefore they got class. But everybody who got money don’t have class, let’s face it [laughter.]” When I asked him to say more, he couldn’t quite articulate what he meant, and told me there was just a certain way of behaving that was understood among people who belonged to deb culture. Therefore, people with “new money” stuck out at these events and were not seen as valid group members. So could these families be described as “upper class?”

In a highly mobile society, young people would be able to navigate pathways to opportunity regardless of family wealth and connections. Instead, limited economic, social, and cultural capital—all closely guarded and reproduced within families—create extra hoops for young people to jump through in order to succeed. As Claire Cain Miller explained in an article for The UpShot yesterday, “Children grow up learning the skills to succeed in their socioeconomic stratum, but not necessarily others.” To build an Infrastructure of Opportunity in the South, we will need to take an honest look not only at our economic system, but also at our community culture and how that culture reinforces unequal access to opportunity.