March 2, 2017
Every weekend night, Hamilton students flood the bars in downtown Clinton. Dressed to the nines with (fake) IDs, Hill Cards and money in their pockets, students expect to be welcomed with open arms to the town’s bars and food spots. Students also expect that the Clinton townspeople, conveniently dubbed “townies,” will remain out of sight and out of mind. If classism isn’t blatant enough on Hamilton’s campus, one needs only to sit at the Village Tavern bar for 10 minutes on a Saturday night to experience its true depth.
Need convincing? Let’s start by thinking critically about the nickname “townie.” Inherent in this title is a dominance-subordination complex that places Hamilton students as superiors on a secluded hill and townspeople as the dismissible subjects that occupy the outside space.
For most bar-frequenters, hearing “townie” sparks immediate connotations of perceived lower social class and a lack of education. This title lets students easily group all non-students under a singular identity founded on their presumed inferiority. Face it: it is nearly impossible—and I am not innocent of this (somewhat disturbing) natural reaction—to see a friend point out a townie in the bar and not classify him or her as some kind of unfamiliar, undesirable other. This, my friends, is blatant prejudice and the systematic assignment of characteristics based on social class. It is classism at its finest.
At this point, it would be easy to put down this article, roll your eyes and dismiss the idea that each weekend you play an active role in classist discrimination. “Townie,” after all, is just a harmless nickname—it’s just easier to say than the mouthful of “Clinton townsperson.” I mean, they must have a similar name for us right?
Last weekend I was eager to find out so I sparked a conversation with a local at the Village Tavern. Shockingly she told me that the locals dub us “Hamilton students,” which actually has the same number of syllables as Clinton townsperson. There’s something more than convenience behind the choice to use “townie,” and, if only to call attention to the classist undertones of the word, I’ll use it to refer to Clinton townspeople throughout the rest of this article.
Over the past couple of weekends, I’ve taken note of some of the remarks I’ve heard from Hamilton students exploring Clinton’s weekend bar scene. Standing next to me in the bar were two girls in close conference with each other. One of them was gripping the other’s shoulders as if she was about to disclose the details of an existential crisis. She gushed to her friend: “When I asked him what his major was I realized he was a townie. We had already talked for like 10 minutes by that point! I almost threw up.”
The night before, after trying and failing to squeeze my way between frenzied students to catch the bartender’s attention, I saw an open spot next to a townie across the bar and seized it. She was blonde, in her 50s and an absolute riot. We instantly hit it off and I was lost in conversation with her for all of five minutes before I looked up and saw three of my friends worriedly motioning to me from across the bar, mouthing, “Are you OK?” The townie, who had seen and felt the reaction from my friends, told me that I should get back to them and shifted her attention to the only other townie in the bar who was sitting on her other side. For frequent bar-goers reading this article, these comments should sound all too familiar.
As much as I’d like to excuse these comments as drunken instances of lack of a filter, this disparaging attitude towards townies persists outside of the weekend bar scene. Sober or not, on or off-campus, students do not refrain from making overarching judgments about townies by grouping them under an umbrella of relative inferiority. I’ve often had friends make self-deprecating remarks about their grungy outfits by commenting that they “look like a townie right now.”
What does it mean to look like a townie? Is there some kind of stamp that distinguishes townies from their neighbors on the Hill? I think that the answer is an unmistakable yes, and that mark is one of perceived lower social class. I’ve stood in the Hannaford line while my friends in front of me expect service from cashiers without having to acknowledge their existence and the group of Hamilton guys behind me loudly discuss the details of their friend having puked on the steps of the nail salon next to Don’s Rok. It seems utterly ironic to me that students who urinate and vomit on the steps of Clinton’s local businesses, crowd the street and sidewalk to cram on the Jitney and routinely destroy the bathrooms at the town’s bars somehow assume a position of superiority in their interactions with townies.
Beyond the rudeness of these interactions lies an important revelation about Hamilton students’ sentiment toward townies. "Townie" implies unfamiliar, and unfamiliarity breeds fear. Students resist interacting with townies for the fear that is founded on their perceived lower social class which, for many, translates to griminess. This fear reveals itself most clearly when a female student is talking to a male townie at the bar—a situation that usually warrants a hero’s swooping in and saving the girl in danger.
If the taboo surrounding interactions between female students and male townies was based purely on age difference, this intervention would be more understandable. However I think that ignoring the socio-economic prejudice against townies implicit in these situations is willful ignorance. While safety should be emphasized in an off-campus setting, it can be practiced without perpetuating classist stereotypes against the overarching other that is the townie population.
While trashing the term townie altogether would be ideal, the proliferative use of the term among Hamilton students (and most notably among my friends who pride themselves on fighting to dismantle systems of oppression) makes that goal seem unfeasible in the short-term. As a starting point, we can acknowledge the class implications of the decisions and comments that we make. Making assumptions about people’s intelligence and worth based on a class-constructed title is immoral, and it stifles opportunities for meaningful interactions with community members. Unlike my confused and passive reactions to the aforementioned incidents I witnessed in the bars downtown, we can listen for “not our kind of people” statements and challenge them. The very least that bar-goers hosted by the Clinton community can do is to be kind to the locals whom they encounter.
When students discriminate against townies, they do more than widen the rift between Hamilton and its surrounding community. They act in a way that violates the very principles on which Hamilton is founded. Reiterating a classist stereotype against Clinton townspeople does not bring us closer to becoming ethical, informed and engaged citizens. Rather, it isolates us.