An exercise in privilege

A friend asked this morning whether I was against exercises in confronting one's privilege (or lack thereof) or merely the particular version implemented at Indiana State?

Actually, I think it's really useful to understand how you're shaped by class, money, and the social capital of your parents. I've thought long and hard about whether I'd send kids to the kind of exclusive private school I attended. On the one hand, the education I got seemed to be noticeably better than that received even by Penn classmates who had gone to marquee public schools in affluent suburbs. On the other hand, going to private school doesn't just give you funny ideas about money and class; it gives you funny ideas about money and class that you don't even know you have.

One of the falsest moments in movies and television shows is when the "rich kids" make fun of the poor kids for being poor. I went to school with pretty much the most privileged kids in the nation, and I never once heard anyone make fun of someone's lack of money, or even the quality of their material goods. The snobbery was directed entirely at class markers with no obvious monetary content--in 1980s Manhattan, the heavy, obvious makeup, and permed, sprayed hair popular among the Catholic school girls I played basketball against.

Many of my readers will disagree, but I think it's rather useful for children like the youthful me to be confronted with the ludicrous ease of their lives. But I don't think that that particular list was a very good way to do it.

Mind you, it is possible that I'm simply suffering from geographic bias--the first thing I thought when I saw it was "but poor people don't know how much their heating bills are--that's paid by the housing authority!" But weird New Yorkities aside, that list still seemed to me to reek of unconscious class bias, the kind that academics are supposed to be challenging. If you had no television, one television, or a black and white television as a child (and are under the age of thirty-five), then it is extremely likely that your parents were educated people with a great deal of social capital that they passed on to you. Having to give up a second television may make academics feel poor, but cutting out cable in order to fund piano lessons is not what happens in households that are actually underprivileged.

Academics are terrible, terrible snobs about certain forms of consumption, and painfully few of them are aware that these tastes are class markers, not ordinal virtue rankings written into the fabric of the universe at the beginning of time. Maybe I'm reading too much in, but a lot of the items on that list smacked not of privilege, but at an underpaid academic's resentment of the material largesse showered on the rich little snots who snore through their classes.

To me, privilege is not about how enjoyable your parents were able to make your childhood leisure time. It's not even about material goods: the immigrant construction workers I worked with at the WTC disaster recovery site enjoyed a considerably higher material standard of living than the scions of the upper-middle-class who populate the Northwest DC journowonk community.

Privilege describes how much scope your parents bequeathed you to shape your destiny. This operates in multiple and often subtle ways. It can be reading in the home, or a peer group carefully selected (usually through real estate purchase) to ensure that you "choose" to go to a competitive college instead of dropping out of high school and selling drugs. Or it might be the way having affluent, stable families enables people like me to opt for high-status, low-paying, personally enriching careers, because we know that if something really awful happens, our families can help out.

By my definition--and I think that by any reasonable definition--I was about as privileged as any kid in America whose last name is not "Hilton". The only hurdles I faced in getting into college, grad school, and a job I love were entirely self-constructed--like that low high school GPA1.

But by the standards of that list, I was really rather deprived. My house had two bedrooms for four people, and one television that I was barely allowed to watch. We took no vacations, other than driving to visit aunts, uncles and grandparents. I got out of grad school with about $100,000 worth of student loans.

Which is not to suggest, as a few bizarre commenters/emailers suggested, that I was under the impression that I was deprived, or that my childhood in any way resembled growing up in the rough-hewn arms of the proletariat. Rather, the opposite: that many of the status markers chosen do not, in fact, meaningfully contribute in any way to privilege.

Obviously, any list will be imperfect, if only because wealthy Manhattanites will always be the outliers. But that list seemed particularly inapt.

1And it really was appallingly low; I shouldn't have been admitted to Penn, or any of the other schools that let me in. I retain the suspicion that somewhere out there is a girl named "Megan McAndle" who was shocked and disappointed with her results in the 1990 college admissions lottery.