(wow! three posts in one day!)
I’m writing this piece because I think the idea of “privilege” as opposed to “racism” may help people understand the socio-economic realities of life in these United States. I followed a rabbit hole from Rachel’s Tavern and found this intensely fascinating activity for college students. (Suffice it to say, I’d love to do this in one of my class someday.) The basic idea is to have all the students line up in a big room, and a list of statements is read aloud. If the statement applies to you, take a step forward. If it doesn’t, take a step back. By the end of the thirty-some-odd statements, everyone in the room can see how they were advantaged or disadvantaged, how they are all at the same time in the same place (i.e., a university), but that some people had to work harder or overcome more obstacles to get there.
The objective of the activity, the “why bother doing this,” is summed up by its creators: “Social class, like gender and ethnicity, is a driving and limiting force in our lives. Most people, on campus and off campus, do not know anything about social class and how it affects everything from college choice to retention.”
I’ll quote Grad School Mommy who says it way better than I could:
unless you are teaching about systematic (institutional) racism, teaching kids about racism is difficult, as they are less and less likely every year to experience some out and out racist isht. but what about teaching them about privilege? it seems like the right way to go; we are all privileged in one way or another because privilege is about comparison. i have some thing that you don’t (or can’t) have, and that something gives me an advantage somewhere somehow. privilege can be separated from blame in a way racism cannot – you may be privileged just from birth through no fault of your own (that makes you feel better, right?). i hope that in teaching my kids about the ways in which they are privileged, they will also learn about the ways in which they are disadvantaged. it just seems more prudent to kill two birds with one stone instead of the typical “you need to know about racism because george bush doesn’t care about black people” message that many of us have gotten over the years (as true as it may be).
Because (and I think it’s pretty obvious) this is related not only to race but also class, I’ll play the game like others have. Here’s the list, and when I’d step forward, it’s in bold (with appropriate explanations).
- If your father went to college before you started
- If your father finished college before you started
- If your mother went to college before you started
- If your mother finished college before you started
- If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
- If your family was the same or higher class than your high school teachers
- If you had a computer at home when you were growing up [i’m going to say yes to this but i really must point out that (1) some of the “technology” questions here are really more appropriate for college-aged kids and not people my age (like whether i had a cell phone – no one had a cell phone) and that (2) our family’s “computer” was an Atari. it wasn’t even a Commodore 64. *sigh*]
- If you had your own computer at home when you were growing up
- If you had more than 50 books at home when you were growing up
- If you had more than 500 books at home when you were growing up
- If you were read children’s books by a parent when you were growing up
- If you ever had lessons of any kind as a child or a teen [i think “lessons” here refers to private, music lessons. i’m not really sure, but i did take piano for a very brief time, so i think this counts]
- If you had more than two kinds of lessons as a child or a teen
- If the people in the media who dress and talk like you were portrayed positively
- If you had a credit card with your name on it before college
- If you had or will have less than $5000 in student loans when you graduate
- If you had or will have no student loans when you graduate
- If you went to a private high school
- If you went to summer camp
- If you had a private tutor
- (US students only) If you have been to Europe more than once as a child or teen
- (International question) If you have been to the US more than once as a child or teen
- If your family vacations involved staying at hotels rather than KOA or at relatives homes [i only remember three, maybe four family vacations that involved hotels, one of which was a prize or promotion or something to Hawaii that was more or less paid for.]
- If all of your clothing has been new
- If your parents gave you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
- If there was original art in your house as a child or teen [my mother is an artists, so of course there was original art. and still is!]
- If you had a phone in your room [i did not but in high school my brother got a phone line installed in his room. i’d have to check, but i’m pretty sure he paid for it with his own money from his part-time job.]
- If your parent owned their own house or apartment when you were a child or teen [i’m not sure how to answer this one. when i was in 5th grade, we moved into a condo that i think was owned more by my grandfather than my mother. i know she could not have afforded it on her own, but i’m not totally sure of the full financial story]
- If you had your own room as a child or teen [i only got my own room when i was in 5th grade. and it was really a loft that overlooked the rest of the condo and had no privacy]
- If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
- If you had your own cell phone in High School
- If you had your own TV as a child or teen
- If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
- If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
- If you ever went on a cruise with your family
- If your parents took you to museums and art galleries as a child or teen
- If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family
What I really like about this list and the activity of doing it (and comparing my experiences with the (assumed) experiences of other people in my life) is that helps to illumine how class and privilege are really on a spectrum. That each of us have certain advantages that others don’t, but then again we are also disadvantage. Sure, my crappy Atari computer could barely do long division; but then again, I had a computer. Art was all around me as a kid, so I sort of took it for granted. But when I enrolled in “Art Appreciation” my first year at community college, I’d seen 90% of the art already in my mom’s big fat art books laying around the living room.
This exercise reminds me of the experience I had when I tried reading Nickel and Dimed. I never got through the first chapter of that book because as I was reading it, all I could think was, “yeah, I know how that is. I know how it is to work a crappy job, wait tables, not know how you’re going to get to work if the car breaks down, etc., etc.” And it really irritated me that this wealthy white New Yorker had the choice to live a life of poverty and was surprised at every misfortune she came across.
Reading that first chapter, though, really made me think of myself as “working class.” The privilege I know I have of being a white male suddenly seemed somewhat augmented by the disadvantages of growing up with a poor single mother. Undoubtedly, this experience has made me particularly sensitive to issues of discrimination and difference in our culture.
Doing this exercise, though, something else comes up. I can see in a slightly different light how my advantages and disadvantages are pretty nuanced. Because we were in that position of single-working-mom-raising-two-kids, things were tough. I didn’t get to go to summer camp, or get private tutoring for the SATs (hell, I didn’t even take them) and had to take out lots of loans and work part-time jobs to put myself through a state school. Which is considerably worse than, oh, I don’t know, the president (who connived his way not only out of active army reserve duty but into Yale). Then again, because my mom (and my grandmother) was bound and determined to give her kids every advantage and because she was an artist, we got exposed to a lot of things that other kids in our circumstances did not or could not. So even though things have been tough, they could’ve been a lot worse, and I always felt like I’d have the opportunity to make things better. I think knowing you can make things better, and actually having that opportunity, goes a long way towards ones motivation to actually try.
At any rate, I’m stuck in the office right now while lecture video renders on my computer for a DVD. So I have the privilege of time to find things on the Internet about privilege and then write about. At the end of this long long entry (and thinking about how fortunate Dana and I were to find our new apartment), I’m left feeling pretty blessed. And as always deeply grateful for what I’ve got, even if it isn’t all perfect, and even if it’s been really hard to come by.
Would love to know what others think of this little exercise.
(From What Privileges Do You Have?, based on an exercise about class and privilege developed by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. If you participate in this blog game, they ask that you PLEASE acknowledge their copyright.)