Privilege Goes Viral

The blogosphere is positively abuzz with talk of class privilege.

In early November, Jeanne, on her Social Class and Quakers blog, posted a version of a staff development exercise on class privilege created by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Indiana State University. I won’t copy the exercise here; you can see it on Jeanne’s blog. In the original exercise, participants are asked to “step forward” if they experienced any of a number of elements of class privilege (parents graduating from college, staying in hotels on vacation) growing up.

Jeanne’s post generated a lot of discussion among other Quaker bloggers. The discussion was generally thoughtful, honest, and self-reflective, with a number of people remarking that they’d never before thought of some of these things as related to “privilege”.

But, the exercise then went viral, and over the past few days, my Technorati and Google blog alerts have been humming with hundreds of blog posts spreading what has now become a “meme”.

I’m fascinated. Why now? Why this list? In the year that I’ve been following blogs on social class, nothing else has generated this many posts, comments, and sometime vicious reactions.

And I fascinated by the almost universal denial of privilege among all of these people sitting at their computers with the leisure time to participate in such exercises.

It would be futile to link to even a fraction of those blogs here because they’re still popping up by the dozens as I type. You can find hundreds of them simply by Googling “privilege meme”.

And I’ll leave it to others to deliberate about whether Will and his colleagues came up with the “right” list of life experiences to signify privilege, as many of these bloggers do (even though many of these cynical critiques smack of self-interest).

But I’m highly intrigued by the seemingly contradictory responses in many of these posts.

One the one hand, nearly everyone in this current round of posts denies that they are privileged, regardless of their family circumstances (“Original art on our walls? Well, it’s not as if we had to pay for it! My parents were friends with many artists!”). Very, very few of the hundreds of people who are participating in this have simply said “well yeah, I was really privileged growing up and I’ve always understood that.”

On the other hand, many of these writers simply assume — and often viciously assert — that they and their families are “better” than people who did not grow up with the sorts of things on the list, because any parents who worked hard and cared about their kids would obviously provide the same things that they, themselves, enjoyed as children.

This woman, for example, after writing clever and funny responses to most of the items, took it upon herself to declare people like my parents unfit to raise children because they didn’t provide the travel, the trips to museums, and the college tuition that her parents provided for her:

So, yeah, I was middle-class to the core. Or to put it another way, my parents had worked their socks off to establish themselves in life and give their children a good start. And any parents who don’t do that are rotten parents and unworthy of the name of parent.

There is, of course, a smattering of outright denial of class differences:

In particular, I suspect that most undergraduates, with the exception of the very poorest, have had a substantially similar life experience up to that point in their lives. True, some had cars and TVs and took fancier vacations and ate at nicer restaurants, and some did not. But those differences in child and young adult life experience are pretty small: in our modern industrialized democracy, everyone (again, with the exception of the poorest) is working off pretty much the same script at that age.

Others trivialize a number of the items in the exercise and demonstrate an almost remarkable lack of understanding of the circumstances of many lives:

As an aside, one of the things that gets me about this “privilege” exercise is how actually divorced from class it is, primarily because so many of the privilege indicators are trivial consumer items well within the reach of all but the most poor among us. My gas station convenience store has pay-as-you-go cell phones for less than it costs to pay for an XBox game; at this point it’s not a mark of privilege for a teenager to have one. I can go to Wal-Mart and pick up a TV for under $100 or a desktop computer for $300; not very good ones in either case, but that’s not the point.

The price of an XBox game is the metric by which we think about affordability?

Many, many writers were offended by the very taint of privilege, as was this young man:

I would have resented the hell out of this as an undergrad. Why should I be accused of privilege in a faux-Marxist confessional because my mom was a schoolteacher and my dad was an adjunct prof? We sure as hell didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid – I never had a car until grad school – but I scored high on all the “did your parents give a crap?” questions. The point of this should have been to exhort the kids who didn’t have good role models to read to their future kids, not have the kids with good role models step forward like some sort of transgressors.

Role models?

Also offended was this middle-aged mother, who goes on to argue that anyone can work their way into the same privileges enjoyed by her daughter:

Wow. I guess that puts our family smack in the middle of the extended-pinky, capitalist-pig, sweatshop-owning upper class. That kind of sucks. I grew up in the (late) 60’s and 70’s, so being called “rich bitch” was the very worst insult of all.

She went on to dismiss such exercises as simply annoying as hell.

Yet others can’t distinguish between the privilege of choosing one’s lifestyle and the lives of material deprivation lived by others. Claiming honest confusion about whether he experienced privilege as a child was this blogger:

My family owned 2 homes all my life. One was wherever my dad was working and the other was the family farm which had been in our family for well over 100 years. We lived on or very near big water all my childhood and had boats (yes plural) both sail and power. For a number of years we even owned an island. Yup a for real ‘island’ in the Chesapeake Bay. One plus mile long by about a half mile wide. We went to both public and private schools. We always had very good medical insurance.

But… We all also wore hand-me-downs clothes, we rode hand-me-down bikes, we never vacationed ANYWHERE but the family farm. And those boat(s) we had… we spent far more time working on the engines to keep them running than we did riding around in ‘em. My father kept us long on hugs, but very short on pocket money. We had to earn everything we wanted.

He may still be wondering, but that owning an island thing pretty much clinches it for me. Privileged.

So after skimming scores of these things this week, I’m left wondering: How is it that so many people can simultaneously disdain the poor and working class while also pretending to live in solidarity with “real” people who had to work for everything that they have? To argue that while they simultaneously enjoyed a great deal of material privilege growing up, they are not “privileged” people because their parents worked hard for what they had?

How, in this age of multi-media and instantaneous communication, have so many people grown up oblivious to the circumstances of other people’s lives?

And in the end, how do we explain all of this defensiveness among those who clearly have attained the Great American Dream?

Why has this struck such a collective nerve?

27 thoughts on “Privilege Goes Viral

  1. Kate September 14, 2008 / 5:39 pm

    Isn’t part of the point that privelage is not just about money, or not just about how rich you percieve yourself to be? Me, I’m whack in the middle of that – I would say I answered ‘yes’ to about 50%, almost exactly. Yet, I can’t deny that I am privelaged. very much so. The one that rung for me was ‘people who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively in the media’ This is not something I have ever had to contemplate – not really.

    Also, the POINT of being privelaged is that you probably don’t know that you are – because you don’t have to think about how much the heating bill is, or whether someone you went to school with wore these second hand clothes before you. So you don’t – can’t! – realise how life-changingly, earth-shatteringly devastating it is to have to think about those things… at any age, but as a child, especially.

  2. Peter Woodbridge November 13, 2008 / 1:18 am

    In a book looking at class privilege, Polly Toynbee (Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today, 2008) exposed a similar set of misunderstandings among people who are essentially the very high earning middle class.

    The high earners whom she interviewed seemed to be completely naive and ignorant about what class was. They tended to see themselves as a lower class than they actually were. Because you can always buy a bigger boat, many saw themselves as under-privileged.

    This naivete, ignorance and refusal to examine, and identify class really makes me quite angry. But thats because the people who write our culture are generally the privileged, with a few notable exceptions.

    Yes, you can buy a computer for a few hundred dollars, but that’s not really the point. Its the language of the computer thats the problem, its the language of higher education that makes it less accessible to underprivileged people. No wonder working class folk have a mistrust toward middle class institutions, it’s those institutions that have made them poor.

    Class is a question of choice and the ability and agency to enact that choice, As money talks so loudly in our western societies yes that is a factor, but there are other factors, values and beliefs that also need to be taken account of when examining class.

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