There’s Bold, and Then There’s Bold

Speaking of that “privilege meme” that’s still buzzing around out there after oh so many days (even a blogger from Atlantic Monthly chimed in today, critiquing the exercise from her perspective as the graduate of a private school attended by “ultra-privileged” classmates for not reflecting her particular experiences)…

The protocol of the meme has been to “bold” the items that apply to you and to then say a bit about your background.

When something like this is done in person –as it was designed to be –a moderator can facilitate discussion among those whose lives have followed different paths and ensure that all voice are heard. A central point of an exercise like this is typically to generate conversation among the people in the room that would not take place otherwise.

But the people in this virtual room who keep batting this thing around seem to be people from very similar backgrounds.

While I’ve seen all sorts of assumptions made about how others live and what they value (and about how easy it would be for parents anywhere to find free museums to take their kids too “if they cared enough”. Have these people ever been outside a city?), I’ve not yet seen, in all of these hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of posts and comments, anyone who has thought to say:

So, most of the things I’m reading on this are written people who “score” relatively highly on this meme.

But I wonder: what does this all look like to people whose backgrounds included very few of these things?

Might it not be bold to even wonder whether one might have it wrong?

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?

The Anxiety of Single-Digit Millions

In academia, definitions of social class have moved beyond descriptions of traditional, objective locations in the economy to include analysis of the lived, embodied experiences of living out one’s location in the social strata. Evidence of the potency of the latter can be found in this NYT article on “working class millionaires” in the Silicon Valley who feel relatively deprived because even though they live in luxury, they see others around them who have so much more, and thus, continue to feel insecure. They work long hours and strive for yet more.

According to one estate planner,

“People around here, if they have 2 or 3 million dollars, they don’t feel secure.”

One “single-digit millionaire” observes:

“Here, the top 1 percent chases the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and the top one-tenth of 1 percent chases the top one-one-hundredth of 1 percent,” he said.

In the end, social class comes down not only to occupational categories, but by one’s ability to maintain clear distinctions between yourself and others.

While the analysis in this article is interesting, the language is troubling. “Working class” millionaires? When the only thing that you can’t control is how much more the people above you are making?

Laughing Across the Class Divides

Stick with a Nose weighs in on “class warfare”, writing

What I find most frightening is how fragmented the US population is already. The sad reality is that the various social classes live drastically different lives and remain so very isolated one from another… geographically, economically & socially [and legally].

His post is spurred by Scott McLemee’s post on Crooked Timber about a network (Late Night Shots) of wealthy young power brokers in D.C. Scott writes:

The point of a club like Late Night Shots is, in large part, to keep other people out of it. That’s obvious. But those other people have to (be imagined to) want in.

The greatest terror is not that they will try to overthrow you—or even that they might somehow break through the barriers of exclusivity. It’s that the outsider might laugh at the exclusivity.

Perhaps, instead of teaching kids to imitate or even to internalize the values, behaviors, and tastes of the wealthy and powerful, we can teach kids to laugh at their claims of superiority. Metaphorically, of course. We wouldn’t want to encourage snarkiness.

How else do we even begin the conversations about the vast social distances between the classrooms in which the children of the poor, the working class, the middle class, and the entitled are being educated?

How else do those on the margins even get on the radar screens of the wealthy? Moral arguments seem not to work. Perhaps incisive disregard might?

Raising Wealthy Children

While it’s relatively easy to find critiques of child-rearing in low-income families in popular media and academic circles, it’s relatively rare to find any critique of the ways in which children are raised within wealthy families.

Thus, I was intrigued by this short piece from American Public Radio’s Marketplace show that speaks to the challenges of talking with wealthy children about family finances. Apparently, many families find these conversations awkward, so often simply avoid them. From a transcript of the broadcast:

The thing is, the majority of parents in the survey said being open with their children about finances was important. But more than half have never discussed the responsibility that comes with family wealth.

One parent who doesn’t talk much about money with her kids is Lucy. She didn’t want her last name used.

Lucy: Well, I just don’t like to be very public with finances.

Lucy has two kids, 18 and 20. The family is worth more than $50 million from when her husband’s telecommunications company went public. But she says her kids learn by example, because the family doesn’t live extravagantly.

Lucy: Well, that’s a little bit not true. We do have probably a few more houses than we can properly deal with but . . .

Cole: How many is a few more than you can deal with?

Lucy: Well let’s see, we have . . . five houses, I guess, effectively.

The children of parents who lose track of how many houses they actually own are likely not going to be found in public school classrooms. They are beyond the reach of policies of income-based integration of public schools, of public school curriculum about social class, of public deliberation about the declining affordability of higher education.

In public schools, we are educating poor and working-class children whose work lives, whose access to public resources, whose access to health care and quality education for their own children will be shaped by those who have grown up in families where no one talks about how owning five homes is, in fact, extravagant.

Certainly, at least in public schools, we can — and must — talk about this?