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February 06, 2008

Class Privilege Meme

The meme is to bold the items that apply to you. It's the exercise where you step forward or back, depending on the items of your class privilege? via.

When you were in college:

If your father went to college.
If your father finished college

If your mother went to college
If your mother finished college

If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home
If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children’s books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind
If you had more than two kinds of lessons
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it
If you have less than $5000 in student loans
If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
If you have been to Europe
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house
If your parent own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room
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 in your room in High School
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
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.

The class privilege meme has few surprises for me. I was/am privileged, and I kne/ow it.

Where someone might get bogged down is in certain small items, like my lack of a personal tv, phone, car, computer, cell phone, etc. Also that I, gasp, didn't do an SAT prep course.

These, believe it or not, are items of an even greater privilege: coming from a "cultured" family, I was strongly discouraged from watching tv or talking on the phone ... but my parents buy me any stack of books I wanted. And god forbid we should waste a family vacation we could spend in a city going to museums on a stupid cruise ship. Plus, I got SAT prep in my curriculum at school. Isn't that the point of going to private school?

Plus, I didn't have a cell phone in high school because they weren't invented yet :P

The one item I would disagree with here is "If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively." There are so many class privileged people whom this doesn't apply to, starting with me. The people in the media who dress and talk like me don't exist. The only overeducated smarty-pantses allowed in the media are wonks or, occasionally, scientists. Nobody puts real artists or cultural workers on the air.

It's a privilege to get away with (financially if not socially) dressing differently from the herd, and speaking language too florid, dense, or esoteric to communicate outside of shouting distance. And yes, "cultured" people are mocked relentlessly in the media.

Point number three (something that struck me a couple years ago that resurfaced recently, and that I'm forcefully reminded of in participating with this meme/exercise): my coworkers just got back from a staff retreat I didn't have to go to because I'm on half-time. While they were preparing for the retreat, my little Gen-Y coworkers were all excited--like the cute little Echo Boomers they are--about the games and icebreakers they were planning for the occasion.

My Gen-X coworker and I were properly disdainful, probably partly because of the generational jadedness and irony thing, but definitely also because we'd been to too many retreats and had to face down too many games of charades and what animal am I?

My extreme--sickening--familiarity with icebreakers and togetherness games is another item of privilege. Because these are the things you do in a good gym class, in school clubs to build togetherness, in afterschool classes and sports, in summer camp, in girl scouts ... basically, class privileged children are sent to activities and lessons for two reasons: 1) to learn a skill important for employability or class acceptance and 2) to learn "leadership skills," which are literally that: the skills you need to organize others so that you can lead them.

The silly icebreakers and trust games are all about helping people in a group self-select roles so that they can work together in a satisfying manner towards ... some ... purpose. It's corporative and oligarchical. Please notice that oligarchies invented the idea of democracy, and within the oligarchical leadership, everything looks sooper commie, no? Just ask the Magna Carta guys.

The low-income clients we serve at work get a real thrill--and genuine personal and group empowerment--from such exercises in our program at work. This really struck me: 40-year-old women who've never done an ice-breaker or a trust exercise? But where would they have done it? A lot of them came from school districts where there was no money for extracurriculars, not even sports--for girls anyway. Girl scouts? Classes? Lessons? With what money? They don't even get a chance to do this class privilege exercise, which is, if you think about it, geared toward the privileged anyway.

And thinking about something that seems so small when looked at one way (icebreakers) and so huge when looked at in another (leadership skills), it becomes clear to me how complex a web privilege is, so complex that we must absolutely normalize it to bear the burden of all the things we must do to be privileged. We share out the burden of maintaining this complex network of benefits among all of our privileged neighbors, and we all have more or less the same experiences, which is why we don't see it when someone else doesn't share it, except in rare moments.

So, missing what seems like just one small element of this web can be catastrophic to one's ability to rise in the world. Because if you don't know how to self-select a role in a group of educated people who were trained to do that, then you will either be marginalized, or a role will be selected for you. And yes, that's as ominous as it sounds.

We teach each other how to lead and we distinctly don't teach those beneath us how to lead--either themselves or others. So it's not a miracle that those without class privilege have such a hard time acquiring it.

Point the fourth: let's be clear that class privilege isn't always economic privilege; a lot of professors and artists and writers and media mavens don't earn very much, but they read to their kids, take them to museums, make sure they get the educational support at home to get scholarships to private schools, etc. For example, about a quarter of the students at my private high school--maybe a fifth--were on partial or full scholarship. About half of those were professors' kids. The other half were from lower-middle and working class families.

As someone pointed out somewhere (like the vagueness? It's class privilege that makes you insist that I cite my sources!) if you can choose economic privilege and choose to refuse it, that in itself is economic privilege. And if you're the kid of an English professor, who grew up in thrift shop clothing and went on to get an MFA, and collect massive student loans, you obviously could have quit before the MFA, gotten a job in marketing, and paid off your student loans in two years, not to mention lived the lifestyle. You chose not to.

Okay, I'm out of steam.

Updated five minutes later:

Something else I was thinking about recently, which I forgot: It's very easy to stay in your privileged bubble, yes. Everyone knows that. But what a lot of people don't recognize is how hard it is to get out of your privileged bubble.

You generally live pretty far away from working class or poor people, and you don't go to those areas, your friends don't go to those areas, there's no incentive for you to go, so how will you find your way around? And I don't mean find your way around the streets. I mean find things you might want there: resources, social hubs, wisepeople, etc.

Because you don't know what to look for, you don't recognize what's right in front of you. So you'll head towards the resources most familiar to you and end up right back where you started. This is, I think, the essence of gentrification. That's not a real restaurant! Let's start a real restaurant serving pan-seared Ahi in among all these pupuserias. That's not a real grocery! They don't even have low-fat cheese! Thank god for the Whole Foods opening up around the corner.

You come from another type of culture and you don't know the rules, so communicating is difficult. In fact, this is where communication is about obfuscating the lack of communication, not alleviating it. How do you know if the color you see when you say "red" is the same color someone else sees? So you usually don't even know you're not communicating right.

Because class is increasingly oligarchical the higher up you go, the gestures of moving down a class are seen as either fashionable slumming, or a nervous breakdown and the group jumps to either join in and share the benefits, or pull you back from the brink, thereby saving a valuable privilege-network-bearing resource. And the privileged classes have structures set up to deal with these things and aren't afraid to use them: interventions, therapists, support groups, outward bound, deep talks over coffee.

Okay, I think I'm really out of steam now.


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I think being of a higher class gives you more steam. Sometimes you choose. Sometimes you decide what class you want to be in. People are easy to fool, I've found. The higher the hair the closer to God; well, the higher the class the closer to arrogance and judgemental boxing of other human beings all wrapped up in fine brown paper. "...and warm wollen mittens."

um, i don't think any one class is more judgmental than any other. it's just that the more power you have, the more effect your judgment can have on other people's lives.

please try to keep in mind that classes, like races, are subcultures. what you might see as snobbishness from someone who has more power than you might just be a projection from yourself of your own judgmental nature, combined with resentment of their power.

i mean "you" in general, not you.

Reading that list I had a couple thoughts. One is that I would have to say "yes" to every comment on the list, except for maybe 2 or 3.

Then I realized, if my father was answering the questions, he would have to say "no" to every. single. one.

I think he's super-proud that his kids got to live a sheltered, private-school, tennis-lesson life. He didn't have resentment of higher-class people. He went out and became one instead. Which causes a huge set of its own issues. He truly believes that all problems can somehow be cured with money.

But I've witnessed, from the kids I went to school with, how "upwardly mobile" families reach a pinnacle and then enter a "downwardly mobile" phase, once the money runs out and all those great self-care skills that helped your grandma handle poverty have been lost after 2 or 3 generations.

Maybe add at the top of the list "If you are an American". Because, you know, I go to Europe every time I step outside my front door...

wendy, your apartment isn't europe?

suzanne, the money only runs out if it hasn't been invested. once a family has figured out investment ... well, money makes money.

it would be interesting though to see a study done on whether or not there is a perpetual wealth threshold, i.e. a level of wealth which will never run out because it attracts the attention of brokers who come knocking at your door and teach you to invest.

hmm. I think it's more likely that all sorts of other people would come knocking first, trying to siphon off as much of that cash as possible. No matter how much money you have you can find a way to spend it all if you try hard enough! The same way that companies have "founder's influence", I think families fall apart and become less wealthy the farther you get from the person who accumulated it.

It doesn't suprise me that so many young people react to the meme by saying "wah wah, that doesn't really mean I'm privileged!" because when you grow up with money there is NO awareness that money makes your life possible. I will never forget trying to explain to a friend in 6th grade that we were rich: "Your mom drives a BMW. Your dad's a doctor. You have a pool. That means you're rich. So are we." her: "nuh uh! That's just regular! Rich people have butlers and stuff!"

So in response, I ended up a typical 20-year-old gentrifier, living in a 5-bedroom railroad flat in the mission sleeping on a floor-mattress, using my privilege to reject my privilege. Sigh. There's no hiding from this shit, it will get you one way or another.

good point. i was being a bit smartass about the brokers. but seriously, this is another class issue, but a cultural and not an income one. we've all heard about those megarich families that use money to control each other and where playboy heirs squander their fortunes in a haze of drug and conspicuous consumption.

but i suspect these are the exceptions, and that money stays in the hands of the rich because wealthy people generally raise their children not just to spend wealth, but to manage it. we hear about the disasters, but the successes are sitting in their condos, having brunch with their bankers, using their kids' allowances as a lesson, etc.

there's also a new trend among upper middle class women: alongside the book clubs, there are investment clubs and giving circles. the former to teach women coming into wealth how to invest and increase their wealth; the latter to teach newly wealthy women philanthropy. because of the breakdown of the traditional family, the traditional wealthy family is also breaking down. so the wealthy or coming wealthy are creating ways to pass on the ... well, wealth, but in this case of knowledge.

Hi Claire -- I'm just catching up on your journal, and wanted to say that out of all the blog posts I've seen on this meme, yours has given me the most subtle shifts in perspective to think about. (And is also just about the only one that hasn't irritated the hell out of me, but never mind.) It's a good framework for looking at things, that complex web of shared privilege.

(Also, hey, long time no see!)

thanks, karen! it HAS been a long time. will you be at wiscon this year? i will, if i don't get sick again :P

I live in Madison and help run WisCon, so I am guaranteed to be there. Stay healthy please; we missed you last year!

yay! it's a date!

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