Being Privileged

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn’s riff off of the "Being Poor" entry is out in the newspapers and online: Katrina opened eyes to poverty–and privilege. In the piece he encourages folks to add to the list on his blog here (I linked to that yesterday as well). Naturally, if you have something to add, I encourage you to head over there are make a contribution.

However, I’ll note my own "being privileged" markers here:

Being privileged is not knowing how much you make, because you know you make enough. This is my own particular situation; I’m a freelance writer so my money comes in on an irregular basis as it is, and when it does come in, I simply sign over the checks to Krissy, who deals with the bookkeeping aspects of our little endeavor (it’s where her practical and academic experience lies). I know how much I make every year when we tally up our taxes; in the interim I know I’m making enough that I don’t have to worry about.

Bear in mind this ability of mine to be oblivious of how much I make is predicated not only on making enough to not have to worry about my income, but also because I have a spouse who has an almost unearthly level of personal and professional organization. I don’t know how much I make, but I assure you Krissy does, and if she doesn’t have the exact figure on the top of her head, she can get out the information and tally it up within a few minutes. More to the point, not only does she know how much I make, she also knows how much all my various income sources owe me. And trust me, if you don’t pay up what she knows you owe me, you’ll hear from her. And you’re not really going to like it. Being privileged is being able to trust someone else to watch over your needs.

It’s also to the point to note that the ability to absorb and tolerate the variability of my income is also predicated on the fact that Krissy has a "real" job, one that provides a certain stable bedrock of income and benefits, above which my income floats. At other points in our marriage, I was the one with stable income and benefits, which allowed Krissy the freedom to go to school and do other things. And right now — as with most of time before this — me working at home allowed me to be the caretaker of our daughter, saving money on daycare, and allowing us not to worry about what happens when our kid is home sick, or has a doctor’s appointment or whatever. Being privileged is being able to have the flexibility to build your family’s security.

Between Krissy and me, we do very well for ourselves, and have done very well for ourselves for some time now. Among the many other things this allows us is the ability to help our own; when family and friends find themselves in the position of needing something, we are often able to pitch in without worrying about whether it puts us in a pinch. Given that a great deal of the reason that I am where I am today is the selflessness of people who reached out to help me over the course of my life, the fact I can return the favor is very happy one indeed. Being privileged is being able to help.

What is the upshot of all this discussion or being poor and being privileged? Having been both, for me its largely the awareness that while the perceptual differences between the two states are great, the real-world differences are razor-thin indeed. I can tell you almost to the minute when I crossed over from being poor to being privileged: It was during the interview for my first job out of college, when the interviewer told me how impressive it was that I had a philosophy degree from the University of Chicago, and I realized that yes, indeed, sometimes just where you went to school makes a difference in the jobs you can get. Going to the U of C wasn’t the deciding factor in getting that job, but I strongly suspect if I had a philosophy degree from Cal State Chico, it would have made getting that job substantially more difficult. Being privileged means knowing that sometimes life is unfair –and it’s unfair in your favor.

Having come to privilege from poverty and knowing how thin the real-world margin is between the two also makes me aware of how little it would take to go back to that state. We’re not rich, and while we’d be able to take one major hit and absorb it, two major hits in a short time would knock us on our asses like nearly everyone else. It’s entirely possible we could lose it all, and find ourselves, like those who live in poverty, facing an oncoming wave of crises, with few options to shield ourselves from them in an immediate sense. What’s different is that no matter what happens in the short term, in the long term I have faith I can do well for my family and myself. I’ve been heard to say that if it came down to it, I’d take a greeter job at Wal-Mart to provide for my family; one of the reasons I say that is because while I would, I can’t actually imagine the set of circumstances that would lead to that being the best financial option for me. Being privileged is having the skills to make opportunities — and the faith that you can as well.

Those are some of the things that remind me I am privileged. If you’ve some ideas on the subject, don’t add them in this comment thread — instead, add them here.  

Update 1:40 — Blogger Matt Barr has a somewhat snarky list about "being normal" here. Like him, I’m looking forward to the inevitable "Being Green" parody list.

11 thoughts on “Being Privileged

  1. You know, being privileged is not the only condition in which you don’t know how much you make. Some people don’t know how much they make because it makes them sick to see the gap and they just grit their teeth and spend as little as they can and hope it comes out right. That’s how I’ve been all along, back when we actually were poor (poor to the holes in the shoes and Mommy skips a meal once in a while), and now when we’re skittering around the edge of it again.

  2. Hi John and fellow Bradfordite,
    Being priveleged is having two daughters go through a bone marrow transplant for an immune deficiency and never having to worry about medical bills bankrupting you because your insurance is so good. Why can’t everyone in the richest country in the world have such good insurance?

  3. Being priviliged is “HAVING” to believe that people are poor because they are dumb and lazy to look yourself in the mirror each day and sleep at night. If we really wanted to address the situation we could kill the virus, instead we choose bandaids to cover the problem and hope it will go away.

  4. Being privileged means knowing that sometimes life is unfair –and it’s unfair in your favor.

    I’d disagree with the “knowing” part of this; I’ve seen any number of people manage simultaneously to be privileged and clueless. They’re the ones who believe that all poor people are poor because they’re too lazy to get rich (and who often say things like that while still being supported by Mommy and Daddy – or supporting themselves by virtue of an education paid for by Mommy and Daddy). I’d change this to, “Being privileged means being able to ignore that sometimes life is unfair.” Being privileged and compassionate means knowing that sometimes life has been unfair in your favor, and that sometimes others are poor only because they got a raw deal.

  5. John, what was the intention of the philosophy degree anyway? As an engineer, it is difficult for me to imagine someone saying “I want to be X, therfore I will go to college and study philosophy.”

    Unless you were planning on going into ministry?

  6. Being privileged is being able to buy your way out of a criminal trial. In a nutshell: In Indiana, you can enter a pretrial diversion program for minor offenses like shoplifting, for a nominal fee of $150. Your record stays clean. If you can’t pay, you face a conviction.

    I’ll point out, also, that the ‘kindler, gentler’ modification to this policy is to offer an alternative of 30 hours of community service. Of course, if you can’t afford $150, you probably won’t happen to have 30 hours of vacation time… so that community service takes money out of your pocket anyway.

  7. Dennis:

    “John, what was the intention of the philosophy degree anyway?”

    It was the “I know I’m going to be a writer so I’m just going to take the classes I’m interested and hope sooner or later I have enough credits for a degree” degree. And as it happened by the end of my third year I had enough credits for a philosophy degree, so that’s what I ended up declaring.

  8. My children ask if we are rich or if we are poor.

    How am I to answer?

    I have known want, and I have known wealth.
    I have been to the cathedrals of God and of money.

    Do any of us truly know what to say to our children?

    How many blows could I survive? How far have I come? Am I safe, or will I return to the dirt poor condition of my past? How can anyone truly know?

  9. The “life is unfair, and often in your favor” thing is so true.

    Even for some of the most unfortunate of us on the planet, if life was truly fair on a consistant basis and the karma fairy treated us each according to our deserts based on our thoughts, wrongs and actions with immediate and fair rewards, a lot of us would be ear-deep in stink in a very short period of time.

    I praise God on a regular basis that life has been as unfair to me as it has. Being born in America (however poor and female) was such a head start in the race of life that it’s almost not fair (irony intended) for me to look for any further assistance. And yet, I keep getting it.

    Life’s just not fair. Thank God.

  10. More and more, I run up against examples of “Life isn’t fair”–and its addendum, “But that doesn’t excuse unjust behavior.”

    If more people to whom life had been unjustly kind were to act justly and generously towards those who’ve been knocked about by life being unjustly unkind, we’d have a better world and most of us would have more faith in humanity.

    Not like we shouldn’t expect justice and generosity also out of those to who life has been unkind, but those of us reaping the benefits of life’s kindness have less excuse for bad behavior.

    Justin–your point about insurance and bone marrow transplants is well made. I was diagnosed at age 11 with acute myo… mylo… the “m” word… leukemia. That my subsequent chemotherapy treatments didn’t bankrupt the entire family is a benefit of having good insurance. I can hardly imagine how horrible it would have been if the insurance wasn’t there. It’s hard enough to worry about possibly losing your child; adding to that monetary concerns is just about enough to drive a person insane.

    My mom is, at this moment, back in Metairie throwing out waterlogged and moldy possessions damaged by rain through Katrina-torn holes in their roof. They were lucky in that their block didn’t flood into the houses at all. But the clean-up job still overwhelms at times. Mom was saying on the phone, “But we’ve been through worse. Nearly losing a house is bad, but nearly losing a child is hell.”

    …my thanks to John again for his hospitality to my random brain-dumps. :-)

  11. Being poor is one thing but there is another social outlook which is even worse. That is the term known as “invisible whiteness.” I learned this from a friend who was African American. This is the world in which most white middle class citizens live. We as white Americans never view the world in more than one way. We see things as they exist in our relatively stable world and we don’t see the world as it appears to minorities or other struggling classes of people. This is what priviledge really is. It is economic and it has real good results for us and real bad results for many of them. Without our “invisible whiteness” our conscience may not survive. This is the defense mechanism that enables us to exist in the presence of great injustice.

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