Point of Privilege

Over the last week or so I’ve heard rumors of some sort of “privilege list,” which was developed by some academics to make their students aware that whatever level of privilege they had before they got to college, they were all at the same place now (which is Indiana State University, apparently). I heard about it mostly via people being really pissed at its sloppy construction and slapping down a link to my “Being Poor” entry as a contrast, but tonight I finally got a look at the list itself (it’s the “Take a Step Forward” link at the page I’m sending you to — warning, it’s a .doc file). I have to say I’m really not at all impressed with the list, primarily because as indicators of class and privilege, many if not most of the things on the list are non-responsive in the real world.

If you’re doing the exercise, you’re supposed to take a step forward if one of the listed statements is true for you; the idea being, apparently, that any step forward is a mark of privilege, or a class indicator. Just for fun, I’ll point out some of these statements, and why they aren’t one or the other or both.

If were read children’s books by a parent

As far as I can remember, my mother never read children’s books to me. But that’s because I learned to read when I was two; I read my own children’s books, thanks much. My mother did, however, read to me books meant for adult readers. As it happens, I don’t read children’s books to Athena, either, because she learned to read almost as early as I did; at bedtime when she was younger, she insisted on reading her books to us.

The exercise also lists having books in the home as a mark of privilege or class, but inasmuch as I grew up poor in a house jammed with books, many bought for a quarter at a yard sale or thrift store, I would dispute that it’s a mark of either. Clearly the folks who thought up this list are used to thinking of books as being expensive rather than really cheap entertainment.

If you went to a private high school

I went to a private high school; a really good and expensive one, too. And on vacations when my friends were going back home to big houses, I was going back to a single-wide trailer. Was I privileged? In one sense, certainly. In most other ways, well, no, not so much.

Going to a private school, incidentally, radically skews a number of other privilege indicators on this list. For example:

If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers

Doesn’t work, because while most of the kids who attended my school would have nominally have been of a higher social stratum than the teachers, we in fact had some very well-off teachers. My history teacher was a scion of the Fawcett publishing family; he donated the school library building. Named it after his mom, which was sweet. Why did he teach history at a high school if he could buy entire libraries? I would suppose because he liked it. By the strictures of this particular metric, however, many kids at my school would not have counted as “privileged,” even the ones who got Mercedes for their birthdays.

Here’s another non-indicator:

If you had your own TV in your room in High School

None of the very privileged kids in my high school had a TV in their room — because we lived at a boarding school, and TV wasn’t allowed. They had all manner of very expensive audio equipment, though. Likewise, almost none of the kids at my high school had this ostensible privilege marker:

If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course

Because my high school was a college preparatory school. You’d be getting the benefits of an SAT/ACT prep course just by going to your classes. And here’s a funny one:

If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them

Because when your dad gives you his two-year-old BMW because he got a new one, you’re not going to complain because it doesn’t have that new car smell. One more, to bring the point home:

If your family vacations involved staying at hotels

Why on earth would you stay at a hotel if you had a vacation home?

Well, you say, at least all the rich kids can step forward for this one:

If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively

Clearly, these people have never seen Pretty in Pink or Less Than Zero, to use two examples from my day.

Somewhat unrelated, another silly one:

If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family

Leaving aside the idea that if you grew up in, say, Southern California, heating bills would not be a major topic, I can say that as a sometimes very poor child I rarely knew the sums of various utility bills, because I was a kid. I knew whether my mom was stressed about the bills, which I suspect is the point here, poorly worded. Be that as it may, a kid from an upper class situation might know the sums of her family’s heating bills if her parents chose to give her an idea of family economics, to teach her to be fiscally prudent — which is not unknown behavior in those who are well off because they are smart with their money. Athena has asked about our bills, because she’s curious; we’ve told her about them. I doubt anyone would suggest our spawn is not relatively privileged.

Well, you say, that’s all just you, or specific people you know. Well, yes. This is my point. And for probably any person, there are things on this list meant to signify privilege that don’t, or are meant to exclude privilege that could be signs of substantial privilege — just ask the boarding school student driving dad’s old Beemer to the vacation house by the shore while his middle-class friends are stuck in an SAT review session. For nearly all of the “privilege markers” in this exercise, one can come up with excellent reasons why they are not an issue of privilege or class at all.

Which means that for the purposes of this exercise — showing indicators of privilege and class — this list is not actually useful, and indeed counter-productive. In this exercise, it’s entirely possible for someone of a lower social class to appear more “privileged” than someone who is of the “rich and snooty” class. This doesn’t create awareness of privilege; it does, however, create awareness of the essential lameness of this particular exercise. This may be why the exercise notes warn that “anger will be a primary emotion.” I would be angry, too, if my time were wasted on an exercise like this.

(Don’t even get me started on what a pile of crap the “Social Class Knowledge Quiz,” also available at the link above, is. Some of us know what Choate and a “full pull” are.)

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. My local mall has a Steve and Barry’s in it; you have to work hard to buy something there that costs more than $15. Shopping in a mall isn’t much of a class indicator, either. Hasn’t been for a while now.

Elizabeth Bear, in commenting about this exercise, notes: “If I were writing it, it would have things like, ‘Did you receive regular dental care and vaccinations as a child?’ on it.” She’s spot on. The vector of privilege these days is not physical items, but how well one is cared for, or can care for one’s self and family: Whether one has adequate health care, whether one has access to healthy food, whether one’s housing and transportation costs are a not-onerous percentage of the household income, whether one has day care for children, whether one is free of high-interest consumer debt, and whether one can afford to save any money for the future. The privileged are those who have all of those things, or live in households that do. To suggest that having a TV in one’s room as a teen is an indicator of privilege when the real indicator of privilege is whether that teen can get a cracked tooth easily fixed doesn’t merely border on obtuseness, it’s rather emphatically stomping over to the other side of the line and jumping up and down.

But perhaps one indicator of privilege is that one can create an exercise like this and believe that it actually has anything to do with reality. Must be nice. I can only imagine it, myself.

Update, 9/12/08: I notice that the Web page for this quiz now links back to here with the notation: “This is a good critical piece, however the author believes his experience of class is similar to everyone’s experience of class.” This is so unbelievably wrong and contrary to the whole point of the piece that I have to wonder if Professor Barratt (or whomever wrote up the link) actually bothered to read the piece. Inasmuch as the page gets my name wrong, maybe the answer is “no.”

172 Comments on “Point of Privilege”

  1. That’s strange logic that was used for this list. I could create my own list on how good looking I am but I’m sure people would find fault with it.

  2. Another example – my father was enlisted military. I spent some time in a double wide and single wide, yet I had all the free heath care and dental care I could want. Working for the govt our basic necessities were not a worry, however we vacationed in a tent, not in a 4 star resorts.

    Was I privileged or not? From the standpoint of always having a roof over my head, electricity, and health care absolutely. However, I borrowed my way through college and the first car I owned was the one I bought when I needed wheels to get to my first real job after college.

    Looking back I can see that I grew up lower middle class, however I never ever felt poor as a kid. The poor kids were the ones getting free lunches.

  3. Standard college level PC. It’s a way to knock people down based on the academics’ own sense of privilege. I can’t wait for these stuck in ’68 hippie boomers to die off and take their PC crap to the grave.

  4. A lot of the people on my friends list on LJ were posting this thing, and it really bothered the crap out of me when I saw it, though I couldn’t quite come up with why. You nailed it, though. It’s all very shallow stuff, which doesn’t really raise awareness of the real differences in class. I would have included stuff like free lunches, dental and health care, things like that. If I’m being charitable, maybe they left those things off to save the participants from embarrassment. But if you’re a dorky teenager that just went to college, admitting a lot of the consumer stuff is probably equally humiliating. >.>

    As a note, the academic ones annoyed me the most. I didn’t have an ACT/SAT prep class… because I didn’t need one. I had a private tutor in grade school, but she was a volunteer. And while I know a lot of poor families don’t have books, there are also families that do because they are cheap entertainment – go, libraries. This entire thing seemed dedicated to the stereotypes of class (especially the poor) that are depicted on TV, rather than the actual meat of it that anyone who grew up that way (or has seen it second hand as a teacher, doctor, etc) knows it as.

    I’d be curious to know if people who have actually had to do this thing as it was intended, in person in a big room, think it actually had the desired effect.

  5. My parents raised five kids, and almost ALL of us were born before our father got his bachelor’s degree. I’ve experienced both poverty and prosperity during my childhood–while experiencing a lot of markers on that list.

    Even when we were poor, we had a “computer”–a terminal my father built at home, partly from spare parts and circuit boards from his computer science courses. We always had books–part of a library that accrued over a long period of time between my parents. I went to summer camp–subsidized and provided by the LDS church. We often went to museums–the free ones on BYU and the U of U campus. (We didn’t have a TV until I was 11 or 12.) And the only reason I had new clothes was because I’m the oldest, but I did have them occasionally.

    And I accept that as the result of these experiences, I am very privileged. My parents made deliberate choices to stay out of debt and lived below their means for quite some time. They made sure we got health care and food. They made sure we got an education, even if they couldn’t afford much of one. They made sure we got a lot of time with both of them. And access to books.

    BUT…there were people in much better off positions,whose parents didn’t chose to make books or museums part of their life. In some ways they had a lot more privilege than I did, and in other ways, much much less. They had TVs in their bedrooms, and got new cars on their birthdays, but no books. Which for me was a weird kind of poverty.

    Of course, the irony is that their parents could afford to send them to all kinds of universities and I had the choice between the religious university (affordable because it was subsidized by tithing) and the local community college (affordable because it was subsidized by the state).

    One of my favourite lines in Lois Bujold’s Barrayar has Aral Vorkosigan asking Cordelia if the lowest standard of poverty she can imagine is not having a comconsole. In Beta Colony, a citizen’s access to information can not be abridged. It was with this in my head that I first decided to participate in the OLPC project. I may not have been privileged in other ways, but when it comes to having computers and internet access, I’ve been spoiled rotten.

  6. Oddly I disagree that each of the items you’ve highlighted doesn’t generally mark a forward stepper in a way that reasonably separates them from a non-stepper.

    But I doubt I’m using the same concept of privilege. Maybe not even that word at all.

    In my growing up every one of these are effective for a social dichotomous key.

    I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say they each fit in the same category of separation though. Some seem to fit more with privilege, while others are more expectation biased. Others, skew toward entitlement.

  7. Sheesh.

    Furthermore, there’s a funny middle ground where 1) you don’t have the aforementioned objects of “privilege” in your house 2) but you’re neither privileged nor deprived.

    I know lots of “less well off” folks than me who ALWAYS had money in their pockets. And I’m not talking 20-30 bucks, but rather $300-500. Honestly. Like the poorer kids in our neighborhood who had one or two sets of sweatpants to wear to school, but who had a moped . . .

    Having those objects may result as much from bad decision making as it does from privilege.

    If I were going to write the list it would have things like: “You are accused of a serious (felony) crime and its assumed you did it”.

    To me, privilege is the opportunity to have the opportunity to make up for mistakes. Privilege is the cushion between you and the crap end of the stick.

  8. While the discussion questions at the end were mostly crap, this is not a complete waste. First, you need to remember who it is that this is geared towards, middle class Midwestern college students going to Indiana State University. The material questions are there because they are things that are going to make an impact on the intended audience. While Ms. Bear’s comments are much better indicators of poverty, they are not going to be something that an ISU student is going to have an experience of much less mean anything in a visceral way. And, judging from the discussion nonsense at the end, the cheap visceral reaction is what they are looking for with the exercise. It is not until you have to make those choices on your own that the real questions begin to make sense or offer that same visceral reaction.

  9. I agree with a lot of your points, John, especially the car one. I knew a single woman with 3 sons who “bought” them a non-functioning jeep for a couple of hundred bucks, and they fixed it up with gum and wd-40. My father, the attorney, gave me his hand-me-down car that was fully inspected, paid my insurance, and I had it for several years. But I can pretty confidently say that we were “more privileged” than the other family.

  10. Oh, and on the social knowledge quiz, I think I got seven answers on the swanky side (most of them having to do with boats, science, and fly fishing) and five answers on the non-swanky side. (Because they didn’t ask about any wrestlers I know about. And I avoid the Walmart.)

    (It has to be a mark of privilege to know about wrestlers if you’re going to insist that having a TV around is privilege. And yet, somehow, I bet the guy who wrote that doesn’t think so. You can watch both the WWE AND The History Channel. Also, you can pick up the “privileged” brand names just by watching a marathon of The Fabulous Life of….X Celebrity. They all buy the same cars, same yachts, same expensive skin cream that was made from the tears of newborn baby pandas–it’s terribly boring.)

  11. Oh, no you can’t watch the WWE and History channel if you can’t afford the $50/month for cable.

    I work at a university and have a good friend who’s a professor, and the impression I get from my experience and hers is that these kids have a sense of entitlement, like everybody has a RIGHT to a television and a separate phone line in their bedroom and mommy’s slightly used SUV. Which is a whole different issue than whether or not they were given the tools to get to and succeed in college.

  12. A few points of privilege I find strange:
    * You had less than $5000 in student loans when you graduated.
    This implies that scholarships (scarce now admittedly) for merit are automatically a sign of privilege.
    * You had a phone in your room
    I did because I fished wires through the crawl space and wired it up myself. Privileged? Well, maybe. But in a era where wire phones are $10 and under, it doesn’t seem like much of one.
    * Your parents took you to museums
    We generally went to the free ones, not the ones which had admission fees (which pretty much don’t exist any more in Chicago — everybody’s got a fee now, sadly)

  13. In Manhattan, where I grew up, car ownership would not be a good indicator. We’re the non-car-owning capitol of the U.S. I grew up very privileged and certainly did not expect to be given a car. My family owned one and once I got a license I was free to borrow my dad’s. I still don’t own a car and I’m comfortably upper middle class.

    The list also makes more sense as a marker of distinguishing privilege only in middle class western way. I may be showing my ignorance of what it means to be truly poor in the U.S., but given that in parts of the world school isn’t an option at all and girls are sold to brothels by their families, even the most underprivileged person in the U.S. by that list’s standards would be incredibly privileged compared to parts of the word where people’s annual income doesn’t equal the takehome pay I got from my parttime job in college.

  14. I think one of the problems with setting up such an exercise is that it is designed to accentuate “positives” or things perceived at one level as a positive. If I were to make a list of things which might look at social class, would I want to consider things like : Do you know someone who has overdosed on drugs? Do you know someone who has died from an overdose? Do you know someone who has been shot? … knifed? These are negatives, but ones which like some of positive items might be rather insidious/odious in their assumptions. You mentioned Less Than Zero — rich kids doing drugs, so not just poor people doing drugs. And I’ve had students from well off families in the Middle East — they’ve known plenty of violence in their life.

    Another question with possibly false connotations would be: Do you know someone currently enlisted in the military? This would play to the idea that the lower classes form the bulk of the military’s enlisted ranks. However, I think it would more likely show a regional bias rather than class.

    Technology has been around long enough — I’m talking about computers, cell phones, even calculators, etc. — that it has had plenty of time to percolate both up and down many strata of our classes. We had one TV while we were growing up and it was B&W. The same TV from when I first was aware of it around 1960, to when it died two moves and thirteen years later. Now those same parents have two working color TV’s, both hooked up to digital cable. Their son has three TV’s in the house, four if you count an ancient B&W in the basement that gets used about once a year. The availability and quantity of tech has much more to do with generational preferences and work needs than class.

    I am reminded also of the annual lists of What Freshmen Know, such as Beloit’s Mindset List. I’ve run into quite a number of young college students who suggest that they and their peers are more aware of some things than the lists suggest.

    So all in all, I think you’ve made a good call, John, on questioning this particular activity.

    Dr. Phil

  15. Hmm, on the social class quiz, what’s the correct answer for Red #14?

    I thought “no. 8 shot” was the answer, because snipe are small game birds that one would hunt with a shotgun. Then, I got suspicious and googled “snipe hunt”. It would appear that some Americans think snipe are mythical animals hunted with a bag and a stick.

    So, what answer were they looking for? Hunting waterfowl isn’t restricted to upper or lower social classes, and neither are silly games.

  16. Naomi Kritzer posted an attempt at revising the list the other day and followed it up with an analysis that breaks up privilege into 4 categories:

    1. A luxury that not everyone has, but that’s basically OK as it’s optional.

    2. A luxury that not everyone has, and that’s problematic because even though it’s a luxury, it’s a luxury that confers a real and noticeable advantage.

    3. Something that EVERYONE would have, in a just world, but we’re going to acknowledge that the world is unjust so in fact not everyone has it.

    4. Something that NO ONE ought to have, in a just world, but we’re going to acknowledge that the world is unjust so in fact some people have it.

    I think it’s interesting that we mean so many things by “privilege”.

  17. THings like this are skewed for me – I grew up with a college educated father who valued education and such, but was on disability for kidney failure by the time he was …38? So we grew up rather poor, but he still managed to instill very middle-class values in me because socially, that’s where we were.

    Its like another conversation I had elsewhere. Class and social status get so mucked up anyway – a plumber or an electrician can make a great deal of money, but will still not be seen as the social equal of a lawyer or other “business professional”.

    Also, I had my own room – but I was an only child once I went to live with my dad. When I lived with my mom, there were five kids plus my mom in three bedrooms. I didn’t sleep in my own -bed- until I was 5 and a half.

    A lot of people’s economical status changed while they were growing up, too – is there a statistical difference between kids who might have been better off by high school but were poor as small kids? One thing I “regret” is that my daughter, now 13, does not remotely remember when her parents were 19 years old with an infant and struggling to put food on the table. Her dad landed a lucrative job by the time she was 3, and she has no real concept of how hard we struggled.

    Plus, a lot of people mentioned things like “Well, I had music lessons and my own tv – in high school, after I got a job and paid for them myself.” But even that shows some sort of financial stability – a lot of poorer kids were too busy helping the -household- with their after-school job to actually buy themselves anything. My stepmother (guardian after my dad died) charged me gas money for taking me to and from work. As well as constantly “borrowing” money for bills.

    I could go on about this for a while, but there are so many ways that something like this is too hard to quantify with boilerplate questions.

  18. Heh. I had a TV in a room as a high school student. I had it because I hauled papers around a small Northern Minnesota town at 6 am in order to get $60/month plus tips when I was 13.

    I also graduated with only $1500 in student loans. I did so because I had enough self-taught technical skills to wangle a $9/hour job as a junior, and because as a sophomore I lived at home and commuted.

    The irony being that I don’t have a lot of the “privilege” markers for similarly silly reasons. For instance, my mother was trained far too well by her depression era parents to stay at a hotel even if she did have the money. I didn’t go to a private school…because my parents intentionally bought a house served by one of the best public schools in the state.

  19. Dulcinea: True….folks can’t watch WWE and the History Channel if they don’t have cable.

    BUT this guy’s knowledge quiz (the fourth link on that page Scalzi links) presumes that knowledge of the WWE indicates what class you might be in. (And NASCAR. And Monster Trucks.) And on the other side, they have Vivaldi and gourmet coffees and so on. Presumably, you’d have more knowledge about one side or the other, depending on social class.

    My point was that knowledge of one does not preclude knowledge of the other. And given that a television was almost certainly required to glean knowledge about the WWE, it means that the good professor is setting up contradictory delimiters for his expections of social classes.

  20. It gets people talking about what real privilege is, so in that sense its good.

    Personally, I just hate most internet memes.

  21. Nick@15: They should have gone with something like cow-tipping.

    BTW, I nearly fouled up my church camp’s snipe hunt one year. It was traditional to initiate the younger girls by dragging them into the forest in the dead of the night for a snipe hunt. But of course, we didn’t know that.

    So when they started to explain what a snipe was (in this version, a small lizard-like creature with stripes that glowed in the dark) and I piped up with, “You must be thinking of something else. Snipe are small birds,” I was quickly taken aside by the older girls and had things explained to me.

  22. Note that the academics behind the quizzes do appear to differentiate between “Social Class” and “Social Economic Class”…meaning they don’t believe that “less privileged” = Poor and “more privileged” = wealthy.

  23. It should be also noted that this isn’t an ‘internet meme’ it’s supposed to be a classroom exercise to illustrate to the students that they all have different upbringings, and to attempt to get them to discuss these differences with each other.

  24. Some questions that they should ask:

    Did you live with two parents most of your life?
    Was it common to see a parent drunk?
    Was it common to see a parent under the influence of controlled substances?
    Have you ever seen one parent hit another?
    Was there ever someone living in your house that had a relationship with a parent but was not married to that parent?
    Did police officers ever enter your house on a warrant or probable cause?
    Did you parents ever receive public assistance of any kind?


  25. I think that this Dr. Will Barratt, Ph.D. has his head up his academic ass. He seems to sit in his ivory tower watching cable TV and assumes that “privileged” folks all sit around eating escargot and drinking fine wine at five-star restaurants while listening to Vivaldi, while the rest of us are what he sees on Blue Collar TV on Comedy Central, going to Monster Truck rallies and taking our dogs to work.

  26. Pixelfish @21:

    In my childhood, we had to watch out for mangelwurzels while camping. I was quite disappointed when I learned that it is really just another name for beet roots. Dad is from N. Ireland, and I’m not sure if mangelwurzels as mythical critters came from there or if it is something he just made up.

    But snipe were always just small birds..

  27. TransDutch:

    “Note that the academics behind the quizzes do appear to differentiate between ‘Social Class’ and ‘Social Economic Class’…meaning they don’t believe that ‘less privileged’ = Poor and ‘more privileged’ = wealthy.”

    They do so poorly, because many of their privilege indicators are clearly meant to be tied to economic status, i.e., public schools, cell phones, trips to Europe, etc. Moreover, they make the rather tendentious argument that we are forever marked by class, as we are by gender or race, which I think is flatly stupid; aside from conflating issues of economics with issues of genetics, I can assure you that, for example, no one who meets me today would have any clue that I have been in any social class but the one I occupy now.

    Regardless of its original intent, it’s poorly designed for its purpose.

  28. John, you don’t mention any statistical aspects of this list. It’s entirely possible that separately or together these questions are an excellent indicator of ‘privilege’ (or ‘social class’), and could be very effective at descriminating between classes. To claim that the list is a poor one because these statements are not a definition of privilege amounts to confusing correlation for causation. That the statements do not fit many people’s ideas of privilege is more-or-less irrelevant; the real question is, loosely speaking, what is their correlation to privilege/social class?

    As ‘David’ also highlighted, Elizabeth Bear’s suggestion regarding vaccination might be good at indicating the extremely under-privileged, but a relatively high percentage (>90% in recent years) of children in the US get at least one vaccination. Even among non-college students, answers to “did you receive regular vaccinations” might be poorly correlated with ‘privilege’.

    Finally, science fiction and fantasy writers as a group seem… unlikely to be typical of all people. Generally speaking, effective indicators of privilege in any given small, essentially self-selected group may differ greatly from those that are effective in other small, essentially self-selected groups. Fortunately, we have a whole branch of statistics (survey design) concerned with just this kind of problem.

  29. I’m finding this interesting, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because despite their insistence on protecting their copyright for this list, exercises of this sort have been around for much longer than they’ve been doing this. I did one myself, as part of my training in rape crisis counselling (the center was devoted to the ’empowerment of women and the elimination of racism’, so it fit our mandate).

    The list we used, however, was much longer than this one, and much… ‘deeper’. There’s an example here:
    http://www.msu.edu/~bailey22/Privilege_Exercise.htm (although it seems to be horked atm), and one that’s specifically race-focused here: https://people.creighton.edu/~idc24708/Genes/Diversity/Privilege%20Exercise.htm. These get more at the types of questions that underly unconscious privilege, such as:

    If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back.

    If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity, etc., take one step back.

    If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back.

    etc. It tends to focus more on attributes that define our senses of what is ‘normal’ and ‘proper’ about the world, and what is not, and how those expectations can subtly influence how we interact with and view other people.

    As someone who went through the exercise, and ended up halfway toward the back, I found it really powerful. Not the least because of the effect it had on others – we had two ‘suburban mommies’ with rocks the size of golf balls on their hands who ended up at the front of the room, and every single person of color in the class ended up at the back, and it really generated a lot of good discussion about systematized prejudice and discrimination, and how invisible and deniable it can really be. It also made me very aware of the privilege that I get, as a white middle-class woman, and awareness is the first step to fighting it.

    So I don’t think it’s useless. I don’t think the version floating around is particularly use*ful*, but it’s a starting place.

  30. I grew up in an upper-class neighborhood on Philadelphia’s “Main Line”. I went to a private grade school and high school… and I had a scholarship to the high school. I had a car when I turned 16.

    I was an orphan, living in a house that was more than we could afford and with an aunt taking care of us. All of my siblings were special needs students (one was hearing impared, the other two are severely autistic). We barely had money for food, mortgage, and utilites… and sometimes we had to choose. I lived below the poverty line until I reached adulthood.

    Note that BOTH of those paragraphs are true. Privilege is something that isn’t measured by what you have. It’s measured by the opportunities you’re offered.

  31. Interestingly enough it seems that the only place international students would want to travel is the USA. Because obviously if you’ve spent every summer travelling around India, Egypt, South Africa etc then you’re badly off.

    I could say yes to surprisingly few of those questions, but I wouldn’t say that I grew up in an under-priviledged household. Sure, a lot of the people I knew then and know now are from wealthier backgrounds, but I’ve absolutely no cause for complaint. If anything, I’d put quite a few of those points down to being cultural differences which don’t have a damn thing to do with how likely a person was to access educational facilities or how much money they had.

  32. I think the key to keep in mind is that the lists are for social class as well as privilege. These are not always similes. So while, say, going to museum may seem like it’s a non-indicator if you go to a free one or on free days (shameless plug, the Cleveland Art Museum is free except for exhibition galleries, and it’s a world class place), it is an indicator of class (or class awareness) that your family would go to a museum.

    For the record, I had a TV in my room. It was a 9″ BW set I bought for $5 at a rummage sale. I also went to summer camp in grade school on “scholarships.” I paid for guitar lessons with my lawn mowing money (also helped with bills, bought clothes and the second hand guitar that way, I mowed anywhere from 6-8 lawns a summer – older people who had their own mowers for me to use).

  33. This is a really stupid list, but I should be happy because I am apparently far more ‘well-off’ than I thought I was! LOL

    I hope Athena feels better. I loved your entry of pimping! Cool! AND, loved Lopsided Cat’s talk… eww on the raccoon. LOL

    be well,

  34. BJS:

    “John, you don’t mention any statistical aspects of this list. It’s entirely possible that separately or together these questions are an excellent indicator of ‘privilege’ (or ’social class’), and could be very effective at discriminating between classes.”

    Alternately, it’s entirely possible they could totally suck, too. Let the authors present their statistical evidence, since they are bruiting it as indicative of such things, and they’re using it in the real world as such. They don’t appear to do so; the closest thing to that page is an explanation that it’s a modification of an earlier test of social status that is 50 years old. I’m saying it doesn’t pass my sniff test.

    “Finally, science fiction and fantasy writers as a group seem… unlikely to be typical of all people.”

    And? I didn’t write this from the point of view of SF/F writers; I wrote it from the point of view of me. Whether I write SF/F is functionally irrelevant to my observations here.

  35. I didn’t think the list was that stupid, I thought it was somewhat misadjusted.

    In the ’60s and ’70s, most poor kids in the US could get health care. My husband’s family was on welfare and both his brothers got braces. My sister and I both marginally needed braces, and we both decided we didn’t want them.

    While Jim’s parents didn’t read to them, other relatives did.

    One info point I’d suggest – “Did you sleep regularly in the same bed with a sibling while you were growing up?” While that was somewhat rare by the ’60s, it was more common among poorer families than richer families.

  36. Laurie Mann:

    “I didn’t think the list was that stupid, I thought it was somewhat misadjusted.”

    Indeed. There’s a lot about that list that felt, for lack of a better word for it, kinda 70s to me.

  37. Also, they forgot the “Everybody take one step, because you’re all in college.”

    Yes, it’s more prevalent now, but in my local community, the percentage of students who graduate from High School who go on to college/trade school is still less than half (at the 2000 census, I think it was 16%).

  38. I find myself strongly in agreement with your position on this. However I also found myself looking back…

    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.

    From 16, when I left home, I have lived out of a car (thankfully in Nags Head and in the summer). I have seen multiple weeks where all we could afford to eat was Mac & Cheese. I have worked as a laborer, a carpenter, etc., etc. I have worked for far less than minimum wage. I lived for many years without ANY health insurance…

    In my thirties I taught myself computers and I have worked professionally as a computer consultant for more than 10 years now. My wife is a Business Analyst in computers and we now own a 5 acre farm with a main house and a guest cottage. My daughter is 4 and has her own PC…

    I am as comfortable sharing beers and rough humor with convicts on a job site as I am sharing a fine cognac and a Cohiba with my father and friends after a night at the symphony.

    So what was/am I?

  39. I grew up on welfare in a nice brick home in a solidly middle class neighborhood. Our poverty, like many people, came as the result of divorce and crappy child support laws. Like a lot of you, we had a mixed bag form of poverty, with many opportunities, but a lot of basics that were out of reach.

    “If you had more than 500 books at home” 10 people, almost all of whom are avid readers. Most from used book stores.

    “If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively” Does that count now that I’m a lawyer?

    “If you have less than $5000 in student loans” Full ride merit scholarship.

    “If there was original art in your house” Yep. It was usually on the fridge, attached with magnets.

    “If you lived in a single family house” The author should visit Detroit, where you can buy such a house for about $10,000.

    “If your parent own their own house or apartment” My Mom worked like a dog, often at two jobs, in order to own our home.

    I fit many others as well. I can echo some of the comments above- my girlfriend is a professor at a Midwestern university, and she says that most kids come in with an incredible sense of entitlement.

  40. I think I would disagree with one minor point of your post, John: The takedown of “grew up with lots of books” as a sign of privilege because books are cheap. Yes, they can be cheap (so long as you’ve got a stable housing situation to keep them in!) — but, IMHO, that merely demonstrates that privilege doesn’t always cost much money.

    I think it’s reasonably self-evident (and that the self-evidence is, by and large, accurate) that growing up with lots of books around is likely to result in children who read a lot at an early age, and that that is going to give them a definite educational advantage over people who grew up without that. It also indicates parents who prize reading, which again is a significant advantage. That sort of advantage — one that comes from one’s situation, rather from than inherent abilities or effort — is exactly what privilege _is_.

  41. I have a Masters Degree (in music, but still…) so i can say with some confidence that academics are the most clueless people in the world. When an academic presumes to tell you about some real world thing (privilege, class, poverty, educational methods, drug usage, crime, take your pick) fake abdominal cramps and run. Watch The Wire or something; these guys live in the world as their superior intellect and taste would like it to be. There’s little room for the rest of us in it. (Not all, of course. Certainly those who would present an such an exercise seriously qualify.)

  42. “Alternately, it’s entirely possible they could totally suck, too.”

    Yep, entirely possible. Even if they don’t totally suck, they could probably do an even better job by saying things like “take half a step forward if statements 2, 7, 12 and 18 apply to you”. Much depends on how they did their analysis (if any). Statistics is fun!

    “And? I didn’t write this from the point of view of SF/F writers; I wrote it from the point of view of me. Whether I write SF/F is functionally irrelevant to my observations here.”

    And, your responses, as a single data point, are irrelevant to the statistical ability of the statements to distinguish privilege. Whether they apply to you or not has little bearing on whether the exercise effectively sorts a particular group of people by social class. Even less so if the exercise is aimed at a group of people who are not either you or Elizabeth Bear. I didn’t mean anything by my (poorly-phrased) comment about SF/F writers. I picked on that because it is something you and Ms Bear have in common and most people do not.

  43. I wonder if any of the authors were “poor” or “priviliged” based on this yardstick, and how their results compared with what the yardstick showed?

    I consider my upbringing to be extremely priviliged, and yet I had no T.V. – because my mom didn’t think T.V.’s belonged in the bedroom. My husband, who did not grow up priviliged, had one because his mom thought it was okay. I suspect the statistical anomolies don’t end there…

  44. Brooks Moses:

    “That sort of advantage — one that comes from one’s situation, rather from than inherent abilities or effort — is exactly what privilege _is_.”

    I’m not sure I’d agree that advantages are always analogous to privilege, in particular regarding how it seems to be used in this exercise.

  45. I think part of what’s going on is a sort of line-drawing problem, where you are drawing the ‘privilege’ line in a different place from the list’s authors.

    In particular, both of you seem to be taking a rather bivalent view of what privilege is. In your case, you’re just distinguishing just between poor or rich. Whatever happened to the middle? Likewise, the list seems bivalent but differently so: designed to distinguish primarily between poor and middle-to-upper-middle, without taking upper class into account at all. Most of the positive markers it gives seem more like markers of middle, or upper-middle class-style privilege, not upper class privilege.

    For instance, I grew up with lots of kids who spent some time in private schools — mostly parochial — but none of them were really rich / old money upper class.

    Though, aggregating is tricky, generally, as you suggest. For instance, a friend of mine’s parents had a dinky condo in Beverly Hills for six years, so that both kids could be sent to Beverly Hills High, where, unsurprisingly, a lot of kids were from pretty wealthy families, despite its being a public school.

    But I think it’s also worth noting that the exercise wasn’t meant to be definitive, just a starting place for discussion, and as such, it seems to have worked very well.

  46. First of all, I think BJC probably hits a nail on the head: it is quite possible that the factors on the list have a statistical correlation that is not causative; furthermore, it’s possible that a lot of the people hanging out at Whatever may be statistical outliers in any case.

    Secondly, the “cultural quiz” appears to distinguish “red points” and “blue points,” not “class” or “privilege” as many here appear to be assuming. In other words, this one is about political geography, not class. It’s still flawed in those terms: I live in a city (Charlotte) that happens to be both the capital of NASCAR and the third largest banking center in the U.S.–leading to a somewhat purplish score that might not be culturally indicative of the surrounding counties, much less the rest of the country. And some matters–10W40 motor oil, for instance–seem like they ought to be dictated by climate more than culture. In any case, it appears to be a conversation-starter more than anything–students are asked to consider whether the questions explain why “red” students might have communications breakdowns with “blue” students. And maybe they have a point in there somewhere.

    To be honest (and this is “thirdly,” if you’re counting), I find the discussion questions to be the most offensive part of the whole thing. “Note that the people on one end of the room had to work harder to be here today than the people at the other end of the room. Some of you had lives of more privilege than others. There is no one to blame, it is just the way it is. Some have privilege and some don’t. Fatalism, really? It’s nobody’s fault? That strikes me as a very privileged approach, with a very negative connotation for the word: “Hey, maybe my ancestors owned your ancestors, but if that created a template for inequality that’s still being broken, it’s just the way it is, so back off.” Maybe acknowledging past injustices–assigning blame where it’s fairly due and lifting it when it’s been unfairly placed–is a useful and necessary step in understanding and solving contemporary social problems.

    The comments in the discussion section seem to perpetuate some lies that the authors probably didn’t mean to tell: hard work always leads to accomplishment (and, conversely, accomplishment is an indicator of hard work), things are what they are, it’s nobody’s fault (and hey, if it’s nobody’s fault, nobody’s responsible). My family wasn’t especially “privileged” according to the criteria set forth in the exercise, standardized tests came easily to me (and I never had to work very hard to get into college or law school), and I accept responsibility for the sins of my forefathers and the welfare of my descendants (in a cultural sense–some of my genetic ancestors may have had clean hands and I don’t expect I’ll have children of my own–but we are all accountable for our species).

  47. BJC:

    “And, your responses, as a single data point, are irrelevant to the statistical ability of the statements to distinguish privilege.”

    I note that my responses are based on my personal experience in the actual entry, so this is not a point in contention. However, as far as I know, it’s not been shown that these “indicators” are anything other than something pulled out of these academics’ asses, as regard being useful indicators of class here in 2007. Certainly, based on my own experience, I don’t think they are.

    Ulrika O’Brien:

    “In your case, you’re just distinguishing just between poor or rich. Whatever happened to the middle?”

    We don’t need no stinkin’ middles!

    Although I don’t know that my own list of indicators is necessarily consonant with poor v. rich. At this particular moment in history we have a lot of middle-class folks (or folks identifying as such) with little or no health insurance, loads of debt and much of their income servicing housing/transportation.

    “But I think it’s also worth noting that the exercise wasn’t meant to be definitive, just a starting place for discussion, and as such, it seems to have worked very well.”

    That’s like congratulating someone who slashes a painting with a razor with generating a lively discussion about art. It’s nice there’s a discussion; it’d be even better if the initial conversation starter itself were not so bad.

  48. If I may… I grew up like John reading at an early age and I was severely addicted after I stole the Gray Lensman series from my brother. Both of my parents are college educated. Both are avid readers.

    I think they got the “…lots of books…” reference wrong in that it is in’t the number of books, it is the love of reading and the attendant mental boost that gives. I did know kids who grew up without literate parents or lots of books around. The ones who loved reading, loved it when they discovered it, the one’s who didn’t… didn’t. Money, privlilege, social ‘rank’ had nothing to do with it.

    I find it most interesting that this “Privilege List” is being given to college students. Seems to me that the ability to go to college is a “privilege” in and of itself… the underprivileged are those not in the room reading the list…

  49. That meme was bothering me on many levels, and I think you’ve nailed it.

    And I think it also does a bad job of drawing a clear distinction between social privilege and economic privilege. While the two often go together, they don’t always, particularly in families who have changed classes (my parents both came from working-class backgrounds, and while I suspect we had more money when I was growing up than other upper-middle-class families, we didn’t live quite like them–we kept cars and clothes until they fell apart, took cheap vacations, didn’t own a TV, didn’t own a computer until I was 13, and so on. But at the same time, we didn’t have to skimp on medical care or healthy food, and I was raised with books and classes and piano lessons).

    I’m totally privileged, but I’m not convinced that any quiz can really pin down privilege because it’s an overall thing, not a sum of checkboxes. An indicator of privilege for my situation is not necessarily an indicator of privilege for someone else, and the reverse (I didn’t have a TV in my room because my dad hated TV and we had none and because both of my parents would have considered that sort of thing in my room excessive, NOT because we couldn’t afford to get me a TV. I still don’t own a TV, and not because I can’t afford to spend $20 on one at the thrift store).

    I graduated from college with zero student loan debt because when I entered, my dad was 78; I had a social security account specifically for my education and support on account of that. Did graduating without debt contribute to my privilege? Yes, financially (emotionally, having a father almost 60 years older than me is a source of great stress, sadness, and worry). But it didn’t come out of privilege, it came out of my dad having a kid when he was 59 (maybe that’s a form of privilege? I don’t think so, though). So it’s all complicated.

    And I will have a lot more than $5K in loans once I’m done with grad school, despite working multiple jobs.

  50. “The comments in the discussion…”

    Lest that be misinterpreted, I meant the professors’ comments about the discussion of the exercise, not the comments here–that might not be self-evident on the internet, and if it’s not, my bad.

  51. You might be able to discern the intent behind the questions, but they don’t always match up. Like John mentioned about the heat. I didn’t know how much the heat in my house cost. But I knew that my parents would tell me to put on a sweater or blanket if I was cold. I also know that the only AC in the house was in the dining room. If I wanted to cool off in the summer, I had to open the window in our room and the one in my sisters’ room, and leave the door between the two open to coax a breeze.

    What about: If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor. Um….any relative? So if my great great aunt Tilda four times removed’s second husband was a lawyer, that confers privilege to me how exactly?

  52. John:

    “I note that my responses are based on my personal experience in the actual entry, so this is not a point in contention. However, as far as I know, it’s not been shown that these “indicators” are anything other than something pulled out of these academics’ asses, as regard being useful indicators of class here in 2007. Certainly, based on my own experience, I don’t think they are.”

    I must be more optimistic than you regarding the work these people put into developing the exercise — I assume they had some rationale, whether perfect or flawed. And, I fully agree with the other posters who said that the discussion appears to be the most effective part, which is not inconsistent with the actual document.

    Regarding a person’s “own experience” — that is exactly what doesn’t pass *my* sniff test. Making generalisations based on personal experience is a pet peeve of mine (especially when those generalisations turn out to be correct!).

    Cheers for the post and the discussion.

  53. “They don’t appear to do so; the closest thing to that page is an explanation that it’s a modification of an earlier test of social status that is 50 years old. I’m saying it doesn’t pass my sniff test.”

    When I read this I immediately thought to myself that this is an indicator of privilege as remembered from the point of view of someone growing up in the 1960s – i.e. a Boomer Academic. It’s pretty typical of the sloppy thinking of the older generation of academics.

    This is not just a conversation starter, as the loaded term “privilege” indicates. Some of the questions are meant to make people feel guilty for having parents who cared about education and the welfare of their children, and instead of abusing those kids as privileged, the profs need to commend the other kids whose hard work landed them in school despite lacking some advantages.

    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.

    The irony, of course, is that this is ISU, the lowest of the low in the Indiana State University system, so no one, even the “privileged” kids, worked very hard to get there. Larry Bird went there because he was not even academically gifted enough to meet IU’s less than rigorous academic standards for its athletes. ISU’s average SAT scores are roughly 950, the average at IU is around 1150. I realize SATs aren’t the end-all and be-all of college selectivity, but a 200 point difference is telling.

  54. John for your point:

    “If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course

    Because my high school was a college preparatory school. You’d be getting the benefits of an SAT/ACT prep course just by going to your classes.”

    I think you miss their intent here. I think they do not mean within your regular courses, but extra work. (like Kaplan or Princeton review) Otherwise any public school’s college prep or AP classes would count as well. Those usually just depend on prior grades at younger ages. Unless they are trying to make the argument that just being smart makes you privileged. Which I don’t think was their intent.

  55. Even 30 years ago, I was able to buy a small-ish but excellent quality B&W TV for under $100. So at high-school I had one in my bedroom, a luxury I paid for from savings from my after-school jobs.

    I was surrounded by books as a child, but most came from the local town library. In a good week I might have been borrowing, reading and returning 5 books per day. That might have slowed down after I bought the TV, but IIRC there wasn’t much left for me to read by then in the library. The librarian ended up giving me first dibs on all the adult titles as they arrived.

  56. To me privilege is a state of grace that shields you from risks and harm. One can gain a privilege and it can also be taken away.
    I have the privilege of being financially support by my spouse.
    I do not have the privilege of good health(disability)
    I do have the privilege of public health care.
    I do not have the privilege of being male.
    I do have the privilege of being white.
    And so it goes.

  57. BJC:

    “I must be more optimistic than you regarding the work these people put into developing the exercise — I assume they had some rationale, whether perfect or flawed.”

    Well, their rationale is obvious: They want to start a discussion on privilege. But whether they’re going about starting the discussion the right way is another thing entirely.

    And yes, I think it’s accurate to say you’re more optimistic than I am that these “indicators” are based on anything statistically relevant.

    “And, I fully agree with the other posters who said that the discussion appears to be the most effective part, which is not inconsistent with the actual document.”

    Well, but, no. This is garbage in, garbage out: If you’ve got a bunch of college kids arguing about their state of privilege based on an exercise that doesn’t actually track to privilege and class, the resulting discussion is not going to be useful. It’s like all the people saying “teach the controversy” when it comes to evolution and “intelligent design” — what you end up discussing is not what you’re supposed to be discussing, you’re just busy pumping up a pointless and argumentative sideshow.

    Edward Graeves:

    “I think you miss their intent here. I think they do not mean within your regular courses, but extra work.”

    No, I got the intent just fine, although I’m not sure if you have. Their point was that extra SAT prep is an indicator of privilege and class; my point was that at the school I went to, the extra work was largely unneeded due to the quality of the general education, so listing it as privilege indicator wouldn’t work for us.

  58. John:

    “Well, their rationale is obvious: …”

    I meant rationale in the sense of principles or reasons behind their choice of statements, rather than the exercise as a whole. I remain agnostic as to whether the exercise is “the right way” to start a discussion — I’ve never tried it, and I come from a country with less social consciousness of class and privilege, so I have no intuition as to how people might respond.

    “Well, but, no. This is garbage in, garbage out: … It’s like all the people saying “teach the controversy” when it comes to evolution and “intelligent design” …”

    I can remember almost none of the content of one of my degrees, but I came away from it with a new process for thinking. Sometimes it is not the results that are important in education, but the process — simply asking “What is privilege?” raises awareness of it. Tracey C’s description of a similar exercise seems to be one example of this. Then, not everyone is going to agree on any given definition, nor will they find that every supposed correlate of privilege fits their concept of privilege.

    I am also an opponent of “teaching the controversy” when there is no real controversy, but I’m sure that there are several competing but equally valid practical definitions of ‘privilege’. Anyone who facilitated such an exercise as this would have to be aware that people are going to disagree, and say, “But wait, that’s got nothing to do with privilege! Why, in my experience…” And yet some others might say, “Well, all the privileged kids at my school had exactly that!” Who is right? Does it matter? Or does this ‘controversy’ raise other more important questions? Could you suggest a way to address these other more important questions without defining your terms of reference and recognising that not everyone is going to agree with them?

  59. Hmmmm. I got free lunches in the public schools. My siblings and I also got all the vaccinations and full orthodontic treatment while my father pulled his own teeth with pliers. Our “house” was a downtown building in which my parents ran a restaurant on the first floor, and we lived on the other two floors. I had no idea how much any of our bills were, but they always turned the furnace off in winter nights because it was so poorly insulated
    that it was just a waste of money; my father would get up early to turn it back on before we had to get out of bed. In the summers our main “AC” was a four-foot box fan installed into the side of the building – that thing could move a LOT of air around. Also on bills: later on I learned that my father somehow managed a whole lot of debt via credit card juggling – use one to pay off another, rotate, ad infinitum.

    We were read books by my mother as young kids, and later on spent a lot of time in the local library (which conveniently also had real AC). We also got signed up to all sorts of extracurriculars (art, music, etc.) and took a lot of classes from the local university while still in high school.

    As one might guess, my parents were all for sacrificing everything themselves to make sure that we had every advantage possible.

  60. To me, privilege is the opportunity to have the opportunity to make up for mistakes. Privilege is the cushion between you and the crap end of the stick.

    For economic privilege, that’s pretty key. For example, you could ask the question: “You have an unexpected and absolutely unavoidable financial obligation of $X. At what value of X does this turn from being a major inconvenience into being a catastrophe?”

    This question even helps smooth out temporary anomalies – for example, I had an unexpected expense of about $5,000 when I was in grad school. If I had been looking at a lifetime of living at the same income level I had at the time, it would have been close to catastrophic, or at least pretty damn debilitating. However, I knew that in all likelihood I’d just have to live with a little bit more debt for a little bit longer once my conditions improved – and I was right.

    As for social class, it’s a very weird animal. I grew up solidly middle-class – maybe a little bit on the upper side of middle, but nowhere close to wealthy. But my mother came from an old, old, old New England family – not a wealthy one at all, but one that was very proud of its roots – meaning that I was raised with some of the signifiers usually associated with upper-class old money (ballroom dance lessons in junior high, ability to identify a fish fork, not only exposure to classical music but an expectation of familial participation in symphony boards and fundraisers, etc.). Was I upper-class? Not really. Was I raised to be comfortable in an upper-class environment? Kinda-sorta. What does that mean, privilege-wise? The hell if I know.

  61. Several people on my LJ friends list have been posting their responses. I haven’t bothered, because I am mostly dismissive of it. For example:

    I had a tv in my room by the time I was in junior high school. It was black and white, had a 9 inch screen, and no cable. Man, kids at my school thought I was The Shit because I had that awesome TV in my room, lemme tell you. The parties I threw huddled around the tiny tv, you can’t possibly imagine. The static from the antenna only added to the effect.

    My dad bought me a car when I was 21 because I went to a community college for two years rather than a university. It cost him $1250, and was 11 years old. I had to pay my own insurance, gas, and repairs on it. Not so much privilege as a lesson in responsibility, both in the maintenance of the car, and knowing that my folks wouldn’t be able to pay for my degree. Guys were begging for my phone number when they found out I was the owner of that blue 1985 Ford Mustang hatchback.

    I left college with zero student loans due to hard work, smart choices, and good timing. My employer had a policy that they’d pay for up to 9 units (tuition only) per semester for a full time employee, for any bachelor’s degree. So for 5 years I worked full time and took three classes each semester. 5 YEARS. My employer canceled the program the year before I graduated, but I went to SDSU precisely because it was cheaper than any other college in the area, so I was able to cover the two semesters of tuition and books myself.

    So yeah, I was privileged, when compared to someone living in a developing nation. But nobody in their right mind would consider my life privileged when compared with other Gen-Xers. Honestly, I think the author is out of touch with how the rest of the United States have lived for the last 30 years.

  62. What bothers me about this exercise is not the particular questions (which, examined individually, can always be criticized on the basis of exceptions and individual circumstances) nor the appropriateness of the classroom exercise generally (I note that the professor’s web page sets some ground rules for discussion of the exercise to keep it from turning into Maoism 101).

    Rather, I think the problem is that it is unclear what kind of demarcations like “privilege” or “class” really do exist in US society, and, to the extent such demarcations exist, it’s unclear whether the pre-college life experience of undergraduates is an adequate basis for applying those demarcations.

    To be clear, I certainly don’t mean to say that US society is entirely egalitarian. But I think whatever distinctions do exist are more complicated than gradations of wealth (or something like the old British class system), and are distinctions children are generally insulated from.

    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.

    The differences children experience aren’t anything like the differences between the adult life experiences of a professional office worker like a lawyer or a professor as compared to a factory worker or a janitor. Adults experience real differences in terms of work, leisure time and retirement prospects, mobility, access to political power, access to professional services, etc., etc. If there is something like privilege or class in America, those are phenomena of the adult world that are not properly identified by asking a teenager if he has a TV in his room.

    (This thought feels a bit incomplete, but I don’t know how to finish it, so I’ll stop here.)

  63. John, I was going to respond that you didn’t get my point. That going to a private all ready includes what you describe, and that you’re trying to count that one privilege twice, just to poke a hole in their test.

    But on second thought, that logic stems from two false assumptions. One that all private schools inherently are intended to be “College Prepatory” and two that the original question was only intended to refer to extra courses, not what you did in the course of your regular education. (In this case I mean regular as in what each person did routinely, not regular as in the average for all people.)

  64. Adding on now that I’ve read through the comments … My father was really big on getting new electronics toys, so we had good TVs, and VCRs, computers, etc. as soon as they were invented.

    In 3rd grade I was instructed to lie about my address so we could go to a better elementary school than what was in our own district. Sadly, my mother should’ve explained the lie more fully – that it was the address of a family friend – but she didn’t, and so I told the truth because I was uncomfy about lying. So in 4th grade we rented an apartment in the district of a better school (that, no, we couldn’t actually afford, but that didn’t matter to my mother – her strategy was to do what was needed first, figure out how to pay later).

    Oh, and our family cars were eyesores. :)

    One note about Indiana and its state-run universities. Back when I was there, Indiana didn’t have a system of community colleges. This meant that the full universities had to also do all the in-between teaching of students who were out of high school but not yet ready for a 4-year college, that community colleges normally do in other states. That’s why the requirements to get in are so low, especially at ISU and Ball State.

  65. To me, the only people that this sort of exercise hurts are the ones that it’s supposed to help. It brings into focus the horrors of some peoples upbringing, and makes those that the exercise tears down only hate those at the level to which all are lowered, which then makes everybody hate everybody else. Good going PC leaders, you have perpetuated the same things you were fighting against. I hope these academics are really proud of themselves.

  66. Another attempt to start / increase class warfare. It’s like a “reverse bias” I. Q. test I was forced to take once to teach me how incredibly biased all tests are. The instructor had us sit in the class in order of how we normally performed on “IQ-type” tests, which to him included ACT, SAT, GRE, and everything like that. Then we took a test which was not any kind of intellegence test at all, but was a specific knowledge test with stupid questions like “How long does it take to cook cheap chitterlings?” After we had them graded and handed back, the instructor, with a huge grin on his face, asked who got above 100, above 90, etc. The results were almost identical to how we performed on the other tests. Great waste of an entire afternoon.

  67. I am curiuos as to the functional point of this exercise.

    I realize it would intiate discussion, but even the exercise notes warn that “anger will be a primary emotion.” And while I am not above a certain amount of prodding as a way to possibly assist in rooting out some truths… what ultimate ‘good’ is served here?

    We may be a society of classes. But we do hold the egalatarian ideal close and, I think, we may come failrly close for a majority of citizens. What good is served? None I think, other than, to misquote JSS, “…attempt to start / increase class divisions.”

  68. I looked at the test and some of it showed a lot of time and cultural problems. Way back when I took the SAT (and I had to kill the mammoths on the the way to the test site) there were no SAT prep classes. I had cousins who did not have a phone in their house, let alone their room, because the phone lines did not reach that far. We never stayed in hotels because we never went anywhere there was not some kin to stay with. And with a strong oral tradition and early reading nobody read children’s books to kids. My grandmother did recite, from memory, Washington Irving’s stories to me and my grandfather on the other side scared me silly with family ghost tales. And my cousins scared me by bringing home “pet’; rattlesnakes. All in all, I think I grew up with a lot privilege. I survived.

  69. Well I think that by the time we get to university, we are supposed to be informed that we are to feel guilty for even being there. It is automatically assumed that we don’t know any better, on the part of the academic staff, so it is their job to take us down a few notches. I felt that way in 1986. It is a kind of obligatory socialism that gets infused as a component of all liberal arts classes. Today such activism is a faint whisper in a modern consumerist cultural windstorm. (technological progress has made us all more “equal”) I agree that in this case the execution in the attempt to instill guilt is more feelings based than logic based, so why bother. To broaden the world view of certain types of freshmen may or may not be a worthy goal, but there are more subtle and insurgent approaches.

  70. Excellent topic. It sounds to me as though the person who came up with this list has an agenda, and it is weird.

    My partner went to an expensive private high school as a scholarship student and so did I, after skipping a grade in middle school.

    My children do not have a tv in their room, or a computer. They were the only ones of their close friends to not get a Wii for Christmas this year. I can honestly say that our family income is much higher than most of their friends’, we just choose to save money for their college education instead of blowing it on consumer electronics.

    Our house has a 6 year old desktop computer and my partner’s laptop that is owned by his employer. We have one TV, and no video games.

    My children READ. A LOT. They are creative. We build things, cook together, and go to museums on free days. We buy books at the library sale and the kids ask for books for Christmas and birthdays. My teenager got a wonderful atlas for Christmas–it was his favorite gift.
    I also did not read to my children when they were little because they read to me. They started reading “adult” reading-level books before they were 9.

    We do not stay in hotels when we travel, because we have hosted over a dozen exchange students from all over the world, and we stay with their families and friends when we travel.

  71. So, we should just add everyone to the Domain Admin group?

    Fiona – the Wii is good. You are depriving yourself and your children.

  72. I may have missed it if someone else commented, but I found the “I’ve been to Europe” question a little odd. What, only the underprivileged kids go to Cabo? Your deprived if you went to Tokyo?

  73. One of the questions that intrigued me was the summer camp question, but not because they asked it. I’m intrigued because summer camp seems to mean different things than I’m used to— here on the West Coast, summer camp usually refers to a week-long residence at a camp, with a cost roughly equivalent to a night or two at a hotel (depending on the camp and hotel in question; a decade ago that might be as low as $100 for group camps with their own leadership or above $300 for single camper, leadership and materials provided.) Horse camp might go as long as ten days.

    On the other hand, I have heard tell of people speaking of summer camp as though it were a monthlong or longer endeavor; it stands to reason that such a camp would have a higher cost and therefore a higher indicator of privilege.

    Am I just hallucinating, or are there actually people who think of summer camp as taking a large part of the summer? It did for me, but then, I was a counselor. :)

  74. The camping one surprised me a bit too. Again, maybe this is just because of having grown up in NYC, but organizations such as the YWCA/HA or the Fresh Air Fund or UJA raise money and have summer sleepaway camps in part so that “disadvantaged” kids can spend at least part of the summer outside of the city.

    And to answer B Durbin – yes, summer sleepaway camps can be a month or two month experience for some kids (or at least the one I was a counselor at was), and yes, that would cost quite a bit.

  75. There are also some real geographical and generational biases in the questions John cited. I grew up upper middle class in New York City, and I didn’t have a clue what our heating bill was — we didn’t have one, and neither did anyone else. New York has steam heat, and if you live in an apartment it’s included in the rent, like water (which, of course, it is.) This was pre-condo and pre-coop, so virtually all apartment dwellers were renters. I live in a coop now, and heat is included in the maintenance.

    I also went to summer camp, which in my case was eight weeks. So did every other New York child whose parents could possibly arrange it, for as long as they could arrange it. You see, we had this little thing called polio…. It was endemic in the cities in hot weather (I still remember the newsreels showing polio victims in iron lungs), so you did your best to get your kids out of the city.

    We didn’t have air conditioning, though. No one did, unless you were a movie theater or a big fancy store or your last name was something like Rockefeller.

  76. “Note that the people on one end of the room had to work harder to be here today than the people at the other end of the room.”

    This idea that “privilege” is somehow unearned and generally not the result of hard work is highly questionable. My grandparents were working class, so my parents grew up with no “privileges”. My parents busted their asses in school and subsequently in the workplace, and as a result I had a lot of “privileges” (as defined in the list) when I grew up. Did I have to work as hard as the people who had “no privileges”? Probably not, but that by no means indicates that my privileges were not the result of very hard work indeed. Moreover, my “privileges” guaranteed me nothing – my parents didn’t do my work for me in undergrad nor grad school, nor can they come to my place of work and do my job for me. Thus, my kids will grow up with “privileges” as the direct result of my hard work, not some sort of silver spoon inheritance. And they will have to work hard themselves in school in order to sustain a life of “privilege” once I’m not around any more.

    The professor wants us to focus on how we feel about our “privileges”. Naturally, I feel fortunate that I had parents who were able and willing to work hard to give me my “privileged” upbringing. I sure don’t feel bad about my “privileges”, since I know exactly where they came from (hard work, not a trust fund). While I think my kids should be aware of their “privileges”, they are also going to get the exact same lesson I did when I grew up – better study hard and work hard, buster, because that’s the only way you get to keep your “privileges”.

  77. Scalzi, or anyone else who said that they didn’t have children’s books read to them because they learned to read early:

    If you learned to read when you were two, what happened before you were two? If you can’t remember that far back, what about before Athena was two? Did you really read her nothing for two years and change, until all of a sudden she picked up a book and started reading it?

    I sound like I’m being snarky and I guess I kind of am, but I’m also genuinely curious.

    My son is one and a half, and I’ve been reading to him since he was a month or two old, children’s books and adult books too, if he takes them of the shelf and brings them to me (though he usually gets bored of these pretty quickly.) His favorite is Intergalactic Mercenaries.

  78. It also seems to me that one problem with these sorts of test is that for each individual answer they try to go for YES/NO whereas in many cases better answers would be in some sort of continuum e.g. ALWAYS/FREQUENTLY/OCCASIONALLY/NEVER

    And of course the fact that they conflate indicators that your parents cared about you (e.g. reading) with indicators that you grew up in a wealthy environment doesn’t help. Sure both give you advantages but they give you different ones and a different perspective on things.

    I’m as privileged as they come but I fail quite a few of the more obvious markers because my parents didn’t think that they needed to spend money for certain things (e.g. new clothes, car, staying in hotels).

    I think I’d label the “test” as highly indicative of what its creators consider as privilege but not necessarily actual privilege. It is, if you like, a list of what some desperately nouveau riche wanabees think distinguishes themselves from their trailer trash former peers.

    Oh and one thing I note as an omission. Giving to charity. I think how (or whether) you give to charity (and which charities for that matter) is an excellent indicator or your social status/privilege. Of course I’ve noticed that sorts of closet maoists who create these kinds of test tend to give no money to any charity except for the odd bit via “fair trade” coffee or organizing a “stop the war” lunch so they mostly don’t notice the hole.

  79. Is it possible to have a discussion of privilege without invoking anyone’s personal childhood? I realize that it’s got the ring of authenticity and authority, to be able to say, “I am entitled to speak on this subject because I grew up in a shoebox in the middle of the road!” but sometimes… it just looks like reverse one-upmanship. So, I’ll concede here and now: No matter what happened during *my* childhood, yours was worse. I accept that.

    Let’s just shortcut the whole thing, and ask this instead:

    Do you, right now, today, flush your toilet with potable water?

  80. These lists are a bit dangerous, especially when they are this shallowly hooked into consumerism. I never fit into the demographic of these lists, either.

    I grew up lower middle class, I guess. In that we always had a roof over our heads and food to eat, but not a lot of extras. I didn’t have a TV/phone/car. But I think that was based more on priniciple than economics. Interestingly, we were the ‘richer’ kids in a poor neighborhood when I was young. Then moved to where we were the ‘poorer’ kids in a richer neighborhood in highschool. Our economic wealth did not change, but people’s reactions to us did. I think that can influence how you think of yourself and your chances for success sometimes more than the actual financial situation. After basic needs are met, being poor has more to do with being surrounded by people who are better off and make you feel bad about it than actual poverty. I think the worst thing that happens to ‘poor’ people is that they are taught that they are poor due to some personal inadequacy. Especially kids. Like when Oprah (or whoever) says, I made it out of poverty so anyone can do it.” Well, anyone can win the lottery too, but that doesn’t mean EVERYone can do it.

    It is all very self -fulfilling. And if you’ve never seen or heard anything else, other people telling you what you should or shouldn’t be able to do has power. My mother never graduated highschool. Neither of my parents wen to college, and we were ‘poor’ so guidance counselors and teachers pigeon-holed us into kids that probably won’t go to college. But, since my mother never went to college, she absolutely GRILLED it in our heads that we needed to go and do well in school. So there’s that.

    Same thing with being disabled. We are automatically assumed to be poor. (We are not rich, but live well on a modest income. We both work.) People cut you out of a lot of opportunities when the assumption is that you are too poor to do them anyway.

    Lists like this might be doing the opposite of their intention: reinforcing stereotypes.

  81. Also, I wanted to comment on the book having/reading thing. As a mother of two 3 year olds, I think it is not the reading to them or the having of the books that creates the biggest advantage or disadvantage…its time.

    When you are working several jobs and your kids are possibly not in the best daycare situation, i.e. perhaps a neighbor who cares for too many children to read to them or create any kind of real educational programming, kids don’t get read to, talked to, taken out into the community, etc. enough. It makes a difference. I’m essentially a single mom and I work a couple of jobs and I keep my kids with me most of the time, and I struggle to find time to really just sit with them and read, or go on an outing everyday. I see other moms who just have one child with two adults who are CONSTANTLY interacting with their kids and go on a different “field trip” everyday and to the library/bookstore every week. Things I just can’t do. And I see a difference. It is TIME that is lacking when you are poor more so than poor people are just to stupid to read books to their kids.

  82. Naomi Libicki:

    “If you learned to read when you were two, what happened before you were two?”

    Got me. I don’t remember not being able to read, to be honest about it.

    Re: Athena, it’s fairly complicated, because among other things she’s been operating her own computer since about sixteen months old, and no, I’m not kidding; I have pictures of her at that age putting her “Jumpstart Toddler” discs into the computer and firing them up. So quite a lot of her pre-literacy activity was both computerized and to no small degree self-directed (although quite obviously we provided her with materials).

    Before she could read books on her own we certainly did read with her, of course, although she was always pretty “take charge” with the reading: she would memorize the story and once she had it down she’d “read” the book to us, going off of the pictures and word shapes she knew. In fact, the way we knew she was reading, as opposed to simply having have memorized the story, was that she was reading a book that we had gotten recently; i.e., we knew she hadn’t memorized the story yet.

    I’d have to ask Athena if she remembers not being able to read; it’s probably a 50/50 chance. I know for a fact she doesn’t remember not being able to use a computer.

  83. John, I don’t have time to go over the whole test, but I think you’ve missed the boat on this one. Yes, it may be a bit dated as a whole, but I’m pretty sure that each one of the questions on the test was drawn from research studies that showed a real correlation between the material in the question and the effects of privilege/class. No one just made the qeustions up because they sounded good or seemed reasonable from an elitist academic perspective. If you talk to a competent sociologist, they can probably help you find a lot of the relevant studies.

    Take the reading question. That’s one where I’ve seen the relevant studies referenced, and I’m sure if you poke around, you can find them too. The unsurprising conclusion of the studies that children whose parents read to them — REGARDLESS of any other factors, like the family’s economic status — eventually were more economically successful in life. The sad part of the study was the part that showed that lower-income parents were far less likely to read to their kids than middle or upper-income parents. Not because they didn’t care about their kids, but because a) they didn’t have the time (as Lisa #85 points out), or b) reading wasn’t valued in their home — which is a generational problem that perpetuates itself in a majority of lower-income families.

    If your grandparents didn’t value reading, then they didn’t read to their kids — so your parents didn’t grow up valuing reading, so they didn’t read to you, and so on. Which ends up being a major economic disadvantage to you, and worse, one that probably isn’t even obvious/visible to you, if you’re coming from a family that doesn’t value reading.

    One of my biggest challenges teaching at Roosevelt University in Chicago to a primarily working class student body was just getting them to enjoy and appreciate reading — by far, most of them had never ever read for pleasure, or seen anyone in their home reading for pleasure. Tragic, especially given that reading young does tremendous things for your vocabulary skills — which in turn end up incredibly helpful in the job market as an adult.

    Yes, of course there are exceptions, which will come up in any discussion of personal experience. I had a few exceptions among my students. But the general statistical trends are well-researched and solidly grounded — and really, not even surprising, I would think.

  84. The other thing I wanted to note in these comments was that an interesting side effect of these discussions is how defensive and angry people get when they feel that they’re being ‘accused’ of possessing privilege — we see it in the classroom, and I’m seeing it in a lot of the comments above. That’s a common starting point for participants in these discussions and not surprising, given the general egalitarian values in the U.S. But I think it’s CRITICAL to get past that anger, so that you can see clearly where you, as an individual do, or do not, possess privilege. Because only when we see the playing field clearly can we start thinking about which bits of it need levelling.

    Here’s a useful way to think about privilege — privilege is a smooth road. We’re all trying to get from point A to point B, but a lot of us get to just walk there. It may take a little while, but we get there, no problem. Whereas others in the society have unexpected potholes to navigate, or walls thrown down that they have to scale, or a leg chopped off at the start of the trip.

    The fact that my dad read to me when I was a kid (and in fact used to do Reader’s Digest ‘It Pays to Increase Your Word Power’ games with me every morning) hugely increased my vocabulary. Which meant that when I took a typical college class (at the same demanding school John went to), I understood all the words the professor was using, no problem, except for the new terms specific to the course (which he kindly defined on the board for me).

    Whereas in the classes I teach at Roosevelt, my students (who mostly didn’t grow up reading as kids) commonly don’t understand words that are part of my normal everyday vocabulary. They just haven’t been exposed to them. I have to make a conscious effort to watch for the blankness on their faces, and to ask them if they know the word I just used.

    Often in the first weeks of the course, they won’t admit to ignorance, and so I have to ask for a volunteer to say what it means, and then when no one can define it, I define it, and go on, and eventually they learn to trust me and just ask me when they don’t know a word, but it’s hard, because no one wants to look dumb in front of the teacher, and there are always going to be students I miss, for whom the class is ten times harder because they don’t understand half the words I’m saying. They lack critical privilege here; they’re on a seriously bumpy part of the road, and one that was smooth for me.

    On the other hand, I’m a woman, and brown-skinned, and queer, and really short, and thirty to forty pounds overweight, and all of those factors affect the smoothness of the road in front of me. There are plenty of studies that show, for example, that all other things being equal in a job interview, the taller candidate will be offered the job first. His road is smoother than mine, at least at that point.

    We all walk a complex road, privileged in some areas, unprivileged in others. And having the conversation about our own privilege, however uncomfortable it may be, is a great starting point for those of us working to make the road smoother for everyone.

    That’s where the discussion question comes from, when it says that privilege just is, it’s a fact — they’re trying to defuse the kneejerk defensiveness that keeps people from admitting the privileges they’ve enjoyed. Some forms of privilege (like human beings being biologically conditioned to prefer tallness) we probably aren’t going to get rid of anytime soon. But there are plenty of other aspects we can work on.

  85. Mary Anne Mohanraj:

    “I’m pretty sure that each one of the questions on the test was drawn from research studies that showed a real correlation between the material in the question and the effects of privilege/class.”

    My argument isn’t simply that it’s poorly researched, however, although I suspect lots of this particular exercise isn’t particularly relevant in 2008. I also think that’s poorly written and structured, and because of that, prone to bad results and unlikely to have the desired effect.

    Which is to say, even if this an exercise like this is a good idea in general, this particular iteration of it kinda stinks.

    I personally would be interested in knowing the methodology for putting together this particular exercise, precisely because I think it’s pretty bad. I’m not hugely convinced that it’s not, in fact, simply the end result of a general bull session involving this professor and a bunch of his TAs. I would love to be convinced the construction of this exercise was methodologically robust.

    Re: Privilege Defensiveness: Yeah, I don’t get that myself. In the overall scheme of things, I’ve been generally privileged, even with poverty early on. I do suspect people are defensive about appearing as if some of what they have/who they are is unearned, since the world “privilege” in many contexts carries that association.

  86. Regarding privilege defensiveness:

    I’m just throwing this out as what is possibly an interesting perspective. Many times the attributes that people have that may or may not earn them privilege (i.e. ‘the invisible knapsack”) cannot be changed, thus it is really difficult to see how or to what extent it really effects your life. You cannot easily change your gender, skin color, etc. So it is hard to see how the other half lives.

    This is where I think my partner and I and some other people with disabilities have a unique perspective on this. He spent over half his life as nondisabled and overnight became a wheelchair user. I have always had vision/hearing problems, but in my younger days, could decide to “pass” as able bodied with just a few sneaky hidden tricks. I could literally, for a time, jump back and forth from both worlds, being totally able-bodied for a job interview, then get out my white cane and sign to the person next to me at a bus stop on the way home.

    What this taught us is that the way people treat you, the opportunities you are afforded, the privilege you get is imbedded in every interaction, in every thing you do. It is subtle but incessant. And it is inescapable. It is exactly as Mary Ann Mohanraj describes it. If you are running in the fast lane, you might be working hard, but you are so far ahead sometimes that you don’t even see the potholes, the walls, and the obstacles that are put in front of others. This must be a hard perspective to overcome.

    Being privileged doesn’t mean you don’t work hard or that you didn’t ‘earn’ what you have gotten. It isn’t a character flaw or anything. But it means that you had a much easier route to get there. You may have had been so concentrated on your own road and your own success that you failed to even notice the crappy road others are forced to take.

  87. Two quick responses to John:

    – given how long it takes to do a big research study, collect the results, write them up, and get them published, and get people to read and absorb them (a minimum of five-ten years, I’d guess), it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of the specific questions on the quiz, especially around technology like tv’s and cell phones, get outdated really fast. Just the nature of the game, I think. That said, it *would* be interesting to have a reference study or two for each question on that quiz. Don’t know if anyone wants to do the work to track it all down, though.

    – and I think it’s particularly interesting, that word ‘unearned’, and how tense it makes folks. Because okay, yes, if you work hard, you should earn stuff. But a LOT of what gets given to us all, as human beings, is unearned. A healthy body, for some of us, or a pretty face, or maleness, or white skin, or a fast metabolism, or a quick brain.

    That last one is particularly hard for me to keep in mind (I think for most smart folks) — that it’s not to my particular credit that I’m ‘bright’. You get so much praise for it from teachers and parents that it’s easy to let it go to your head. I have to remind myself that that’s just genetics, and any benefits I get from my brightness are entirely ‘unearned’. Except insofar as I can thank all my Sri Lankan ancestors who arranged marriages for their daughters with the smartest, most successful guys they could find. :-)

  88. That quiz was painful for me in ways the authors probably would not get at all. I had a room of my own because when my multiply-handicapped brother was born, my mother had a breakdown and a tubal. I had a TV in my room because I fixed a really bad old BW one off the “might be handy someday” junk shelf in the garage; I bothered because I hid out in my room a lot. We had original art on the shelves because my mother took up different crafts during her manic phases and generated mounds of macrame or trapunto or whatever.

    It makes me feel sick now to imagine what it would have been like to be forced to talk about all this stuff in some random class with strangers when I was 17 or 18.

  89. Manny, I just want to say that in my class, at least, no one is forced to talk about anything — it’s all up to what folks want to volunteer. In fact, when I do this kind of exercise (I haven’t done this one, but I’ve done others that are similar in feel), I always offer the option of sitting out the exercise and watching, which occasionally students take me up on.

    I might ask the students to write something after the exercise, and then ask for volunteers to read out what they write, but most of them won’t choose to read it out. And that’s just fine. Heck, if it’s in an in-class writing, they even have the option not to hand it in to me if they really don’t want to, though I don’t think any student has ever taken me up on that offer.

    All that said, a bad teacher (or an ignorant one) could certainly do some damage with this kind of quiz. It’s a powerful teaching tool, and like any such tool, could be misused. :-(

  90. I earned my healthy body, pretty face, maleness, white skin, fast metabolism, and quick brain.

    To say otherwise is an insult.

  91. Mary Anne Mohanraj:

    if it’s in an in-class writing, they even have the option not to hand it in to me if they really don’t want to, though I don’t think any student has ever taken me up on that offer.

    Is there a way for them to do this without anyone else knowing? Honest question – in my experience, after that sort of exercise, and especially with that sort of coda, everyone is looking around to see who’s going to take the teacher up on their offer – who is it that has something to hide? Who is it that’s uncomfortable? Who has secrets? (I’ve been both the one refusing to discuss something/hand something in, and not being so, but watching my fellow students watch the person who is.) It’s not comfortable to be the one taking that route out, and I suspect someone less comfortable with flatly stating “you can’t make me” to all and sundry than I am might well feel compelled to be both honest and forthcoming, however uncomfortable it is.

    In terms of privilege defensiveness – for me it became a necessary social survival skill to downplay my advantages in later elementary (I suppose it’s middle school, for the US? Grades five through seven), jr high and high-school, and one friend dumped me, very publically, because I had piano lessons and was therefore a “spoiled brat”; looking back, I suspect similar things were behind two friends-turned-attackers. To admit that my parents were well-off was to become an Other among my classmates, and I was literally attacked and bullied because I had privileges (and they were, by anyone’s standards – larger house, well-off family, good healthcare, extra-curricular lessons, educational trips, etc) and, presumably, my classmates did not. Kids that age will look for ANY difference, and mine was my parents’ income.

    I learned down downplay it as a way of saying “no, really, I’m not different from you”. I also learned never, ever to complain about anything – the response was always “why are you whining? Your parents are rich.” I still catch myself doing both, and for the same reason – what does it matter if I struggle with depression? I come from a privileged background, I can’t whine; also, if the less-well-off friends I have are forced to realise that my parents help me with college, they’ll hate me and abandon me. If I must admit the latter, it means I REALLY have to swallow anything I might be unhappy about.

    Am I saying I’m not privileged? Helllllll no. Never. I am, in fact, damn lucky my mother’s father had the opportunity to drag himself up from his poverty, and for all the work I’ve done in my own life, I did nothing to make HIM well-off enough to be able to bequeath education, help, work-ethic and love to his kids, giving me the mother who did the same. I really, really had nothing to do with the other side of the family, but that’s a long and occasionally ridiculously complex story.

    I’m just saying that sometimes, defensiveness comes from actually being attacked. And those knee-jerk reactions are very hard to get over – the same way it’s very, very hard for me to get over knee-jerk reactions to people asking about my sexuality, for which I had very similar attacks, and over which I had just about as much control.

  92. I think it’s CRITICAL to get past that anger, so that you can see clearly where you, as an individual do, or do not, possess privilege.

    Yes, you have privilege, but don’t be defensive and angry, we’re not going to punish you for it.

    Because only when we see the playing field clearly can we start thinking about which bits of it need levelling.

    Oh wait, yes we are going to punish you for it. Sorry, “social justice” demands a little levelling. But again, remember not to feel angry or defensive just because you’re being punished for being “privileged”.

    I do suspect people are defensive about appearing as if some of what they have/who they are is unearned, since the world “privilege” in many contexts carries that association.

    Bingo. I acknowledge that I am privileged, and even if I didn’t earn it myself, I know who did. I can put you on the phone with her if you want…

    a LOT of what gets given to us all, as human beings, is unearned. A healthy body, for some of us, or a pretty face, or maleness, or white skin, or a fast metabolism, or a quick brain.

    A compelling argument for keeping down that villain Harrison Bergeron… =)

    I have to remind myself that that’s just genetics, and any benefits I get from my brightness are entirely ‘unearned’.

    I disagree. The benefits of brightness can only be earned, because they can only be realized through hard work. Brightness confers no intrinsic advantage in the absence of hard work – I know a number of people who are exceptionally bright, even geniuses, who have accomplished nothing of note (or haven’t lived up to their potential) because they were lazy or unmotivated.

    To some degree this logic also applies to the “unearned privileges” of being white, male, healthy, and/or beautiful. Do I know any white folks who have gotten nowhere in life because they didn’t want to work? Yes. Their whiteness guaranteed them exactly nothing. Similarly, I am sure some people can coast through life on beauty alone, but a lot more of them still have to work to get what they have.

    In my view, attempts to compensate for “unearned privileges”, as such, are simply misguided and do not take into account individual circumstances.

  93. MerryArwen, it’s not so much that I frame it that way for the particular assignment — more that in-class writings don’t count for much in the class overall (a tiny fraction of a point), so if a student wanted to just skip handing one in, they could. I honestly don’t think they’re really watching each other as they’re handing up their pieces of paper, not in a college class. Not enough to remember, at any rate.

    More often, what I do get on the piece of paper is an honest sentence or two simply saying that they don’t feel comfortable talking about this topic, which is a fine response as well.

    As for the attacking — well, I have a lot of sympathy for that at the lower educational levels, certainly. But by the time you get to college — I guess I think you have to start learning to navigate class dynamics as an adult, including the resentment of those who see you as more privileged than they were. It’s not easy, but if you aren’t going to learn there, in that sort of protected environment, then where? Yes, you may take some heat — I’ve had some pretty fierce arguments break out in my classes (both ones I’ve taken and taught). But if the teacher insists on everyone maintaining a respectful tone, then the class can still serve its purpose, and everyone can learn from the discussion — and in the end, that’s what college is for.

    And look, I’ll give you another example. There’s an identity-based exercise I do that involves people moving from one side of the room to the other as we identify what groups we belong to — male/female/other, for example. Queer/straight. And so on. And there are some categories that might be difficult for people to admit to — sometimes the students will suggest divisions like those who have committed a crime vs. those who haven’t, or those who have a relative in jail, or those who are illegal immigrants. And so on. It can get really uncomfortable.

    At the end of the exercise, I *always* ask them if anyone wants to admit to lying on one of the earlier questions — and there are always several people who raise their hands, and others who look like they might want to. Which I think ends up a very salutary lesson for the group on the importance of keeping the social context in mind — and also on how embarrassment/shame/fear can keep us from admitting our own truths.

  94. Lugo, I’m going to have to disagree with you. I was bright, and I coasted straight through to college — and pretty much through college as well. Plenty of A’s with no real effort on my part. I didn’t start actually working hard until I got to grad school, at age 30. My brightness was a huge social advantage, and I didn’t do a damn thing to earn it.

    I think there are a lot of folks who benefit similarly from privileges they were born with, whether biological or otherwise. The answer isn’t to remove their talents (a la Bergeron, which frankly, I consider a rather snide and thoughtless knee-jerk reactionary story, if well-executed).

    The question is, what can we do to give those who *weren’t* handed those privileges, more of a fighting chance in a competitive world? It’s not about cutting down those who started out lucky, but helping to build up those who didn’t.

  95. Ah, but the internet isn’t a protected college environment, is it? And the internet is where the discussion is going on – and also where you were remarking on the defensiveness. (For that matter, I would argue with your characterisation of the college/university environment – although I’m very pleased if the environment you are creating in your classes is that safe; many of mine have not been, and many of those of acquaintances and friends, even less.)

    My point is merely that defensiveness can, among other things, come from a history of being attacked. And while your teaching environment specifically and your discussions specifically may not involve that attacking, it still happens, and the results, in human beings, are kind of predictable – when attacked, we get defensive. Attacked enough, and we develop a habit of being defensive in advance when something begins to smell like an attack might be coming. It’s not necessarily a healthy or useful habit, no – taken too far and in the right directions, we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But nevertheless, it’s there, and is something to consider when one is wondering why other people seem to be so DEFENSIVE about a simple reality or truth.

  96. I think it’s fascinating that almost everyone objecting to the list is doing so on the basis of their own experience, with the assumption that they had a hard life, so they weren’t privileged. I think the point of the exercise is to help students realize the privileges they’ve received, even if they’re small ones.

  97. I’m trying to understand how you count being smarter a privilege. Why would we try to level the playing field for dumb people?

  98. There’s a lot about that list that felt, for lack of a better word for it, kinda 70s to me.
    I know–because I’ve priced these out recently–that I can buy a TV, a DVD/vcr combo, a cell phone and a year of pre-paid phone service (light to moderate use) for less than a month’s payment for my health insurance. My health insurance is on the less-expensive side for a individual-pay single person in my age-group.
    For about 7 weeks of my health insurance cost I can have all of the above plus a used desktop computer with a large (non-flat) monitor, dial-up service, and $10/month wireless acess. [The latter of course rdepends on one’s city]
    Those researchers (and those “they say they’re poor, but they have a *DVD player *” pundits) need to learn about Moore’s law caused deflation. Moore’s law (and China’s boom) gets you the DVD player. But a lower-middle-class income can’t necessarily get you health insurance that’ll keep you from bankrupcy after one bad illness.

  99. MerryArwen, I pretty much agree with you that the internet is really not the right kind of environment for this sort of quiz — but that’s why I wanted to engage John on the topic, because I think when you see this sort of thing being misused and mischaracterized, it’s important to think about what kind of teaching tool it is, and what the actual context was intended to be for those who created it.

    And again — when I state that people are being defensive, I also want to state (I tried to in my initial post, but maybe it didn’t come across) that that’s a totally naturally and expected initial reaction. Most of us are going to feel defensive when we first start looking at our own privilege. The goal is to try to move on from there to someplace more productive.

    And Patrick — let me put it this way. I have a seven-month-old daughter, Kavya. Right now, I have no idea how bright she’ll be — that’s just the genetic lottery. She may end up as dumb as a post. Kavya may never have the smarts to be a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist, but I’d still like her to be able to work hard and get a good education, that leads to a decent job that can pay her rent, her health insurance, her other bills, and give her the satisfaction, at the end of the day, of a job well done. That should be the innate right of every human being.

    I want Kavya to have every opportunity to accomplish as much as she possibly can, given her own innate abilities, whatever they may be. To live to her fullest potential, with as few artificial roadblocks as possible thrown up in her way. Does that make sense?

  100. Oh, or another way to think about it — in the U.S., we already make some efforts to level the playing field for dumb people — we provide free education to them, from kindergarten through state college level. That’s why I teach some of the basic college classes I do, because even though it’s frustrating to meet a college student who can’t write a coherent paragraph, that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn to do better. Almost always, they can. That’s what good education (and good teachers) are for.

    And at the end of the day, it is, in some sense, a lot more rewarding to help one of those students learn to write a solid paragraph (which may eventually let them get a good job as an office manager, perhaps) than to watch one of my bright students effortlessly write a brilliant paper on Shakespeare. The bright students just don’t need the help as much.

  101. I’ve noticed, when in other nations (worldcons or whatever) that it is almost universally agreed that: (1) The USA is a very class-conscious country; yet (2) America suffers the illusion that it is classless; and (3) how odd that American academics, scientists, and authors are not automatically in solidarity with the working class, rather than the owner class.

    To me, from a family that veered over several generations from extreme wealth (mayor of New York City, governor of New York State dining at my father’s father’s table) to lower middle class, there are 3 classes and 9 subclasses in the USA.


    (1) Lower-lower class: the underclass enabled by welfare as it was before Clinton, net worth negative.

    (2) Middle-lower class: renting (or in poor regions, homeowning) working poor. Roughly 2 months from being homeless if income drops (job loss) or expenditures rise (typically for illness).

    (3) Upper-lower class: renting better apartment (or homeowning) working poor. Up to 6 months from being homeless if income drops (job loss) or expenditures rise (typically for illness).


    (4) Lower-middle class: homeowning, blue-collar employment, typically two parents working, able to trade in car for newer model every few years.

    (5) Middle-middle class: homeowning, blue collar (but levels up, including supervisory);

    (6) Upper-middle class: professional, white-collar, big home or multiple homes owned, includes the majority of millionaires (i.e. engineers, lawyers, doctors, managers).


    (7) Lower-upper class. In Southern California now, this kicks in at roughly $10 million to $20 million. Primary income is not compensation as such, but investments, financial instruments, equity ownership.

    (8) Middle-upper class. No upper limit to wealth. Billionaires not automatically made it to the Forbes 400 of October 2007 issue. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, half a dozen grandchildren of Sam Walton, and the like. 1/3 made it “on their own”; 2/3 were born with it, or married it.

    (9) Upper-upper class. Old Money. Gates and Buffet and Waltons absolutely cannot get here. Their grandchildren might, and making huge charitable donations is an entry requirement, i.e. noblesse oblige, 19th-21st century version.

    Most in one subclass are terrified of dropping down one subclass, and driven to rise one subclass. They are almost clueless as to other classes at distance greater than 1 subclass.

    This is partly about money, partly about education, partly about speech, partly about appropriate clothing, hobbies, and the like. Bottom line: anthropological membership. If the upper-upper class consider you one of them, you are, otherwise not.

    My family and that of my wife have both oscillated remarkably between classes, to formal Aristocracy for 30 generations in her case.

    The issue of social mobility is, to me, an extremely important and wonderful aspect of The American Dream — and reality.

    Who said that, in a novel, it is very important to show how characters interact with those of their class, of the class above, and of the class below? I agree.

  102. Mary Anne Mohanraj:

    “I wanted to engage John on the topic, because I think when you see this sort of thing being misused and mischaracterized, it’s important to think about what kind of teaching tool it is, and what the actual context was intended to be for those who created it.”

    To be clear, I’m well aware it’s meant as a classroom exercise, not an Internet meme. My thought on that is that I doubt it’s going to be particularly useful there either, especially since many of the examples, particularly relating to consumer objects, are not things I see as being genuinely responsive to either class or privilege in this day and age. The cell phone line is one I think is a good case in point: I could go down to my local school here in my poor, rural town, ask for a show of hands among the teens as to how many of them have cell phones, and I suspect have the majority of hands go up. Cell phones are not an indicator of either class or privilege in the manner which this exercise intends.

    This goes back to your comment that any thing academically well-vetted is going to show signs of being dated, but inasmuch as that datedness in my opinion likely substantially reduces the efficacy of individual answers and also the larger exercise, it makes me wonder what the point of administering it is at all, and whether there isn’t a better way of discussing issues of class and privilege.

  103. I’m now wonder how many students did little white lies on some of the questions to avoid public humiliation around peers.

  104. Adela:

    Well, there’s that too. Also, how many refused to play along because they thought the exercise was pointless and stupid; I may very well would be been one of those. I remember being somewhat contrary as a college student.

  105. Adela: Indeed. And in both directions, as my long and self-involved previous comment should indicate.

  106. Is there a way for them to do this without anyone else knowing? Honest question – in my experience, after that sort of exercise, and especially with that sort of coda, everyone is looking around to see who’s going to take the teacher up on their offer

    I used to simply put a blank piece of paper in so it looked like I handed something in whenever it was “optional”. I’d scribble on it or write “did not feel comfortable handing my stuff in” so that it looked like it had writing on it.

  107. I think that one of the things that shows that this quiz is stuck in the 1970’s is that the cost of technology has dropped to the point that even the non-“privileged” classes have access to it. I’m talking here of cell phones, cable TV (at least the lowest basic tier), computers, internet access, etc. Having a cell phone or cable TV in your room just isn’t the indicator of privilege that it was, say, 25 years ago.

  108. I suppose my answer to the following objections to the quiz:

    – it’s super-dated
    – some students will lie (a little or a lot)
    – some students will refuse to participate, either overtly or by silence

    is simply that none of those variables matter much in a classroom setting. This kind of exercise generally creates vibrant discussion, elicits tons of personal interest, and engages the entire class better than anything else we do in the semester (although of course, you need to do the substantive reading and analysis as well, for most of the rest of the semester, to give them a broader understanding of the subject).

    That identity exercise I mentioned previously? It was pretty universally the best part of my class, according to my student evaluations, and from my point of view, it certainly did the most to get the students engaged and (productively) arguing. They left class still talking about the subject, which is the sort of thing that warms the cockles of a teacher’s heart. :-)

  109. I found the meme interesting. I felt the need to comment heavily as John did on my answers in my friends-locked LJ in very similar ways. I was privledged yet most of my privledge was due to being poor enough to qualify for scholarships/financial aid and having parents that knew enough to know that stuff existed and found the time to fill out numerous forms several times a year. What I’ve found more interesting then the meme is people’s responses to it and I’ve been enjoying discussions about it.

  110. Jonathan #115:
    how odd that American academics, scientists, and authors are not automatically in solidarity with the working class, rather than the owner class.

    How do your 9 subclasses map onto “working class” and “owner class?” I’d place the majority of academics and scientists, and probably many authors, in subclass 6 based on education, cultural mores and social expectations, if not raw income. Since that class also contains doctors, lawyers, engineers, and mid-level white collar business positions, it seems as though it might be the lower edge of the “owner” class. If that’s the case, why would anyone expect solidarity with the “workers?”

    I wonder whether stock ownership (in the form of retirement accounts, etc) by people in classes 4-6 blurs the distinction between owning and working classes?

  111. I was bright, and I coasted straight through to college — and pretty much through college as well. Plenty of A’s with no real effort on my part.

    I don’t know what to think about this until I know what major and what school. Basket weaving at Begonia State, or Physics at CalTech? If you coasted through a tough major at a tough school, good for you, but my experience at a top science and engineering school was that even among really bright people there (~1400 average SAT), the great majority of them had to work very hard to get their degrees. There were a few people who seemed to coast, but they were so rare that they’re essentially irrelevant to any meaningful discussion of “intellectual privilege”.

    And does your brightness allow you to coast through life without much effort in the working world?

    My brightness was a huge social advantage, and I didn’t do a damn thing to earn it.

    Well… I still want to know about your home life. A lot of my intellectual development resulted from parents who encouraged it and provided me with the leisure and resources to pursue intellectual interests instead of, for example, getting a job. So at least some of my “brightness privilege” was earned for me via my parents hard work.

    It’s not about cutting down those who started out lucky, but helping to build up those who didn’t.

    But oddly, in practice it always seems to work out more the former than the latter…

    I think it’s fascinating that almost everyone objecting to the list is doing so on the basis of their own experience, with the assumption that they had a hard life, so they weren’t privileged.

    Not me! I openly admit I was privileged. My objection is to the “unearned” assumption.

  112. Lugo:

    She went to the same college I did, and was even there when I was. It’s generally recognized as one of the best, and sometimes the best, undergraduate academic programs in the US. It’s tough enough for you.

  113. Oof, I should’ve guessed that bringing up brightness would turn into some kind of pissing contest. Sigh. If I’d claimed to be pretty, would you want to see photos to determine just how pretty I was, and whether I was pretty enough that you deem it a sufficient advantage in life to be relevant?

    Lugo, I hope John’s proved to you I’m smart enough for you — if not, will telling you I got 790/780 on the analytical/verbal GRE help? (If you really need more, you can always check out my Wikipedia bio.) So, yes, bright. So are a ton of other people — pretty much everyone else in my college with me, for example, which knocked some humility into me, I promise you that. And yes, I coasted through school, and through a variety of jobs in my 20’s as well. Didn’t make a ton of money, since I was trying to be a writer, but didn’t actually have to work hard either to pay rent either. I did the minimum and got by. If I’d wanted a $40K a year job with benefits and health insurance, I could have picked one up within a week, given my college degree.

    It wasn’t until I started taking both writing and academia seriously, deciding I wanted to try to be really good rather than just get comfortably by in life that I had to start working hard. And that’s what my point is — sure, I had to work hard to get to the top of my field.

    But because I happened to be gifted with ‘brightness’, I didn’t have to work hard just to get by. I’ve always known that I could walk into any major English-speaking city in the world and get a decent white-collar job. That’s not true for most of my students, even though they, and their parents, and their grandparents, work damn hard. Many of my students are single parents with full-time jobs, and are still putting themselves through college on nights and weekends and I have no idea how they do it, because it has got to be insanely hard work.

    Do you really want to claim that I’ve somehow earned something that they haven’t?

    And yes, my good fortune is not just brightness — it’s that plus my parents valuing education, and sending me to good schools, and having books in our home and taking me to museums — there are a lot of factors that go into it. That’s my point! I don’t think I deserve credit for ANY of those factors. It was all unearned *by me*. It’s all unearned privilege, as far as I’m concerned.

    And sure, I hope to pass along at least that much unearned privilege to my daughter — the point isn’t to do away with all the good stuff. But I hope that along the way, both I and she put some time and effort into helping others who weren’t as lucky as we were. If we do, *then* I’ll feel like we can take a little credit for that.

    It’s not what you were born with, or what you were given — it’s what you choose to do with what it that counts.

  114. Interesting stuff. I recall reading a book several years (okay maybe 2 decades ago) which divided American society into many classes, which were only partly related to income/financial stability. So, for example, my redneck brother-in-law, who has enough money to own a home and a boat, but who has almost no books, drinks only cheap beer, and has a taste for wall-to-wall carpeting and faux Early American is an entirely different class from a pair of friends (married to each other) who own a home and have some money to spare, more books than their house can hold, and spent a lot on education.
    What I see in the nasty little exercise is mostly something to let those in the solidly middle income/financially stable/liberal class feel good about themselves by playing with things that their poorer fellow-students have to actually deal with. There are a lot of flaws too – we could afford a TV for our child, but won’t put on in his bedroom. In fact, most of the families I know that have TVs in kids’ rooms would generally be in the ‘solidly middle class’ set.
    The list seems dated which made me think of my childhood…
    What do I remember as signs of financial status? Color TV – there was exactly one in my neighborhood in the 60s/70s. Two cars in a family. More than one telephone in a house. A vacation at Disney or a trip to the World’s Fair. Sleepaway camp.
    All these things are much more common now (well, except for the Worlds Fair trip…)
    Looking around now, I’d say that the following are possible dividers:
    upper class stuff:
    owning investments other than retirement ones
    moms who stay home
    private school
    middle class stuff:
    vacations away from home
    cell phones for kids
    working class stuff
    a pretty sure place to live
    fairly regular dental care

  115. I should’ve guessed that bringing up brightness would turn into some kind of pissing contest. Sigh. If I’d claimed to be pretty, would you want to see photos to determine just how pretty I was, and whether I was pretty enough that you deem it a sufficient advantage in life to be relevant?

    Now now, don’t get all angry and defensive. It was a legitimate question. For any given level of intelligence, there is an academic program at some school, somewhere, that a person can cruise through without difficulty, so the simple statement that someone breezed through undergrad is meaningless without context. I dare say one could even construct a program at Chicago that someone much less intelligent than you could get through without much effort.

    And yeah, I need to see that picture. The existence of supermodels doesn’t prove that “ordinarily beautiful” girls can cruise through life without effort. =)

    I hope John’s proved to you I’m smart enough for you — if not, will telling you I got 790/780 on the analytical/verbal GRE help?

    Great, my total was 1540, but somehow I wound up in an undergrad program that was both difficult and demanding. It was what I wanted to do. I certainly could have picked a much easier road (cough, liberal arts, cough). All we have established is that smart people can find a way to challenge themselves in undergrad – or not – depending on their preferences.

    If you really need more, you can always check out my Wikipedia bio.

    Really smart people don’t trust wiki. Not a stable and reliable form of information. =)

    It wasn’t until I started taking both writing and academia seriously, deciding I wanted to try to be really good rather than just get comfortably by in life that I had to start working hard. And that’s what my point is — sure, I had to work hard to get to the top of my field.

    I like that point, since that was my point too, up above.

    I’ve always known that I could walk into any major English-speaking city in the world and get a decent white-collar job.

    You are indeed “privileged”, then, because the average person with a BA in English from Chicago or a comparable school simply cannot do this, period. Not gonna happen. That’s why so many liberal arts majors go to law school.

    Do you really want to claim that I’ve somehow earned something that they haven’t?

    Only you can judge this for yourself. My own smarts have given me options to go to interesting places and do interesting things, but I still had to work damn hard. They didn’t get me anything I didn’t earn by working for it.

    I don’t think I deserve credit for ANY of those factors. It was all unearned *by me*. It’s all unearned privilege, as far as I’m concerned.

    You can tell your parents I give them a lot more credit than you do, then. =)

    Right now I am making choices for my son – choices that cost me a lot of time and money – that will (hopefully) result in him having the “brilliance privilege”. I better not catch him moping around feeling bad because he didn’t “earn” his smarts… I frickin’ paid for them up front. He didn’t earn any of the money that’s going to be in his 529, either, and if some schmuck of a professor tries to make him feel bad about that, that professor and a number of other university officials are going to get a visit from an irate father. I think my son deserves ALL the privileges he’s going to get, because I freely and deliberately chose to earn them myself and give them to him.

    It’s not what you were born with, or what you were given — it’s what you choose to do with what it that counts.

    Couldn’t agree more!

  116. Mary, in my universe gifted is not the same as privileged and your first set of words came across as bragging.

  117. I am resisting the temptation to attack the Northwestern grad. I am resisting the temptation to attack the Northwestern grad….

    The list bothered me, but I didn’t realize the reason why until this morning, when I was poking around Wikipedia and re-encountered Bourdieu’s theories on social, economic, and cultural capital. Some of the items on the list are clearly indicators of cultural capital (books, museums, etc.) and some are indicators of economic capital (heating bill, new cars). While both types of capital do result in a boost in privilege, I’d argue that the boost in privilege you get from cultural capital is significantly different than the boost from economic capital–cultural capital takes a while to appreciate but isn’t easily squandered, whereas economic capital is liquid. Think annuities versus cash. As a teenager, we’re more aware of the “cash” part of the equation, but around college the annuity part begins to look more and more important.

  118. Lugo, one of the things you can give your son is self-reliance in adulthood. It’s not a mark of a grown-up for Daddy to come in and scold one’s university professors.

    That aside, you’re rather deliberately missing Mary’s point, which is the conflation of the parents’ abilities and choices with the child’s.

  119. Vos Post— it’s weird, isn’t it, how local demographics change the meaning of class. I would classify myself and my family as pretty solidly middle-class, yet I’m nowhere near owning a home. Of course, I live in California, so the fact that I’m not willing to plonk down $350K (seven times median income, BTW) for an eighth of an acre and a 3/1 house meant up until last year that I must be crazy, since real estate only goes up.

    Now it means that I have foresight. Heh. But anyway, my point is that there are many people in California who are pretty solidly lower-class by the other indicators in your list who were homeowners, or at least thought they “owned” a home. (Actually, they owned a debt.) And there were and are a great many middle-class types on management paths who are still renting because they looked on the exploding housing market with trepidation, all the while enduring comments from homeowners that they were being foolish and would be priced out forever.

    Okay, I’m a little defensive about it. But I would like to be able to at least rent a home and it’s extremely annoying to be lorded over by credit junkies who have never had a good FICO in their lives.

    Oh, well. I have savings, I have family, I have very good insurance. Someday I too will have storage. And some semblance of a lawn.

    That I will have to mow, since Evil Rob is allergic to grass. :)

  120. I’m not willing to plonk down $350K (seven times median income, BTW) for an eighth of an acre and a 3/1 house

    Only $350K?!

  121. I said: I’ve always known that I could walk into any major English-speaking city in the world and get a decent white-collar job.

    Lugo said: You are indeed “privileged”, then, because the average person with a BA in English from Chicago or a comparable school simply cannot do this, period. Not gonna happen. That’s why so many liberal arts majors go to law school.

    And I think you’re just wrong there — it just depends on what type of job you’re looking for (in a reasonable economic market — I’m not talking during a recession). I’m not talking about fancy professional careers, but for example, a solid office manager position, of which there are a gazillion in any major city, pays about $40K/yr, and requires a good college degree and decent English skills. Sure, there’s not a ton of opportunity for advancement, but you can make enough to pay your family’s rent (possibly with the caveat that you don’t live in S.F. or N.Y.) and other basic expenses, plus having good benefits that cover health insurance. That’s the sort of job I was able to walk into, at age 21 — that’s what my students don’t have, even though a lot of them are in their 30s or 40s and have been working incredibly hard all of their lives.

    And yes, as Mythago says, I give my parents a ton of credit. They worked damn hard to give me the best they could. But I repeat, *I* don’t get any credit for that. And frankly, while I want to give my daughter the best I can, that doesn’t mean that she’s going to get every penny we earn either — we’ll probably help her out with a down payment someday, but a good chunk of any extra money we end up with is going to help other folks, not our immediate family.

    That’s a really interesting defensive element in these conversations, both here and in the classrooms — lots of people who inherited money from a hard-working parent or grandparent (and my partner is one of those who did) tend to react as if I’m saying they’re bad people for having inherited money. Which is ridiculous. All I’m asking is that they acknowledge that getting that money (whether it’s $10,000 or $1,000,000) gave them an advantage (a form of privilege) that a lot of other people don’t have.

    That’s self-evident, no? I’m not asking them to feel guilty about their inheritance — they’re putting that on themselves! One of the challenges of being a mature adult is learning how to gracefully handle the ways in which you’ve gotten lucky in life’s lottery — and having hard-working ancestors is damn lucky for you. Does that make sense?

    And Adela, I agree that it came across as bragging, but I can only plead that Lugo started it. :-)

    I do think that being gifted (in intelligence, or physical skill, or artistic talent) is an unearned privilege, personally, that gives an individual tremendous advantages in life. You are free to disagree.

  122. Actually, wait, I take it back about the bragging. Dang, it’s hard to avoid getting caught in these things, even when you know better.

    Look, one of the toughest parts of discussing class issues is that here in the U.S., at least, we are seriously conditioned to believe and profess that everyone is equal to everyone else. That kind of egalitarian philosophy is at the core of our social interaction.

    But there’s a huge flaw in that philosophy — because it’s really a simplification. It’s not actually that everyone is born with equal talents, abilities, money, etc. That’s patently false. What the philosophy really wants to say is that everyone has an equal right to human dignities, to be considered worthwhile, valuable, a full citizen, etc. But because we tend to think and talk about the shortened version — ‘we’re all equal!’ — there’s tremendous social stigma around admitting that we’re not.

    What’s fascinating in class is that you see very clearly that while there’s a lot of shame around admitting that you were underprivileged in some area — your parents were poor, for example — that there’s *even more* shame around admitting to being overprivileged. My students are *much* more likely to admit out loud that they consider themselves working class, than to admit that they consider themselves upper class — because saying you’re upper class carries the connotation that you think you’re better than everyone else in the room. No one wants to come across that way, so they avoid admitting to the privileges they were born with. And in the classroom we have to really work hard to disengage the facts of class privilege from the idea that one person is better than another, so that we can actually have a frank and honest discussion of class. (You may be more privileged than me in some areas, or have been given some advantages in life — that doesn’t actually make you a better person. Or vice versa. See, it’s not so hard to separate them, once you realize society unconsciously conflates these things.)

    I’d argue that the same thing applies in the conversation above to ‘brightness’ — it’s hard to admit to, it’s awkward to discuss the specifics (pulling out GRE scores), it comes across as bragging or arrogant, but in the end, if you really want to discuss whether brightness makes a difference in the job market, well, you need to talk about some specifics to ground the conversation effectively.

    So I’m bright. Eh. Brightness (or inherited money, or hard-working parents, or a pretty face) doesn’t make me nice, or hard-working myself, or persistent, or kind to small animals (I’m not a vegetarian, for example), or courageous, or thoughtful, or generous, or in any way a good person. I really believe we have to learn to separate the value of those social advantages we were given, from those we can actually claim to have personally earned, in order to have these conversations effectively.

    (John, sorry I have used up so much comment space! Thanks for starting the conversation, and I think your initial reaction was totally understandable — outside a classroom, it’s really not obvious how these quizzes/exercises ought to work. Also, I’m sure there are better ways to jumpstart conversations about class — your ‘Being Poor’ is obviously a good one — but I just wanted to say that this exercise wasn’t totally without merit.)

  123. No need to apologize for helping create such an interesting discussion, Mary Anne.

  124. The entire point of the exercise is to get people thinking and talking about class, and to that end, this was a huge success. Your posts let me know that most of you thought about this. The curious thing to me, and it happens often, is the anger that this generates. That says to me that this is an important discussion point.

    This is a simple list of things that happen more often among families with resources (economic, cultural, social, academic) than among families without resources. Us ‘ivory tower’ types spend a lot of time listening to other people and paying attention to the world at large, so this is not any bogus collection of silly statements, neither is it meant to be fully inclusive. It is meant only to start a discussion, and well, it did.

    Thanks for all of your comments.


  125. A thought – it seems like the concept of “unearned” here is getting conflated with “undeserved”, and that may well be where a lot of the defensiveness is coming from: the idea that you only deserve what you, yourself, have rightfully earned, and that anything else is stealing.

  126. All (well, 99.9997%) of all online discussions about privilege inevitably boil down to this paragraph:

    “Your life might have sucked, yes, but my life sucked much much MUCH worse, so much so that any attempt to compare your piddling and wholly inconsequential suckage to my monumental and unique suckage are offensive and in fact biased. Furthermore, your position in life is based upon your privilege, while I earned my status in life entirely by merit and by heroically overcoming the many obstacles imposed by your privilege. In conclusion, you just don’t get it, so STFU.”

    People could just copy and paste this at each other. They’ll be saying exactly the same thing, and society as a whole will save millions of dollars on carpal tunnel treatments.

  127. Then after everyone realizes we’re all saying pretty much the same thing, we as a society decide to make the Privilege Pie bigger in general so that everyone can have a good-sized slice.

  128. I highly recommend that people interested in this topic read “Class” — a book by Paul Fussell. While a bit dated (having been published in 1983), it is filled with better indicators of class status in the US than is the questionnaire referenced above. It is also hilarious.

  129. I do think that books in the house are a useful indicator of social status, perhaps even more so than any number indicating income or wealth.

  130. My objections would be that the quiz is 1) outdated, and 2) so unfocused and muddle-headed that it doesn’t have any idea of what it means by “privilege”.

    The term itself is loaded and has connotations of legal or organizational privilege; some people get to do X by right, and more importantly some people are _prohibited_ from doing X by some organization or group. Nobody is really standing at the door of the public library checking last year’s 1040’s of the children’s parents to make sure the AGI line is acceptable.

    The quiz swerves between economic and cultural markers of class. The economic markers are often outdated or simply misguided to begin with. Even in the late 70’s and 80’s not having a TV was probably more a marker of upper middle class academics rather than poverty. That probably has been the case since the 60’s or early 70’s. Today you can’t go into a single-wide without tripping over the big screen.

    I don’t think the authors have a clear idea of what they’re talking about, and as a result the quiz doesn’t really measure anything.

  131. I would be able to answer yes to most of those question. And I went to Yale Law School. So I am privileged, right?

    Um, except that I have three learning disabilities, i faced such severe discrimination in high school that i dropped out. then i went on to get my GED, get a degree in history at a low-ranked state school and went on to Yale Law School.

    The problem that has plagued modern socialism/communism from the start is that it always comes from people who don’t understanding anything about the lives of regular people.

    Btw, as a bonus, it was our socialized school system that discriminated against me, but it was for profit education that saved me.

  132. “Why are you getting defensive, it’s a learning exercise?” Riiiiight. And how many marxists activists spit out privilege again and again as an epithet, threat, and ad hominem? Notice how many are doing so right in this thread?

    “I have a slow metabolism” – no you have an impulse control problem. “I have brown skin, and thus am discriminated against” – if you mean south asian I really, truly doubt it. Unless you mean by the leftist administrations who decide that they need to discriminate against east asians and south asian because they screw up the desired ethnic makeup.

    As for having SAT prep – err no, you only get SAT prep if you are lacking intellectually. Lots of people won’t take those classes because they are already 99th percentile – 1550 vs 1600 isn’t a useful distinction, is likely to be changed simply by taking the test again, and not worth spending so much time and money. Much better to stick with your normal schedule and make your resume that much better for college. I do laugh at anyone at ISU taking an SAT prep course – it obviously didn’t take or else they are severely mentally challenged.

  133. Why the $%^ are academics wasting their students’ lives with this cr=p?

    Seriously, the fact that people’s lives were spent in this exercise–which harkens to some Cultural Revolution village meeting accounts–leaves me shaking my head.

    Colleges need a serious retooling.

  134. I use a variation of this in my high school western civilization class. It is a good tool but must be used thoughtfully (dental care and medical care are important) and not to denigrate the children in the front but let all the students know they can make it to the “front” for their children. And for the ones in the “front” I tell them to go home and thank their parents for doing it right.
    I also show how civilizations who are more equipped to progress do so because they allow more people to the “front” through free markets and democracy.

  135. Like the column. What is it with Class? I work at Home Depot in desert area of SoCal. Also extreme northern NY in summer. Customers are immigrants, legal and illegal, millionaire retirees, working stiff retirees, farmers, plumbers, housewives, college kids. Some have confidence, savior faire, others are shlubs. I had a kid about 12 yesterday redoing his mom’s sink drain. Rational, straight forward, translating to Spanish. Came back to me twice for more info. He had class. He comes from an aspiring group notable for hard work and focus. These people are not kidding around about getting ahead. They take steps forward for their own good reasons. They are not obviously held back from moving away from low economic status.

    The brothers, cousins of aspirants are embodying values that will create what they seek — they work two jobs, three jobs? My coworkers, much younger, do. I do.

    The millionaires vary. Some are down to earth, polite, respectful. Even have politician-like smoothness and repose. Nothing ruffles them. Others are highly irritating — suggesting they are of some better stuff. Dismissive, abrupt.

    But so are some contractors, handy men, college kids.

    To me the elements that matter in the class discussion have to do with actions, attitudes. People who achieve are familiar with the better sides of the spectra. They can figure this out.

    People are getting ahead all day, every day. Why worry if your ancestors were cavemen or pirates? What is going to happen now and tomorrow is what counts.

  136. My girlfriend who is the oldest of ten kids in an immigrant family often gets frustrated with the other students that she goes to school with. One day when I was reminding her that if they blow off school or don’t take it as seriously as she does (while working full time), it’s there problem and not to let it get to her. She commented that it just frustrated her that all these kids were never denied anything significant. It struck me. I remember when my family had less money, before my dad started a successful business. I remember drinking powdered milk (it’s horrible), but really, I never wanted for anything beyond the purely material.
    My sweetheart has been the babysitter her entire life for her nine younger siblings. When he father was injured on the job when she was 14, she left school for homeschool, primarily to help with the family and family business. She made the basketball team her freshman year, but couldn’t do it because no one could give her rides to and from practice. etc.
    I marvel at how wealthy this country really is, even just compared to our parents generation. Growing up in a rural community also provided me the unique opportunity to grow up with people who truly weren’t privileged. (if you ever meet an American with ‘snaggle teeth,’ realize that it means that their parents couldn’t afford something that the vast majority of the country takes for granted).

  137. High school class?!

    Man, that is it. I am running for local school board to hammer any of this stuff flatter than stomped sh-t. I cannot believe people are making adolescents publicly reveal facts about their family’s material circumstances as part of some consciousness-raising nonsense.

    What is next, a little group encounter therapy about parental alcoholism? Make sure you ask for participation from Jimmy, who every knows has a boozy dad…

    I have a family full of public school teachers. Great people. I cannot imagine any of them asking kids to reveal such things in class. They would be horrified at putting kids in this position.

    For those of you thinking this is okay, how about this: teachers must first disclose to the students and their parents the teacher’s own personal financial circumstances. Everything: credit card debt, student loans, morgage terms, FICO score and reports, how money is spent and where.

    hey, if a teacher gets to tell (recall: teachers are authority figures) kids to reveal facts about mom’s money, doesn’t that kid and mom have a right to quid pro quo and then some, since the teacher is an authority figure requiring this activity? (Oh and no, “this is voluntary” stuff. It takes much for most teens to say “no” to a teacher.)

    There are certain privacy bounds that exist to protect people from even the expectation of disclosure. Asking adolescent students to publicly reveal facts about their parents’ wealth levels is surely pole-vaulting over one such barrier.

  138. I don’t know that this is true, but my wife says (can’t check this, we’re on Long Island now) Chicago museums and zoos are free, under the following circumstances: (see #12 way way above):

    You need knowledge, and a local library card. Go to your local (Chicagoland(TM) ) library, and ask for their museum pass. They will give you what amounts to a free pass to the museums. Ask your local librarian for the fine print, and I’m not sure if it works outside of Chicago city limits (read: Greater Daleyland) but the Chicago Public Library system web page should have details.

    What I know about Chicago culture is this: The world’s best pizza is at 29 E. Ohio Street in the Loop.

  139. I’m convinced that the most important element for developing your intelligence to the fullest is to read early and often. I taught myself when I was three or so.

    Correspondingly, I see “books in the home” not as an indicator of high class, but as a sign that one is far less likely to be an idiot (and a boring one, at that).

  140. Well Mary one can be gifted but that alone isn’t enough and even with working your ass off it still might not be enough. The privilege would be the opportunities to fulfill the gift. It also takes extreme circumstances to take away or loose a gift. Privilege disappears at the drop of a hat.
    And as a world leader demonstrates one can be utterly ungifted and do next to nothing but because of privilege can have everything.

  141. A few random thoughts sparked by various comments:

    1) It’s the kiss of death socially to say that one is intelligent. After much thought on the subject, I believe that it’s not so much because Americans are prone to want people to be “one of the guys” so much as it is a result of the phrase “I’m intelligent” being used in a defensive fashion. That is, people say, “I’m intelligent” and then go on to prove the contrary.

    Me, I’m theoretically the smart one in my family, yet it is my brother (who resented me being “the smart one”) who is the rocket scientist. And on the subject of IQ, I once heard that anything above 120 is essentially useless because the person taking the test is almost certainly smarter than the person writing it. And since I laughed my way through a Mensa quiz book once (an average of two errors in each twenty-question test indicates somebody wasn’t smart enough to hire a copyeditor), I think that’s likely true. Smart ? Wise.

    2. A few years back, I was working in a bookstore. On my lunch I was having a discussion with a coworker (a gentleman whose political ideas were very nearly opposite mine, but who agreed that reasoned discussion and listening were the way to go) about a site I’d recently found that documented photographs of racial lynchings in the first half of the twentieth century. A third coworker (a very sweet and sarcastic girl who was all of twenty) came in, listened for a few minutes, and burst in, “But why didn’t they just move?” We tried to explain about poverty, and inheritance of property, and the fact that moving probably wouldn’t have helped, but by the end she was still completely baffled.

    After she left, I turned to the guy and said, “She’s never been hungry.” He nodded, and we moved on.

    I see a lot of this— I work with a photography studio and one of our clients is the most upscale public high school in the area. If you speak with the teachers you hear similar things, how the students have no concept of life being hard, of not going to Europe every summer, of needing to keep track of things so that they don’t need to be replaced. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me that money was tight, but I was always very conscious of taking good care of my clothes because we didn’t shop for them very often. A lot of these kids will leave socks, or hair ties, or shoes everywhere because it’s less bother for them to get new ones than to keep track of the ones they have.

    Sometimes privilege is very unconscious. Sometimes it’s just the result of someone never having been hungry.

  142. I liked the “have been to Europe” one. My two sons adopted from Romania as teenagers have been to Europe. Half the housekeeping staff where I work have been to Europe – ex-Yugoslavic countries specifically. My dirt-poor missionary friends have had their kids to Europe many times, on two or three night layovers sleeping in church basements while on their way to Senegal.

    This list is a party game for college students. It would be a great icebreaker as the beer arrived, wouldn’t it?

  143. And, btw, what “privilege” does having gone to Europe confer? It’s nice and all, but, in the final analysis, so what?

  144. Thanks for this. John Derbyshire took the piss out of one of these things some time ago:


    On the one hand I’m glad that academics are willing to discuss social class in America. Race may be our national obsession, but class is our dirty little secret.

    On the other hand it’s utterly disheartening how the people who thought up this crap steadfastly refuse to recognize any distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive use of “class,” between “upper middle/working class” and “that was a classy/classless move.”

    If I may indulge in a personal example: I suppose I grew up upper-middle class. But looking back I perceive that my parents valued some things more than others. They took my brother and me to libraries and museums, and sacrificed to us to private school and to summer camp, and to allow us to play hockey. In other words, they valued education (including physical education). What they did NOT do was give us cars, buy us stylish clothes, give us each televisions, stereos, or telephones, or take us on expensive vacations. We were not allowed to be “cool,” for which I’m now quite grateful.

    The designers of this fatuous exercise say that “no one has permission to accuse any one or any group of anything” at the end of it, but from the title it’s pretty apparent that they want people of “privilege” to feel self-conscious and (hopefully) guilty about it, while those who are “unprivileged” to feel “angry.”

    I’d love to see the day when people WHOSE PARENTS DID WHAT PARENTS ARE SUPPOSED TO DO are not cast as “privileged,” but as “normal,” while those whose parents didn’t are cast as “horribly deprived.”

    What is really annoying is when people at university, who as the putative guardians of civilization should presumably value students who prepared for the experience, instead choose to denigrate them. Wankers!

  145. Ernst.
    It takes some resources and freedom to travel and it is a benefit to have exposure to other places and cultures rather than build all your life experience around one location. So there is a privilege in going to far away lands. Europe as the chosen destination though just reinforces the lame out of date stereotypes of the test since Europe as The meaningful culture enrichment is that Blue Blood tradition.

  146. If you give this quiz to college freshmen and end with a stinger along the lines of “The people in the back of the room had to work much harder than the people in the front of the room,” aren’t you ignoring the very large and not often explicitly quantified privilege that is inserted at the time of college admissions?

    Especially if your college uses a points based affirmative action program, you could quite easily ask students to take x steps forward if they belong to y group. Or if that’s too controversial, have students take z steps forward for every 10 points they missed on the SAT.

    The point of the argument isn’t to argue against affirmative action, but to make the point that colleges explicitly try to balance the kind of privileges found in questionaires like this by adjusting admissions standards. If you had a questionaire that listed _all_ privileges, balanced appropriately, my guess is that the class of freshmen at any particular school would end up bunched pretty closely at the end of the test.

  147. Yes, I get pretty angry about this kind of thing, but not for the reasons others have been mentioning. It’s because someone is going to stick me in a higher class than was actually the case. For example, #105 would put me in upper-middle class because my parents are white collar rather than blue collar. But in fact, they were low-level clerks, and I always thought of us as lower-middle class. Or #83, who would apparently treat me as a Rockefeller because I flush my toilet with potable water.

    Another reason for being angry is that probably the professor who gives this comes from a higher background than me. I tried and failed to get a career in academia. I was blocked by people from wealthier backgrounds than mine. So to have someone like this professor trying to get me to acknowledge privileges really takes the cake.

    Then there are the odd markers that are used, which others have already commented on. Let me note that I went to summer camp, Boy Scout camp in particular. I think it’s pretty strange to think of Boy Scout camp as a mark of privilege. And with respect to staying in hotels: how about motels or cabins? Isn’t that in between staying in hotels and staying with relatives? It’s not even mentioned.

    As for this being an exercise in trying to start a discussion, I have a feeling that anything said that contradicted what the professor believed would be dismissed by him or her, who would assume the student was trying to wreck the class or something.

  148. Oh, and another thing, Mary Anne said: “I’ve always known that I could walk into any major English-speaking city in the world and get a decent white-collar job.”

    Someone said that you are privileged if you can do that, and you said you weren’t. You made it clear that you didn’t mean a high-salary job with lots of potential for advancement, but something lower down.

    But I would still say you are privileged, though not in a way that you might recognize or that anyone has yet mentioned. I doubt if I could get that sort of job, simply because much of the time it involves people skills (or something else that is not related to education) that I don’t have and never will. And having those skills is itself a privilege.

  149. Having spent some time assigned to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia, and the PRC, I become a little edgy when those in authority start asking about one’s class origins…

  150. Adela: does spending two weeks in France really “privilege” anyone at Indiana State in a realistic way that the high school French or Spanish club does not? It’s nice and all, but it’s hardly a resume item.

    The authors use the term “privilege” without defining it in a non-circular way. The connotation is that privilege entitles you to break or ignore rules others must follow, and the authors are happy to let that impression sit, though they also don’t explicitly adopt it. A closer term for the facts they describe is probably “advantage” or “benefit”, but even then their examples are often out of date, inapropos or trivial. What sort of advantage does flying on a commercial airline before age 16 confer, particularly in this age of cheap airfares? Does having your own $50 TV really confer an advantage? How about a $500 PS3? What advantage, if any, does going on a cruise provide you? Even if you make it an argument about experiencing other cultures, it’s still confusing the issue by privileging (heh) boat travel over air travel as a way to get to where those cultures are.

    If you simply switch the term to the less loaded one “benefit”, much of the critique evaporates. Without the undertone of class guilt and class envy, most of the items are exposed as superficial.

  151. My husband grew up as the great grandson of a Robber Baron. His academic parents ignored most standard medical care for their 5 kids, didn’t have a TV, and took vacations that ranged from camping to staying in the villas of family friends. Where does he fall?

    And the nanny read the books to the children.

    The social class knowledge thing is skewed to Anglophiles. Most Americans don’t shoot with Purdy’s, even at private game reserves.

  152. Mary Anne said that a competent sociologist would be able to point at the research underlying this exercise, but since I fell off the academic track to fight terrorists, I’m an incompetent one at best. However, my focus was on the sociology of marriage and the family, and social class figures into that pretty heavily, so I do have at least have a pretty good idea about how the subject is viewed through the lens of sociology.

    This exercise is more a work of propaganda than scholarship. The big tip-off is the use of the term “privilege”, which is meant to frame the subject of social class in a certain way in order to generate a certain emotional response. The use of this term has become all the rage among critical theorists and social psychologists since it was discovered that framing the issue of racial inequality as “white privilege” instead of “non-white disadvantage” generated a greater feeling of collective guilt among whites. (See “Inequality as Ingroup Privilege or Outgroup Disadvantage: The Impact of Group Focus on Collective Guilt and Interracial Attitudes” by Powell, Branscombe and Schmitt.)

    In discussions of inequality, “privilege” is a heavily loaded term, and its use here is not accidental. The point of this exercise is to instill a sense of collective class-based guilt in those who score “higher”, while generating a sense of class-based resentment among those who score “lower”. The fact that people at both ends feel humiliated, defensive, and angry at the end isn’t an unfortunate side effect — it’s the whole point of the exercise.

    It’s agitprop.

    And, no. Most of the indicators on the list aren’t particularly useful measures of social class, at least as the concept is understood from a sociological perspective. It’s not that many of the indicators are outdated, it’s that they’re not meant to be measures of social class. They’re supposed to put a bunch of students closer to one side of the room, and keep a bunch of others closer to their starting point. That’s what they’re calibrated to do, and that’s what they do.

  153. Oh yeah! Before I forget:

    Notice how quickly “privilege” took hold on this thread as the lens through which to view inequality. At first, the discussion was about “privilege” as it related to higher social class, but soon people were talking about those who merely *lack* physical or psychological disabilities as “privileged”. Those with high metabolisms enjoy a “privilege”. Those with healthy bodies enjoy a “privilege”. Those with the social skill necessary to obtain employment enjoy a “privilege”.

    As a result, the meaning of the word “privilege” went from being a special advantage enjoyed by some to the absence of a disadvantage that others suffer from. But even as the meaning changed, the negative associations remained.

    Something to think about.

  154. Sorry I did not have time to real all the comments, so someone may have beat me to it. My grandparents were working class, my parents achieved middle to upper middle class status. My kids are definitely upper middle class. But priviledged? — no way. Sadly spoiled, but not priviledged.

    I have known many priviledged people in my life and they have all been clearly characterized by one striking attitude. None of them have ever faced what H. L. Mecken refered to as the “haunting fear of all young men” — to wit: what am I going to do with my life; what am I going to do to survive; and, will I succeed.

    None of the truly priviledged people I have know ever feared about what they would have to do for a living. The mundane anxieties of day to day life were just not an issue for them.


  155. If the list of questions was such malarkey, why are there 158 posts? Is it really that hard to accept that some people have unearned advantages, whether they are due to old money or the efforts of an ambitious parent?

  156. Artemus says: “If the list of questions was such malarkey, why are there 158 posts?”

    To show in detail why the list was such malarkey.

    “Is it really that hard to accept that some people have unearned advantages, whether they are due to old money or the efforts of an ambitious parent?”

    Did you actually read any of the posts? There were some people on this list who acknowledged unearned advantages.

    As for me, as I already explained, my concerns are about being perceived as much higher than I actually was and that the professors who use this list are likely themselves to come from a higher class than I do. Academia is filled with people from wealthy backgrounds. They make a big deal about having diversity in terms of race and gender, but never in terms of economic class. Do we even need to ask why?

  157. Dental care isn’t a very good marker of “privilege.” Its absence is a sign of a lack of privilege, to be sure, but that’s not the same thing.

  158. Artemus:

    The list doesn’t center on unearned advantages, it focuses primarily on fairly trivial measures of family wealth and, as a result, it gets a lot of things very wrong. By using the loaded language of “privilege” to describe these trivial measures, the exercise’s authors seek to communicate their lesson through the use of strong negative emotions, not reason. This makes it an effective tool for indoctrination, while its utility as a teaching or learning aid is suspect.

  159. I had very few friends growing up, and still have very few. Anyone with many friends they have kept through their lives I would consider privileged.

    One of my step-fathers drank and beat on my mom and me. I would consider anyone whose father did not beat them up whilst drunk privileged.

    I didn’t meet my dad until I was 28.
    I didn’t have a TV in my bedroom until I got my own room at 17.
    I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 17.
    I didn’t get to go to a decent high school because of busing regulations.
    I never finished college (but I did get an associates degree.)
    I only got to go to Europe because I joined the Navy.
    For almost a year, I was unemployed (not for lack of trying) and my friends had to buy me food. I managed to keep the electricity on and a roof over my and my brother’s heads.

    My wife is a different story. She’s a vet and comes from a wealthy family (even though she doesn’t think of them that way.)

    Privilege is what one thinks of as privilege. Generally it pertains to what they didn’t have but wanted, and since someone else has it, they consider that other person privileged. It’s a completely subjective concept viewed solely from the person who feels left out.

    In some ways I’m more, some ways I’m less. Same with everybody. I think it is a ridiculous thing to even pay attention to for longer than it takes to suck it up and move forward with your own life. People need to stop measuring their lives against others.

    Stop tending to my backyard when yours needs a good weeding, I say.

  160. Just for the record: Indiana State University is NOT Indiana University. Indiana State U is in Terre Haute, Indiana University is in Bloomington. Indiana State U is known for Larry Bird, Indiana University is known for Joshua Bell (among others). And I cannot imagine any student at Indiana State having to get SAT prep to get admitted there.

  161. Evidently I went from unprivileged to privileged courtesy of the Vietnam era draft. Money for college, see the world, stay in a hotel, fly to exotic countries, own a car, tv… $128.50 a month to start. I did, however, always have books.

    I’m only semi-kidding. I’m not the audience for this survey, my kids are. They have it materially easier than I did, but they all ended up with student loans and had most of the electronic toys…

    I don’t really see where these differences are important. The Marine Corps certainly never cared.

  162. It’s kind of informative that, while the actual quiz assumes that anger will be the primary response of anyone reading the quiz, a more refined answer is instead, “NO U”. If you look from a high enough altitude, the folks here berating the list-makers for their “PC crap” and the imaginary upper-middle class college student protesting that other people might be privileged, but not them… look a lot alike.

  163. What makes you think this was developed by “academics”? It sounds like student-life/residence-life administrators did it. If it’s applied to all incoming students, then it’s definitely not a part of the curriculum but is part of the typically-lame dorm intro. It’s not worth getting alarmed over unless you think the higher-ups allow it to continue.

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