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.”