Saturday, January 12, 2008

Shedding my Class Privilege Denial

Over at the Education and Class blog, Jane Van Galen has a lot to say about the Social Class Awareness exercise (created by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, and Stacy Ploskonka) that has been making the rounds on the blogosphere since last November. She laments the lack of diversity among those who have written about it and points out how some people seem to have completely misunderstood the purpose of this project and chose to use it as a means of denying their privileged backgrounds. She also wonders why this particular exercise has suddenly become such a hot topic for so many people.

Even though we can never be sure, I think that one of the reasons why this exercise went viral is because it was created for college students and many bloggers are within this age group (or slightly above it). It seems to have brought out some really intense emotions that cut to the core of what people in this country truly value and see as worthy of being rewarded.

I suspect that the nearly universal denial that she witnessed may have something to do with how we (Americans) are taught to envision ourselves. We're supposed to be a nation of hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps pioneers. We are constantly fed the idea that the "American Dream" is attainable for us all if we just work hard enough.

Somewhere along the line, I think people started assuming that those who do seem to have achieved the "American Dream" must have gotten there because they worked hard, which isn't necessarily the case. I think it's easy for those (of us?) who are enjoying the American Dream to imagine that we somehow earned what we have because acknowledging the alternative--that what we have isn't necessarily the fruit of our own labor--might threaten our ability to enjoy the privileges that we've come to see as necessities.

This exercise is a real eye-opener for me. Yes, I'm black and I have multiple disabilities (cancer, lupus, asthma). My mother and father divorced, so my siblings and I were all latch-key kids and the children of a single-parent family for many years. I had a child out of wedlock just out of high school. Like my mother, I was also a single parent for many years. However, these facts don't even begin to tell the complete story about my privilege.

My maternal grandfather had a college degree. How many black people in his age group were able to attend and graduate from an university? He came from a family that was fairly affluent, especially for black people. That probably helped a lot. Of course, that isn't the whole story either. From all that I know, my grandfather always considered himself black, end of story. However, most people today would probably consider him white. In fact, even back then, his claims were considered rather tenuous.

At one point, the military dishonorably discharged him because he wouldn't follow orders and say that he was white and not black. The reason why his race became an issue for the military is because he was promoted several times and, eventually, he had attained a higher rank than some of the white soldiers that he worked alongside. However, no one was really noticed the fact that his records had him listed as "black", so he got rank promotions that he never would have received if he had been known as a black soldier. The military decided that they simply couldn't have a black soldier ordering white soldiers around, so they tried to force him to claim the records that stated he was black were all a big mistake, an error. That would be easier to deal with than it would be to try and explain how this had all occurred in the first place. When he wouldn't go along with it, he was dishonorably discharged.

He had to fight for many years in order to get that dishonorable discharge changed to an honorable discharge and this took a huge, permanent, emotional toll on him. However, his life still involves a great deal of class privilege.

My grandfather could pass as white. He had the education and looks that made it possible for him to achieve things that other blacks couldn't (or couldn't do as easily as he was able to). As a result, he was able to pass on some of the benefits of those advantages to his own children. My mother and her siblings had a college-educated father at home throughout their school years.

On my paternal side of the family, my father's parent's owned their own home and their own business. My father was raised in a household where there was plenty of food and a focus on getting an education. My paternal grandfather never got the opportunity to even finish middle school because he had to go to work to help his parents support the family, but he managed to go on to become a successful businessman despite those humble beginnings. I never saw the fact that my grandfather owned his own business as a big deal because that business was towing and salvage and, in my mind, that meant "hauling trash".

My grandmother is the shrewdest woman I've ever met. Ever since I was young, she's talked to me about what it takes to survive in this world as a woman. There isn't a single thing in the world that my grandmother doesn't consider practically. When it came to how to deal with school, with men, with my disabilities, with my out-of-wedlock child, everything she told me was grounded in the unflinching reality of the situation.

My grandparents fed everyone. My grandmother was always inviting people over for dinner and then telling them that she had bought a bunch of this or that food and now she had too much to keep in her pantry. She would say that she didn't want to be wasteful and wondered if they might mind taking it home. She would do it with us, too. It was just the way she was. Even now, you can't go to her house and not leave with groceries. I think it comes from experiencing so many years of want as a child. She was one of the oldest of her siblings and after their mother died, she stepped in and filled the void. She has a lot of health problems now and I suspect that a lot of it has to do with all of the strain and deprivation she experienced when she was younger.

Eventually, my grandparents got out of the towing business and started buying property. Right now they own houses all around New Orleans and they even own an apartment complex. That sounds so privileged that I want so-oo-oo badly to "explain" that it's just a single building with four units and it's in a rough part of town and they don't rent for much so it's not like they are making a lot of money off of them. But you know what? I'm sure that just sounds like a whole lot of denial of privilege. I mean, who am I kidding? My grandparents only have two kids: my dad and his brother. My uncle doesn't have any kids or a wife, so there's a very good chance that me and my siblings are going to end up benefiting from this stuff at some point.

And even though I can say that I never receive any money from my grandparents and I'd never ask them for any, that's a sign of privilege too, isn't it? I mean, if I were poor enough, then I'm sure I'd change my mind about that "I'd never ask" stuff. Furthermore, simply having them to fall back on means I'm privileged.

Even if I were no longer able to afford the apartment that I live in, with grandparents who own property, do you think there's any chance I'd ever be homeless? Judging from some of the antics that have gone on with some of my relatives, I am very certain that there is almost nothing that I could do that would result in my family allowing me to live on the streets or "couch-hopping" (I don't know what term other people call it when you are basically making the rounds, sleeping at each of your friend's houses a few nights at a time and then rotating to another friend's place).

If I was wanted for murder, they might let me stay some place for a few days while they helped me find a lawyer, but their religious and ethical beliefs wouldn't allow them to house me on a permanent basis if I was a fugitive from the law. Of course, if I did get in trouble with the law, I'd still be able to benefit from my class privilege because, on my dad's side, we have family and family friends that could possibly help to mitigate the situation in some way or another.

Once when I was a freshman in high school, I got the bright idea that I would steal some cute novelty ink pens from a store in the mall. The store owner caught me and called the mall security. Security called my mother and let her come and pick me up without calling the police. They just told me to stay out of the mall until I was eighteen and left it at that.

What if I had a parent that couldn't or wouldn't come down and assure the security that I'd be dealt with harshly at home? What if I wasn't a nicely dressed girl that obviously could have afforded to pay for what I was stealing? The point is, I didn't have to find out. I know lots of kids who were sent to Juvenile Hall for shoplifting stuff that they actually needed. There's no reason why they didn't deserve a break like the one I received.

Lastly, it would be remiss of me to leave out the fact that I am a citizen of the U.S.A. by birth. I was born here and that gives me a huge advantage over those who, no matter how hard they work and how smart they are, are not recognized as deserving of the same treatment that I have a legal "right" to. I can wake up every morning without having to deal with the very real threat of being shipped off to another country against my will.

I know it's just a start but I wanted to create this post as a way of acknowledging my class privilege and recognizing how it has helped me get to where I am today. I welcome any thoughts about what I've said, even and especially those that are critical of what I've written.


Jane said...


I think that this is exactly the kind of deeper thinking about privilege that the authors of that original exercise were hoping to generate. So many people used that meme as some sort of score keeping game that would let them say "I Am" or "I'm Not", as if privilege could be thought of as occurring along a single dimension.

You write so well about how much more complicated this all is. Race will always be part of this, of course, as will gender. And your illnesses certainly shape your life experiences. And the relative amount of economic security you've described can well shape choices/risks taken/one's sense of security...

And social norms are different in the south than in the north, and New Orleans has its own cultural fabric like none other, right?

So are you "privileged" or not?

Of course the answer is Yes, just as clearly as it's No, and your post helps us all to think much more carefully about all of this.

Your grandparents sound like amazing people. And their granddaughter is amazingly willing to write candidly to push all of our thinking.

I'm very glad to have found your blog.


Education and Class

Jeanne said...


Ditto to Jane's comments about your post. Kudos to you.

I was the person who originally adapted the exercise specifically for my audience: Quakers. I never knew it would spread as far and wide as it has done. I also never knew it would evoke such strong reactions.

Thanks for adding your very thoughtful voice to the chorus.

Jeanne at the QuakerClass blog