So after skimming scores of these things this week, I’m left wondering: How is it that so many people can simultaneously disdain the poor and working class while also pretending to live in solidarity with “real” people who had to work for everything that they have? To argue that while they simultaneously enjoyed a great deal of material privilege growing up, they are not “privileged” people because their parents worked hard for what they had?
How, in this age of multi-media and instantaneous communication, have so many people grown up oblivious to the circumstances of other people’s lives?
And in the end, how do we explain all of this defensiveness among those who clearly have attained the Great American Dream?
Why has this struck such a collective nerve?
Jane Van Galen, Education and Class, January 4, 2008
A few days ago, I lamented the absence of more diverse voices among the gigabites of text generated by the Privilege Meme.
I stand humbly corrected by the The Paper Chase and My Private Casbah bloggers, who enrich the discourse with complex dimensions of gender, race, rurality, and geography.
Jane Van Galen, Education and Class, January 9, 2008
I am always a little hesitant to discuss things like this– memes, in all honesty, often just look like short term fads to me. Still, I think Van Galen’s posts are worth reading, and the links are worth following as well. Her first post is a somewhat anguished summary of the initial conversation (via comments) on the Social Class and Quakers blog. Her second post offers a small reprieve from the bleakness.
The original idea is a simple list of things that illustrate a certain kind of material privilege, such as books in the home, mom or dad with a college degree, a relative who’s a professional, and so on. Much of the talk on the SCQ blog seems to reflect the great American myth of the self-made man, now updated to include women, I guess. Everyone wants to claim that because they or their family worked hard, they were not well off, etc.
Oddly, I think this list makes my family seems much less privileged than we were! My father had a college degree, but not my mom. We had only a few books in the home, but none of my relatives were educated professionals. We had original art on the wall because my Uncle Elbert painted when he was young. In fact, there are very few other items on the list I could claim.
I think I feel privileged now and look back on my childhood as relatively affluent for several reasons. In some senses my father, despite working as an accountant, never became middle class culturally, in the negative sense. We were never really involved in the consumer rat race of the 60s in this sense. So, for example, when he gave me his 1964 Dodge Dart I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I thought the kids with the new cars had it all wrong.
I also think that when I look back now I have a wider set of reference points. I lived in the Philippines, so I have a good idea of what poverty is like. I lived in a neighborhood with good roads; I got all of my vaccines when I needed them to go to school; I had my own room. (That was mostly because of gender: my three sisters had to share.) I also know a lot more about the kind of poverty my father faced as the son of tenant farmer in Mississippi in the 1920s and 30s.
I also know the poverty of my mother’s family, living in Louisiana. This too, gets complicated, though. We were immersed, as kids, by Cajun culture, which is all about being very smart about not having much at all. We ate all of the foods that the rich folks disdained, as the cliché goes; well, until the 1970s or so when our culture got commercialized. We all lived in one giant extended family, again, at least until we older. Our real privilege was a pride in who we were, utterly separate from what we owned.
Thanks for reading as I tried to make sense of all of this. I don’t usually pay much attention to the many memes, but this one went well beyond the usual simple (and often silly) answers to some pretty intense discussion about the very existence of privilege.
Much of the discussion on the Quaker blog was thoughtful and reflective. After the meme went viral, though, things started getting much more intense. it was fascinating.