Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Hugely privileged.

Filed under: challenges and memes — alison @ 08:01

Alston has invited his readers to do the ‘privilege’ meme. It was designed as an exercise for students at the University of Indiana. Students line up together and for each Yes answer they take a step forward. At the end of the exercise, some students have taken quite a few steps. This represents the head start in getting to college that they had over the students who stay close to the original line. Discussion, anger and rationalisation ensue.

An interesting aspect of the exercise is that it’s for college students, so doesn’t include getting to college as a step. (I would hope that the discussion includes those who will never be in that room.)

I am hugely privileged. I knew that: the results of this exercise are no surprise to me. I would have used different criteria in the exercise myself, and my criteria would show me to be even more privileged.

My eye-opening experiences in college were with respect to entitlement. Despite my enormous privilege, I wasn’t prepared for the sense of many of my classmates that the world belonged to them. People who assumed that the position of CEO was theirs – not by right exactly. They’d still have to demonstrate to the board that the position was theirs. But it was what people like them did.

Utz I could deal with: “I know I have more money than most people, so I’m careful. When I go out with someone who doesn’t have money, I take maybe $250 in cash with me. That reminds me that I have limits. If I brought my credit card, I might end up offending my friend by doing something like buying a motorcycle on impulse. If I only have cash, I have to think before I spend.” (This was in 1981, so substitute $578 in today’s currency.) See, Utz had money but he didn’t think the world was his by right. He was always worrying about his place in it. (Well, actually I couldn’t really deal with Utz. I didn’t judge him, but left him to his anxieties and self-doubt. The problems of having too much money were not ones I could relate to or cared to contemplate.)

But this other woman whose name I have erased from my memory? “Don’t worry about Jimmy. Look, he only wants a union in the kitchen because he’d be paid more. But he’s not paid more because he doesn’t deserve more. That’s how it works.” Um, no.

Jimmy ran the dish belt in the kitchen where I worked. He quit school at eight to work in the cotton fields of Georgia when his father got sick. I could relate to him: I had friends whose parents had done the same thing. And Jimmy was an educator, like my family. He used his position on the dishbelt to educate the children of privilege about what it meant to be black and working class in America. I was grateful. He died of a heart attack before retiring.

There were other, unironic, expressions of entitlement. “I always prefer a little blood on the bedsheets.” “I like it so much when women wear hats and gloves.” The hats and gloves comment from one southern man meeting another and happily identifying common cultural touchpoints. But no recognition of what a society where women wear hats and gloves means.

I only lasted a year in that school, but I’m glad I went.

*** *** ***
This is the exercise:

Take a step / Set to bold


  • If your father went to college before you started.
  • If your father finished college before you started.
  • If your mother went to college before you started.
  • If your mother finished college before you started.
  • If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
  • If your family was the same or higher class than your high school teachers.
  • If you had a computer at home when you were growing up.
  • If you had your own computer at home when you were growing up.
  • If you had more than 50 books at home when you were growing up.
  • If you had more than 500 books at home when you were growing up.
  • If you were read children’s books by a parent when you were growing up.
  • If you ever had lessons of any kind as a child or a teen.
  • If you had more than two kinds of lessons as a child or a teen.
  • If the people in the media who dress and talk like you were portrayed positively.
  • If you had a credit card with your name on it before college.
  • If you had or will have less than $5000 in student loans when you graduate.
  • If you had or will have no student loans when you graduate.
  • If you went to a private high school.
  • If you went to summer camp.
  • If you had a private tutor.
  • (US students only) If you have been to Europe more than once as a child or teen.
  • (International question) If you have been to the US more than once as a child or teen.
  • If your family vacations involved staying at hotels rather than KOA or at relatives homes.
  • If all of your clothing has been new.
  • If your parents gave you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them.
  • If there was original art in your house as a child or teen.
  • If you had a phone in your room.
  • If your parent owned their own house or apartment when you were a child or teen.
  • If you had your own room as a child or teen.
  • If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course.
  • If you had your own cell phone in High School.
  • If you had your own TV as a child or teen.
  • If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College.
  • If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline.
  • If you ever went on a cruise with your family.
  • If your parents took you to museums and art galleries as a child or teen.
  • If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.

So. My modifications would be to remove the step associated with having your own television (this is about getting a head start on going to university, and having a tv in your room is more likely to be a disadvantage). And to add a step for having people who work in your home, like a housekeeper or gardener. For not working more than ten hours a week. A really big step was omitted, and I don’t know why in this context: If you have no children.

Also omitted were questions related to access for people with physical disabilities. If you can walk up stairs. If you can pick up a book. If you were hospitalised or institutionalised for less than a cumulative total of two weeks as a child or teen.

Related: If money was never an object to getting health care. If you were never required to nurse a chronically ill family member.

An assumption in the exercise is that you were raised by your parents. I know it’s cumbersome to read out ‘parent or parents, and/or a relative or guardian you were living with’ but if the purpose is to make privilege visible… let’s do it.

If you felt safe at home as a child and teen. If somebody told you that you were smart. If nobody told you that you were stupid.

What steps would you add? Which do you think do not belong?


  1. Very fair things to change. I don’t know exactly what I would change, but I can say that this is being examined more and more closely. I think that part of it has to do with certain people wanting to distance the discrepancies in society from race. The class versus race thing is a hot topic right now.

    Comment by Alston — Wednesday, February 13th, 2008 @ 11:34

  2. If you were allowed to bring friends to your home.
    If you wanted to bring friends to your home.

    Comment by ina — Thursday, February 14th, 2008 @ 14:33

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