Has Class Trumped Race? Part 1 – Understanding Privilege

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

Gossip Girl

Have you seen the Class Privilege checklist?

I had not. Apparently, this was a staff development exercise on class privilege that made it to the internet and has launched a thousand comments and counter-posts.

I originally found this through Donna Darko, who found it through Bint Alshamsa.

The instructions are simple. While in the classroom, you would take a step forward for each item that is in your experience. In the blogosphere, you simply bold the item. (I have given my answers below. Part two of this series will explore the events around many of these items, as these widely depend on circumstance and location.)

When you were in college:

If your father went to college, take a step forward.
If your father finished college
If your mother went to college
If your mother finished college
If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home
If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children’s books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind
If you had more than two kinds of lessons
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it
If you have less than $5000 in student loans

If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
If you have been to Europe
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house
If your parent own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room
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 in your room in High School
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
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.

There has been a bit of criticism aimed toward this checklist, best summarized in this response.

But do the criticisms hold some truth?

Commenter Amy P, responding to an Atlantic Monthly blogger’s critique of the checklist, makes an interesting note:

There’s been some excellent discussion over at Scalzi’s site (although the thread is becoming eye-glazingly long), and I agree with nearly all the critiques of the privilege checklist, which seems oddly detached from the realities of both rich and poor. Here are a few alternate questions (some borrowed from Scalzi’s commentors):

1. Has anyone close to you ever overdosed on drugs?

2. Did you grow up with married parents?

3. Has anyone in your family’s social circle ever been in prison?

4. Has your family ever been foreclosed on?

5. Have your parents ever been bankrupt?

6. Was a family vehicle ever repossessed?

7. Have you seen a dentist in the past year?

8. Did your family have health insurance through an employer?

9. Did your parents use pay-day loans?

10. Did your parents ever get threatening calls from collectors?

11. Have you seen a doctor in the past year? Two years? Three years?

12. Has anyone in your immediate family ever delayed an important medical procedure because they didn’t have the money?

13. Did you ever move in with relatives because of financial problems?

14. Were you ever on reduced or free school lunch?

15. Was one or both parents often unemployed and looking for work?

16. Was your family ever evicted?

17. Did your family often argue about money? (This question will bring in a lot of upper-middle class folk, but lack of conflict over money is a form of privilege, too.)

18. Did your family have to deal with social workers?

19. Are you in ROTC to pay for college?

20. Did you serve in the military to pay for college?

21. Did you transfer from a community college?

22. Do you have a child?

23. Do you work more than 10 hours a week? 20 hours a week? 30 hours a week?

24. Were your parents able to help you with your homework?

In response to some of the more irate commenters, one of the test authors responded with this statement:

The experience is designed to highlight privilege in order to begin a discussion about class, as privilege and class are related ideas. Both privilege and class don’t have clean and commonly used definitions of what they are and are not. Instead there are multiple perspectives on privilege and class.

This is not engineering, this is not assessment, these are statements about experiences that are true for many people. If your story is not in the collection of statements, then I apologize for not including it. Your experiences of privilege and class will be different from other people’s but in general there are similarities – we tried to create statements based on the similarities.

If the statements induce feelings of guilt in you, well, that is something to think about. If they induce feelings of anger in you, well, that is something to think about. We didn’t intend guilt or anger or any particular emotional response. We did intend some kind of response that would lead to people learning something.

Is the “privilege meme” or our experience the best way to help people to an awareness of privilege and class and then to a discussion of privilege and class? I honestly don’t know. What is best for you may be different than what is best for someone else.


Posted by Will Barratt | January 9, 2008 12:51 PM

There is also an interesting post called “Being Poor” by John Scalzi (apparently written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.) At the end of a long list of scenarios, he writes:

Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.

Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.

Being poor is seeing how few options you have.

(Also of note: a discussion of absolute poverty versus relative poverty. For the purposes of this discussion, we are going to focus on ideas of relative privilege in industrialized nations.)

Having taken the exercise myself and administered it to others, I will say that the exercise is effective as it gets people talking about how privileged – or relatively unprivileged – they feel.

What are your thoughts?