Has Class Trumped Race? Part 2 – Interpreting Privilege

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

So, exactly what is privilege? It really depends on your perspective and definition. Let’s revisit my answers to the privilege checklist:

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.

Many of these items have a class based assumption backing them. However, as other critics of the study have shown, it is fairly easy to have one of these things and not have it be a hallmark of privilege.

If you had your own computer at home.

My mother made sure that we acquired a computer. While we had no software on it (typing papers on Wordpad before there was spell check), my mother had gotten the impression that computers were the future. Also, a computer was a justifiable expense as it could be used for work, school work, and entertainment. We did without other luxuries, like cable TV.

If you had more than fifty books at home.

As others have pointed out, the assumption behind this one is that purchasing books (or having books in the home) is a mark of privilege, presumably because books are expensive items or because people in the lower class have poor reading skills. I am not sure which of those two scenarios the creators of the exercise used. However, books are also a very cheap form of entertainment. My sister and I were avid users of our local library, which also sold used books for a dime a piece when we were growing up. Within a few years, my sister and I had amassed a sizeable collection of children’s books for a very small amount of money – less than the cost of a brand new hardback.

If you were read children’s books by a parent.

Here’s a fun one. As a child, my mother would sit with me for hours and hours, reading my favorite books and taking the time to help me sound out words.

My mother had a lot of free time in those days. As a teen parent, she was still under my grandmother’s roof when I started to read. I would go to daycare, mom would go to high school (and later cosmetology school) and then she stayed with me most evenings and weekends. When my mother got older, we eventually moved to our own place and there was less time to read together. When my younger sister was born, my mom and my dad were both working. No one had the time to teach her to read. The task then fell to me.

If you had a credit card with your name on it.

I did. However, this card did not come from my parents, nor was it one of those cute credit cards my friends got just for attending college. I went straight to work after high school and had no credit, which makes things very difficult. My parents also did not have decent credit (at the time) so I ended up breaking down and going with a scam card company – the one were they charge you a $60 one time set up fee, a $69 annual fee, a $2.00 monthly fee, 30% APR and your credit limit is $150, so you are dangerously close to the limit before you even use the card once. I sucked it up, made regular payments for a year, and was offered a more sane rate by Bank of America. Luckily, I got the notice for the new card with BoA in the same week that the scam card notified me that they were canceling my card for no reason, but I was welcome to reapply – and pay those fees all over again.

If you had less than $5,000 in student loans.

Another large assumption. The reasoning here is that your parents were able to help you out with school costs. However, it does not take into account scholarships. Nor does it take in account the scenario of the thousands of people like me – pay as you go schooling, using a combination of Pell Grants and your wages (less rent and other expenses) to pay your way through college. This is also known as the “as long as I get my degree before I’m 30″ plan for working adults. This is also known as “I can only take two classes a semester and hold down a full time job.” If you can work full time and go to school full time, I applaud you.

If your parents took you to museums and art galleries.

This question is really based on your region. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. All the public museums are free. Most of the private galleries are free. The Corcoran charges $6-12 for admission. The Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center hosts free performances. However, if I grew up elsewhere, it would have been more difficult for me to access the kind of culture I was exposed to as a child.

Leaving aside the specific examples for a moment, we get to the next part of the discussion: how do we interpret privilege?

One of the most interesting discussions of privilege came from an unlikely source: Penelope Trunk. The mind behind Brazen Careerist, Trunk pulls no punches about her privileged background. She writes about growing up with “a laundress, a housekeeper, and unlimited cash from a drawer in the dining room.”

And yet, Penelope makes a very astute observation of how privilege works in society:

But before I launch into a celebration of Sofia Coppola, I need to say that the U.S. is not a meritocracy: Rich people are better connected, so they get better jobs. And rich people who are not well connected tend to get better jobs because they have an easier time envisioning themselves in a successful career than poorer people. An example: My younger brother, now 21, did almost no homework in high school, and he recently landed a job most college graduates would covet — investment banking in Europe.

[...]

[B]y the time my brother graduated from college, he had a great experience on his resume that helped him land his new job in Europe. I don’t begrudge him that. And I admit that with a lot of effort and even more luck, a poor kid could land the same positions as my brother. But it’s clear he had a million advantages that poor kids don’t have, so he didn’t need as much luck.

[...]

People like my brother, who have relatively few advantages compared to someone like Sofia, ask for everything — just to see if they’ll get it. He asked my parents to pay for him to attend an expensive college even though he didn’t do a lick of homework in high school. Even though he knew he wasn’t qualified, he asked my cousin for an internship. He could do this because he could envision himself getting it. Poor kids have to stretch to imagine having food on the table every night.

As Trunk states above, a large part of privilege is access. (We will cover entitlement in part 3.)

So we currently have two main components to economic privilege. The material aspect of privilege – which includes always having enough money for the utilities or having extra money for things like field trips, new clothes and AP classes – and the access aspect of privilege, which allows you to gain valuable life experiences.

Do you think that the material aspect of privilege is more important or the access aspect of privilege?

Which one has had a greater impact on your life?