Feb. 1, 2012 10:39

Recognizing class privilege

I fought with my dad, challenging him about whether he deserved to make more money than the janitors cleaning the hospital he worked as an administrator.

It’s difficult to discuss class privilege, especially in a society where we are conditioned to believe in a myth of economic mobility and when we are rarely taught how to talk about it.

As an angry high school student, I argued frequently with my parents about politics, and I was transfixed on money. Sometimes my critiques were broad political arguments about the inherent inequalities of our capitalist economic system and other times they were stingingly personal.

“How can anyone justify having so much when most people have so little?” I would argue.

His response, likely similar to many other people who have “made it,” was basically yes. He worked hard to get where he was, applying himself in high school to get into Harvard, excelling in college and later at business to get where he is today.

The argument misses the point entirely — yes, there are rich people who have never worked a day in their lives and are handed everything, but how hard you work is not the only function of how much money you make.

My dad is not a corporate fatcat, but I refuse to believe he works harder than millions of poor and working-class people in this country. To understand the complete picture, grappling with the larger context of class and privilege is necessary.

Often harder to identify than the oppression and disadvan tages, however, is the flip side. Even in conversations about poverty or social inequality, people often shift uncomfortably when privilege is addressed head-on.

It seems easier to come up with excuses, as Elaine Brown pointed out during a recent speech in Greensboro, blaming oppressed people for their conditions rather than acknowledging the systems at work. Often those excuses play well to an audience — her primary example focused on the Clinton administration, but it has become a reoccurring theme of the presidential campaign as well, as candidate after candidate blames people receiving government assistance as if some people wanted to continue to live in poor housing with few opportunities and little hope.

It is particularly difficult for people with class privilege, like my father, to admit they didn’t get where they are entirely on their own and to acknowledge their privilege.

Over the years my dad has gotten much better at it. Meanwhile I’ve become less combative and judgmental (hopefully he will agree), and worked to be conscious of my own privilege as well.

As a high school student involved in social justice projects in Boston, I was often hesitant to tell people I was from Wellesley, a wealthy, predominantly white suburb, or that I attended a private high school.

I’ve found that people with class privilege often point to others who are “better off” to separate themselves from any privilege or blame, and I’ve caught myself doing it too. Yes, I graduated college without any debt, but it’s partially because I received scholar ships, and it’s not like I went to NYU! No, I don’t have food stamps, but Mitt Romney made more money in a couple of hours (according to his 2010 taxes) than I made all year!

When I asked my dad if he had stopped by Occupy Boston in the fall, he joked that he was too busy trying to get into the one percent. Many people with an exorbitant amount of wealth indentify as middle class, possibly upper-middle class depending on who is listening.

Say what you will about why we struggle to discuss class in an open and honest way, but it should be evident that our incapability of doing so only makes it more difficult to do anything to address our problems. As Jordan Green illustrated in his recent cover story, “Pulling apart,” we are increasingly separated on opposite sides of an ever-widening class divide.

While the occupy movement can be credited with increasing public discourse about class and wealth distribution in our society, the language around the 99 percent is misleading, allowing plenty of people with more money than they could ever use to escape accountability about their riches.

I’m still not entirely sure how to talk about class privilege: Class is a complicated thing. Even though my annual income is low, I enjoy a high quality of life and know I have a financial safety net in my family that I can fall back on. Yet while I may not be as judgmental of my parents or individuals as I was in high school, the same question is constantly in the forefront of my mind: How can anyone justify having so much when other people, in the same city, can barely survive?

The problem may not be individuals and instead systemic, but without engaging in a discussion of class privilege openly and how it affects us, we are an impediment to progress.

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