My family would be considered upper-middle-class, and we live in a relatively well-off community. I have lived like this all my life, but over time I have come to realize more and more the huge privilege I have compared with so many other people from lower-income families. I should be thankful, but I just feel really guilty. I don’t know what I should do—should I just give a bunch of my stuff away? Or just learn how to be really thankful? I can’t leave this community yet, because I’m still in high school. —H., San Diego
First of all, thank you for this question. It made me feel very itchy and uncomfortable, which is a good sign in this context, because it means you’ve forced me to think about Trying to Be an Aware Human to Others. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but that’s part of why it’s so important: Privilege is very frequently invisible to those who have it, especially those who’d rather not confront it and have to feel its itchiness. Some people choose to ignore, or just straight-up never make, the realization that you did: that this status you’ve lived in for your whole life is way more complex than it may have seemed to you in the past. But since you do feel that itch, you’re in a prime position to learn more about how to use your class advantages for the greater good, and I’m happy to help you as best I can.
Growing up, I had wealth privilege on par with the fancy suburb I lived in—my dad earned a lot of money and we lived in a big house—but not the same amount of class privilege. My parents were born to lower-class immigrant families and, unlike my friends’ parents, did not have fancy educations.
Despite these divisions, my wealth privilege was responsible for so many unfair advantages, such as when, in my sophomore year of college, I blithely exclaimed to my roommate that I couldn’t wait for summer vacation so I could do the cool projects I had spent the year saving money for. He replied that he couldn’t wait for summer vacation so he could get a full-time job and stop having to worry that he wouldn’t have enough money to come back to school next year. I responded with one of those guilty half-apology shock noises that you make when you’ve said something offensive without realizing it, and he said, “It’s OK. Just don’t do it again.” If he had never called me out, I know I would have kept doing that same rude thing again, and probably hurt a lot of people I care about. But I didn’t, because I listened to his experience and it widened my perspective, and now I’m a perfect person who never made that kind of mistake again (jokes!—these situations are gonna keep happening, which is a really good thing, since you’ll grow a little bit each time they do).
No matter how much $$$ privilege you have, H., it shouldn’t be weighing you down with the kind of guilt you describe in your letter. A life truth: While it’s awesome and necessary to be aware of your situation in the context of other experiences, it’s NOT awesome or necessary for you to feel straight-up bad about this, which is not something you had any say in at all! Take a second and let that shame-y feeling loose like a ponytail being shaken out at the end of the day—you’ll feel better and more mobilized to take action when you’re not scared of having done something wrong (you haven’t) about this. In my experience, the idea that you have to relinquish your community, even though you’re grossed out by what you’ve been given unearned, even if don’t want to be the beneficiary of those things anymore, is as unhelpful as not being aware of your priv in the first place. The idea you had about showing gratitude for what you have is a way more fruitful one—doing so doesn’t mean you’re smug about the benefits and advantages of your life, it means you’re grateful for them, and aware of their meaning. And being aware of their meaning will help you come to a better understanding about how to help others who aren’t as lucky as you are.
Speaking of: The most tried-and-true way to use privilege productively is to redistribute that shit! If you’re not sure where to start, seek out writing by low-income people and see how you can apply what they teach you to real life. Two pieces that came out late last year, “Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense” and “The Logic of Stupid Poor People,” have almost exactly the same titles, but are radically different and equally true, and will help inform you about how to use what you’ve got to help less economically fortunate people in proactive ways. In general, try to refer to sources like these—stuff that comes from direct experience—and avoid writing by people outside of those realities that speaks for folks from the communities you want to support. People can advocate for themselves far more effectively than any outsiders can.
Beyond reading about how to help, it’s important to personally reflect on the ways in which your background has buffered and supported you, and think about how to make life easier and safer for people who don’t have those same buffers. Sometimes, yes, this can literally mean giving your money or material possessions away—Resource Generation is a rad group of wealthy young people trying to figure out how to use their $ for radical change—but it can also have to do with how you approach your personal interactions. Jessica Luther, a reproductive justice advocate, has some great advice about the process of being an ally in this interview.
I extra-appreciate your question, because the idea that privilege is just too complicated to talk about or think about or even acknowledge tends to stick around like a shitty fungus. Powering through the difficulties and the uncomfortable moments is the only way to overcome your biases and assumptions and connect honestly with other people. Saying the wrong thing is a lot less likely if you’ve been listening to the people you’re talking to, but if it does happen, that’s OK, too—learning about this stuff is a process. Perhaps the best thing to remember on your life-bus journey to Intersectional Justice Junction is to treat “ally” as a verb, not a noun: When you encounter people with different life experiences, don’t expect them to educate you: Ask questions with the awareness that they are not obligated to educate you, thank them if they do decide to answer, and (this is super important!!) don’t fight people on their experiences, or get defensive. If they tell you about something that you may be doing that isn’t cool to them, listen respectfully! Again: You are sometimes going to fuck up, and that’s OK! No one—not me, not you, not anybody—is ever going to get EVERY SINGLE THING about dealing with privilege right. What we CAN do is try our best to keep scratching the itch by staying committed to learning from and supporting one another.
I hope this helps you—I’m proud of you for being so thoughtful about it and confident that you can use that thoughtfulness to make real change for others. —Lola ♦
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