AMY ROSE: Did those of you who grew up comfortably, money-wise, ever feel like you want(ed) to hide it because of attitudes like these? I mean, you didn’t choose to grow up with money, which sometimes can be treated like a moral failing or something. Is it ever hard to talk about coming from a background that was middle-class or higher? Was there a point in your life that you realized that people might resent you for your class privilege?
ANAHEED: I was embarrassed about not being working-class like most of my friends when I was a teenager, but I grew out of that the way I hope to out of all pointless, faultless insecurities. I mean, what is more useless and tiresome than a privileged person’s guilt over their own privilege? It’s a waste of everyone’s time.
MAGGIE: I was always surrounded by people richer than me. No one felt bad about it. No one was ever challenged to feel bad about it. The concept of “the birth lottery” made no sense. It’s really hard to describe the cognitive dissonance we all had at my high school. It was like, we felt sorry for poor people, but at the same time there was NO awareness of how lucky we were. It’s very disturbing for me to reflect on how disjointed and deranged my worldview used to be…
ROSE: I never identified with “rich people,” in part because I grew up in a context (Hollywood) where there were always people around with much more money, living more-extravagant lifestyles, with tons of fame, fortune, and privilege. Still, my parents were very successful at their jobs in the entertainment business, so we had a nice, big house, people to take care of us when my parents were working, all the clothes, toys, and athletic gear we ever wanted, fancy hippie private school educations, fun family vacations, and no worries about where money for gas/electricity/food would come from.
I can see now that I lived/live with a tremendous amount of privilege, but at the time it wasn’t as visible to me as the extreme wealth displays I saw all around me and how those contrasted with the rest of the city we lived in. We were politically active as as a family and we volunteered and donated to charity and spent our weekends going door to door to campaign against things like Prop 187 (which would have prohibited illegal workers from using social services), but at the same time we enjoyed a lot of the trappings of L.A. fanciness. One of my favorite things as a child was the carnivals that Disney would throw every time a new movie would come out, where they’d have rides and characters in costume and prizes—including a gift bag filled with stuffed animals and other branded Disney swag. I knew how special it was and that not everyone got to enjoy stuff like that.
I’ve avoided addressing the issue of shame head-on, but it’s pretty painful to consider that someone would dismiss me outright without getting to know me. In terms of the question of wealth and morality, I think the moment I realized how spoiled I was, I also realized I never wanted to act spoiled. I feel incredibly lucky that I grew up with economic privilege, but even luckier that I was taught that it’s what you do with your gifts (helping people, connecting people, making the world a better place however you can) that matters more than what you come from. I guess I spend more time worrying about living up my own expectations of what I should accomplish, considering the advantages I have been given, than I do dwelling on what other people think of the parts of me that I can’t control.
JAMIA: People always make assumptions about me because my parents are highly educated and I went to a private school. My mom grew up middle-class, and my father grew up on a sharecropping farm and then in a trailer. Older white people, especially, love to point out that my family was better off than theirs because my grandma and grandfather on mom’s side went to college and my grandpa went to grad school. That always burns my blood, because those class assumptions refused to take into account how my parents’ and grandparents’ race still limited what they could provide for their family. My grandfather was an NYU-trained architect who couldn’t get a license to practice in South Carolina, where he was from. Inheritance means different things depending on legacies of privilege and legacies of oppression.
ANAHEED: Just to shake things up a bit: I think it’s pretty easy for most of us to pay attention to (and possibly resent) people who grew up with more privilege than we did, but why aren’t we as comfortable looking in the other direction: at those with a lot less? I mean, everyone here is on a computer, and there’s a certain amount of privilege associated with that. We all have time to sit around and have a DISCUSSION ABOUT CLASS, which also requires a certain amount of class privilege. So, what makes it so hard to see ourselves as privileged?
KRISTA: No, totally—I am a college-educated white girl who always had enough to eat and a roof over her head, and now I have a solid job, a computer I’m writing this on, a fancy phone, and enough money to live exactly as I want. Privileged as hell. There were kids in my high school who were actually, truly hungry, and it’s also important to talk about the people who weren’t there at all—the kids who never came to my school because they didn’t live in the right neighborhood and the kids who were too busy surviving and battling extreme poverty and abuse to make it to school every day and didn’t give a fuck about how some girl felt about having hand-me-down shoes. At least I had some, and adults who tried.
STEPHANIE: We’re definitely all privileged to be here. I know I’m privileged because I could have had this conversation in an AOL chatroom in 1995 because I had a computer and internet access back then. But now that I’ve owned that, where do I go with it? I think that it is great that we’re having this conversation, but that doesn’t do anything for the people who have neither the access nor the time to read it…
JULIANNE: I mean, I dropped $250 on not-even-that-practical clear shoes at Opening Ceremony, so I am definitely privileged! I was never hungry growing up, and I always knew that if something terrible happened, I had 11 aunts and uncles we could go stay with. The occasional Archie comic notwithstanding, I didn’t have a lot of extras, nor, more important, did I have the resources or the guidance to go to college, but I was never hurting for any of the essentials. I definitely had friends and family members who were worse off than me, who lived in rented trailers and barely scraped together enough to eat. We regularly sent money and toys to my cousins in Mexico, whom I never got to visit but who I am sure were worse off than I could imagine.
CHANEL: I’m definitely privileged relative to most of the population of the world, but often I don’t see that until something is taken away from me and I am confronted with my own entitlement. Like, there was a period during college when I didn’t have a computer, and I would have to go use the computers in the library every day, and I could not stop complaining about this, like, “Ugh, it is so annoying that I have to leave the comfort of my dorm room just to use a computer!” But then, in the library, I’d see the same kids in there every day, using the computers like me, and I realized that they had probably never had their very own computer, and that I was lucky I had and would again. And then I thought about the people who never even have the opportunity to go to college at all, and the people who don’t even have a cellphone, much less a laptop. So, I wouldn’t say I’m uncomfortable looking in the other direction, but sometimes I need to jolt myself out of my own head and my own problems and recognize what’s going on around me.
ARABELLE: I’ve been thinking about how fortunate I am more and more lately, how much privilege I had to begin with and how that has set me up for the party my life has become. Like, even though I am chronically ill and queer and whatever, I have had it so easy, comparatively speaking. I went to an amazing public school, have both of my parents in my life, and have always had a home to go back to when needed. I’ve also had health insurance for most of my life, which, because of my health conditions, I literally couldn’t live without. But this conversation has helped me realize how often I have disregarded my privilege, so thank you.
I think we tend to overplay our hardships to make ourselves less accountable to the people with less than us. Like, if we’re hurting a lot then other people can’t be hurting more than we are, or something. That’s when we start playing Oppression Olympics and getting defensive and not listening to each other. I am still pretty quick to defend myself, but I used to be a lot worse. I am still learning.
SUZY: My family is actually pretty comfortable these days, even if some of my family members have to squeeze into my grandparents’ apartments to make do. That’s the thing—there were many instances in which some of us could’ve ended up homeless, but we try really hard not to leave each other behind. Not every family has that strong of a bond. However, I don’t agree that talking about class is a privilege. People in poverty are very much aware of what’s going on—they experience class struggle every day. Some of them are very present in movements for fair housing and labor practices. Some of them read the internet on mobile phones or go to public libraries—just like I used to.
JENNY: One thing I’ve noticed is that people who are quite poor tend to think of themselves as richer than they really are and people who are quite rich think of themselves as less well off than they are. I think the fact that we even feel comfortable enough to talk about our past economic hardships (the operative word here for most of us being past) is a type of privilege. When I taught high school in the Bronx and we would read articles about the wealth gap and stats about poverty, every single student in my class would immediately assert a huge distance between themselves and the working poor. They thought of themselves as middle class, even though they lived in really impoverished neighborhoods where you can’t even find a grocery store that does not sell expired food and went to shit schools with atrocious graduation rates. Each one of them personally knew a few people who had been injured or killed by gun violence. It just blew my mind that I would go around telling my friends about my “hardscrabble childhood,” and here were these kids, who were clearly from low-income families, describing their financial state as “comfortable.”
Also, semi-related: Why does it seem like almost everyone says, “We didn’t have a lot of money growing up?” I feel like celebrities say it all the time, I say it, most people in this discussion have said it, in every reality TV show about conspicuously rich people, someone says it. It’s like, did everyone in the world grow up poor and then miraculously end up doing well? It’s confusing to me, because every statistic I’ve read says that typically the poor stay poor, the middle-class stay middle-class, and the rich stay rich. So how can everyone I meet have this rags-to-riches story? Is it that we romanticize the notion of growing up without a lot of money? Do we exaggerate how hard we had it to excuse how privileged our lives have since become—or, worse, to avoid interrogating the privileges we’ve always had? Is it just that people who did grow up with money are taught to never say, “Growing up, we had A LOT of money”?
ANAHEED: I think it’s like the same reason supermodels always say, “I was made fun of in high school for being too skinny and ugly” and movie stars always say, “I was a total nerd.” Maybe for some of those people those things are true, but I think most of the time they are trying to inoculate themselves against the kind of hatred that jealousy inspires in others. And as loathsome as it is, on some level, to pretend to have had less privilege than you have, on another level I actually think it’s kind of sad that people feel like they have to do it. And mostly I think it’s because we haven’t really equipped people with a way to talk about privilege that is HELPFUL. We’re terrible at talking about it, as a culture.
JAMIA: YES!!! This is why I love the work Resource Generation is doing. They help young people with wealth get involved in social-justice causes and figure out where and how their money will do the most good. The political organizer Billy Wimsatt called them “the cool rich kids.” They also have meetups where the “cool rich kids” can work through their stuff together and talk about how to use their privilege to create real social change.