Daisy at Daisy’s Dead Air has put up a class privilege meme. It was originally intended to be a classroom exercise (full instructions are here), but Daisy’s discomfort in completing the exercise even anonymously online has convinced me: It’s as likely to shame the poor kids as the rich kids. That’s surely not its intent, but when you’re teaching, you’d better think of the consequences.
Good intentions alone are never enough. I once led a classroom discussion on gender and work in which a bunch of college gals vented about the piggish middle-age men who felt entitled to hit on them when they worked retail or restaurants. I thought we’d had a productive discussion. But at the end, after everyone else had left, a woman who’d been very quiet said: “Look. I don’t even know where to begin with these people. I know what it’s like to earn my money by literally shoveling shit.” It was a pedagogical FAIL for me. For her, it was an awkward and probably painful experience.
So, I’m not sure what I can glean from doing this meme, either, except that I think it’s important to talk about class, and maybe my experience shows how class privilege can come in different flavors. Here’s what I came up with. The italics indicate my editorializing – a bent that in itself might indicate a certain degree of privileged. (The most dispossessed people are unlikely to assume that anyone else cares what they have to say.) The bold statements are the ones that hold true for me:
- If your father went to college before you started
- If your father finished college before you started
- If your mother went to college before you started
- If your mother finished college before you started (college was taken for granted for all three of us kids)
- If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor (my paternal grandfather was a country doctor; I had older cousins who were lawyers, doctors, and chemists, as well as farmers and teachers)
- If your family was the same or higher class than your high school teachers (both my folks were teachers – though at annual salaries of less than $12,000 in the mid-1970s)
- If you had a computer at home when you were growing up (no, but that would’ve required devoting a room to a mainframe! I’m just that old)
- If you had your own computer at home when you were growing up (no, but my eight-year-younger sister did during high school)
- If you had more than 50 books at home when you were growing up
- If you had more than 500 books at home when you were growing up (pretty sure we did; most likely the majority were mine)
- If you were read children’s books by a parent when you were growing up (every night – and practically every night my dad fell asleep – but hey, that was an incentive for me to learn to read so we could finally finish the stories)
- If you ever had lessons of any kind as a child or a teen
- If you had more than two kinds of lessons as a child or a teen (French horn for a year, plus six weeks of piano – lessons required a sixty-mile round trip to the next largest town, so mostly my mom taught me piano, then I taught myself)
- If the people in the media who dress and talk like you were portrayed positively (well, at least until Fargo came out)
- If you had a credit card with your name on it before college
- If you had or will have less than $5000 in student loans when you graduate (just under – in mid-1980s dollars)
- If you had or will have no student loans when you graduate
- If you went to a private high school (there were none where I lived)
- If you went to summer camp (music camp and Bible camp!)
- If you had a private tutor (but if I’d needed it, my parents would’ve made it happen)
- (US students only) If you have been to Europe more than once as a child or teen (I went once, with a touring band, when I was 16, and already thought that was massively privileged)
- (International question) If you have been to the US more than once as a child or teen
- If your family vacations involved staying at hotels rather than KOA or at relatives homes (we crashed pretty shamelessly with relatives, but where none were available, we stayed in motels because my dad suffered from Crohn’s disease and needed a nearby bathroom)
- If all of your clothing has been new (heck no! that would be plain stupid)
- If your parents gave you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them (I got a 1974 Maverick from them in 1985, and called myself lucky)
- If there was original art in your house as a child or teen (by my grandma, who sometimes let me experiment with her paints)
- If you had a phone in your room
- If your parent owned their own house or apartment when you were a child or teen (nearly everyone did, in Medina, North Dakota, even if was just a trailer – but we had the biggest house in town, a wonderful old white elephant)
- If you had your own room as a child or teen (always, until I went to college)
- If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course (they barely existed in 1980, and I didn’t even know that the SAT was coming up until friends clued me in; I missed the PSAT altogether and I’m still pissed I didn’t get a crack at National Merit Scholar!)
- If you had your own cell phone in High School (not yet invented – is this also an old-fart meme??)
- If you had your own TV as a child or teen
- If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College (also not on the radar circa 1980, and WTF is up with capitalizing high school and 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 as a child or teen (there aren’t really any in North Dakota, unless you count various pioneer historical exhibits, and on our big trip to California the highlights were Disneyland and Johnny Carson)
- If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family (but my folks also had to shovel coal in my early years)
[By the way, if your background is so poor that none of the above applies, Daisy has another checklist that captures serious hardship.]
Compared to Daisy and many others, I’ve enjoyed heaps of class privilege. But looking at the pattern that emerges from my answers, I notice it’s a little complicated. I’ve experienced tremendous educational privilege. I was born the child of two teachers, both of whose mothers were also schoolteachers. My mom owned a book entitled something like Games to Make Your Child Smarter. (You be the judge whether it worked!) My dad taught music, so he was happy to spring for lessons as long as I practiced.
On the other hand, my parents’ combined household income was less than $20,000 in the early 1970s. That’s just how teachers were paid in North Dakota. My dad had some family money as a cushion, but times were tight when his health forced him to retire from teaching in 1976, leaving my mom the sole wage-earner. My grandpa was a doctor, all right, but he served the sort of clientele where payment was often in some form of barter. He was still able to invest some money in Standard Oil around 1900, and that became the aforementioned cushion for our family.
When it came time for college, I was clueless about the process, and so was my family. But when my folks moved us out to California, they took care to find a decent (though not top-flight) school district. I was a high school (not High School) junior. My classmates (not my parents or counselor) nudged me to take the SAT on time, and to apply to one fancy-pants school – which admitted me and then coughed up generous financial aid when divorce decimated my mom’s finances and put my dad out of the picture for a while.
If there’s a more general point to be drawn from my answers, it’s that educational privilege is largely fungible for economic privilege. It won’t trump it, but it sure acts as a buffer. I may have had an English/social studies teacher in junior high who spelled subpoena as “supena,” but my mom made up for it at home, as did heaps of books. And educational privilege tends to beget more of the same; after surviving some piss-poor teachers in North Dakota as well as benefiting from a few great ones, I went to some of the best schools in the country for both undergrad and grad school. (They weren’t just prestigious; I really did get a great education.) I didn’t know the right etiquette and I was always dressed wrong, but I only came in contact with those “inadequacies” because I’d already been catapulted into the milieu of the very rich.
Don’t anyone tell me I earned these privileges (although I did have to bestir myself to finish my Ph.D.). If I’m smart, it’s due to genetic serendipity and my mom’s silly book. If I’d been born into a family that didn’t care about education, I would’ve done well to go to college at all. I was a lazy student until college and am still a horrible procrastinator. That’s the thing about privilege: It compensates for our failings and lets us do well despite our flaws. If you don’t have any of it, the world is a pretty unforgiving place.
And yes, my boys are growing up in a house full of books. But the count is probably closer to 5000 than to 500. So the pattern repeats itself, every generation accumulating a little more cultural capital.