Friday, April 18, 2008

How Privileged Are You?

I got this one from Charlotte. As is always the case for me with this sort of thing, I find some of these statements very odd and don't think they help answer the main question. First of all, what sort of “privilege” do we mean here? Are we talking economics? Education? Sociologists in our culture would probably argue that we have class systems based both on wealth and on education. Not everyone in the educated classes is wealthy, and not everyone in the wealthy classes is educated. I’d argue there’s a third class system based on race. Still, seems like an interesting exercise, so I’m going to participate.

The original authors of this exercise are Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, and Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. If you participate, they ask that you PLEASE acknowledge their copyright.

Bold the true statements. You can explain further if you wish.

1. Father went to college – and grad school

2. Father finished college – and was ABD

3. Mother went to college – and grad school

4. Mother finished college -- and grad school

5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor – my father was the first in a long line of attorneys to become a professor. My sister was a professor until she decided to devote herself full-time to art. No physicians, though. No one in our lazy family wants to work that hard.

6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers – again, depends on what one means by “class.” Let’s pretend we mean teachers who were upper-middle class or rich, as in the deciding factor for defining “class” is how much money a person has. I really have absolutely no clue. People actually know this sort of thing, or rather, are really paying attention at that age? Many of my high school teachers were nuns. I imagine of the others, some were of the same class, and others weren’t. I do know they got paid a pittance compared to public school teachers, so let’s hope they had some sort of other source of income.

7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home – had more than 50 children’s books alone.

8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home – a huge embarrassment to me throughout a good deal of my childhood and teenaged years and one of the reasons I spent more time at others’ houses than inviting them to spend time at mine. Good thing I don’t have kids. I’d be forcing them to live in a house just like the embarrassing one in which I was raised.

9. Were read children’s books by a parent – my poor father must still hate The Owl and the Pussycat, which I made him read over and over. My mother and I read books together well into my teenaged years. I loved sharing that with her.

10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18

11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18 – swimming, tennis, ballet, and tap, all of which I despised and gave up after a year.

12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively – I promise you, there is nobody in the media who dresses and talks the way I do, and if there were, she’d be someone everyone makes fun of – the batty, absent-minded one who can’t put a simple skirt and blouse together to make them look good and who walks around with runs in her stockings or big black stains on the back of her pants, completely unaware that they’re there.

13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18 – nope, but as soon as I was 18 and didn’t need my parents’ permission, I went out and got a J.C. Penny credit card just so I could get whatever free gift they were giving away to anyone who opened an account.

14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs

15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs -- technically, I guess this means I should have bolded the last one. Why have both questions?

16. Went to a private high school – a Catholic high school. Where I grew up, that was considered a “private school.” In the places I’ve lived since, it’s considered a “parochial school,” and there are big distinctions between parochial and private schools.

17. Went to summer camp -- only day camp. My mother was definitely of the persuasion that kids needed “activities” in the summer, but she probably didn’t want to spend the money on sleep-away camp.

18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18

19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels – every-so-often we stayed in hotels, but we managed to travel all over the world staying mostly with friends and relatives.

20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18 – no, I was the third daughter. I wore lots and lots of hand-me-downs. My mother, being a good Scot, wasn’t about to get rid of perfectly good clothes before getting all she could out of them. We did have a lot of our “good clothes” made for us, though, which made the hand-me-downs doubly horrible, because my mother liked to dress her three girls in matching dresses, so I’d have to wear the exact same dress for years until I finally outgrew the one my lucky older sister only had to wear for one season.

21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them – no, my first car was a hand-me-down that was wrecked by my brother’s friend just before it was given to me.

22. There was original art in your house when you were a child - but not by any artists anyone would have heard of.

23. You and your family lived in a single-family house

24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home – before I was even born

25. You had your own room as a child – until I was 8, and then my oldest sister got it, and I didn’t have my own room again until she went to college (unless you count a little area at the end of the hall where my mother put up curtains and that had a little crib-turned-daybed and desk until we moved those out and moved my bed into it when I was a pre-teen, and my other sister and I were not getting along well enough to keep sharing a bedroom, as a bedroom of my own. The whole end of the hall was mine. We called it "cozy corner," and every child who ever visited our house always wanted to sleep there).

26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18 – I wanted one, not only my own phone, but my own separate line, which I offered to pay for out of my own earnings, once I got a real job, but my parents wouldn’t let me get one, because they wanted me to “learn to share.”

27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course
-- get this: ever hear of someone who participated in an SAT prep course and then did worse on the test the second-time around? Or who always did better in English than math throughout her school career, but who scored higher on the math than on the English? What I really needed was to be tested for test anxiety.

28. Had your own TV in your room in high school – are you kidding?? Our family didn’t even have a color TV until I was 18. Our television-viewing was strictly moderated until my mother went back to work, when I was in third grade, and then she lost all control, except making sure there were never more than two televisions in the house. One of these was monopolized by my parents, which meant it was usually tuned into such child-friendly programs as the news or opera on PBS. The other one was tiny and not hooked up to the antenna, so the reception was about as reliable as a teenager promising to clean a room.

29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college

30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16 -- when half my mothers’ relatives lived in England, she wasn’t exactly going to take four children under the age of 16 over there by boat.

31. Went on a cruise with your family – again, are you kidding? Spend that kind of money for a ten-day-trip when you could go rent a falling-down old vicarage known as “The Chalet” and live in England for the entire summer instead?

32. Went on more than one cruise with your family – no, but rented more than one old vicarage in England.

33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up – but I much preferred castle ruins.

34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family – nope. My father complained about every penny spent on heat and kept the average temperature in the house hovering somewhere just above freezing. If you wanted to be warm, you had to stay in the living room, where he built coal fires, because the coal was cheaper than firewood.

I don’t know: you tell me. How privileged am I?


Amanda said...

Privilege is a relative concept really, isn't it? What these statements don't remotely capture is all the people in the world who have to spend half the day fetching water and who don't have electricity, access to medical care, enough to eat etc.

Some of the statements are pretty misleading too. You could be from a highly educated background and have flown on a commercial flight before you were 16 and be an underprivileged poverty stricken refugee.

The statement about knowing the cost of heat amuses me because we were always very aware of that in our house but not because of lack of privilege but because part of my father's job for years was designing electricity tariffs and pricing structures (apparently a very complex, technical and specialised exercise)- including one very unpopular one which attracted a lot of media attention and letters to the editor. He was even interviewed on national radio about that particular one.

Emily Barton said...

Ms. Make Tea, Exactly! And I kept thinking of the kids we knew in Harlem, some of whom even had their own cell phones (today's equivalent of "own phone in your bedroom," I suppose), but who definitely were not "privileged" in most standard ways -- their schools were horrible, most of them dropped out, they didn't know who their fathers were, etc.

All right, you father and the heat story definitely beats mine!

Anonymous said...

Emily, this sums up our situation so perfectly I feel no need to take this test. I'm totally with you on the question about people like me being presented in positive way. I have a secret desire to be the person whose "look" people envy. I think I've instead ended up with the "look" that makes people feel relieved about themselves, e.g., "At least I don't have run in my stocking like that woman." linser

Anne Camille said...

Hear! Hear! Ms. Tea. I've thought about doing this but when I think of the inherent biases in it, I could get a bit snarky. I assume (but don't know) that the originators of this are students and not experienced surveyers. As a learning exercise for aspiring sociologists, or as an exercise for students to question their own upbringing and biases, it probably served its purpose well. As for revealing one's level of 'privlege' I think it fails. Ask someone you know who make over $80K if he/she is affluent and he will probably tell you that he is 'middle-class'. Many who make much more might also think that they are middle-class and not privledged, and they have no idea that there are many 2 income families in the US who struggle on $40K - 50K a year and think they are middleclass as well.

Rebecca H. said...

Interesting survey, flawed as it might be -- at least they make it clear to explain things when you want to. What the questions and the explanations people give show, I suppose, is that class is a really complicated subject!

litlove said...

The Brits are still quietly fascinated by class, but then we made such hell of life because of it for so many centuries that it's just as well the interest is a closet one these days. I was surprised how few of these I could bold - only the ones about books, and having a room of my own. I think it shows I had a very privileged literary upbringing!

Will Barratt said...

This was built as an exercise, not a survey, and the point is awareness of the reality, and complexity, of privilege for US college age students. While some items may not apply to you, and there are exceptions, it is the totality of the privilege experiences that are important.

I really enjoyed all of the comments.

Emily Barton said...

Linser, glad to see that in some areas at least, my memory has yet to completely fail me.

Cam, good point about who and who doesn't consider themselves "middle class." I have friends who don't believe me when I say things like, "The average household income in the state of PA is something like $40K."

Dorr, yes, a very complicated subject, with so many nuances.

Litlove, well if one is going to be privileged, I'd say literary privilege is the best sort to have!

Will, thanks for commenting, and I'd say, especially based on the other comments, the exercise certainly did a good job of highlighting the complexity of the topic!