Sometimes, privilege does nothing but screw people up on the inside. Take my cousin-in-law. His parents used to think he was too good to bag groceries as a teenager. Now they beg relatives to socialize him and give advice on how to succeed in the world.
While complaining about welfare for decades, they accidentally created a large white human man-child who’s completely dependent on the entire extended family for financial and emotional support.
The irony’s just too delicious not to try a bite.
When I describe my cousin, my friends assume he’s an immature 22. But he’s more like a hopeless 35.
He lives at home.
His parents bought him a dog, so he could learn more responsibility. So he carries the dog around like it’s his baby, even though it weighs almost thirty pounds and scrambles desperately to escape.
When I think about this dog’s future, I cry a little on the inside.
My cousin has a teacherly way of speaking anytime he’s read anything. He doesn’t really want to talk about books. Instead, he wants to show off his brain. It’s the kind of thing a spectrum kid like me could empathize with, if he ever showed the slightest sign of self-awareness.
Someone needs to tell him that nobody cares how fast he can read. Maybe some day, I will.
For now, I politely indulge.
Maybe that’s why he sat next to me during a family reunion, cradling his pet, and asked about my job. “So, you’re an English professor?”
He wanted to know how to find a gig like that.
He’d been thinking about getting a double PhD in English literature and Norse mythology. Because the job prospects are stellar.
“You seriously want my advice?” I said.
He sipped soda through a kid’s straw, nodding impatiently. “I think I’d be really good at what you do.”
Ten seconds later, his eyes glazed and he started making kissy faces at his dog. Must’ve been something about “disciplinary interest,” or “specialization,” or “out-of-state tuition waivers” that dulled his interest. Plus, he’d have to get a master’s degree first.
When he came to, my cousin asked, “How long?” He didn’t like my answer. Six years minimum.
“I’m really well-read,” he complained. Couldn’t he skip some of the coursework if he showed them how much Tolkien he knew?
Actually, he didn’t say it like that. Not as a question. It was more like, “I could probably skip some of those classes, since I’ve read so much.”
So much for this conversation.
Since then, he’s retreated back into his fantasy version of what it’d feel like to have various jobs. Eight hundred years ago, he might’ve made a fairly decent scribe in a monastery.
Maybe a detective scribe, who solves murders.
My cousin used to spark envy and contempt in others. He never had to work. His parents paid every penny of his tuition. They never pressured him to move out. You can imagine what happened.
He stagnated. Everyone else evolved. Our shitty jobs, meager wages, asshole bosses, and student loans turned us into responsible adults. We learned lessons that my cousin never had to. Lessons he thought he could skip, just like he wanted to skip ahead to the “fun” part of a PhD.
It’s catching up with him now.
You see, my in-laws didn’t save enough money to take care of him forever. Just through his 20s and 30s. They’ve amassed a small fortune for him, which he’ll burn through a few years after they go in the ground. A small fortune isn’t enough these days. You need several big ones.
Privilege is a lake. You have to swim all the way to the other side. If you stop halfway, you drown.
That’s what my cousin’s doing now. Drowning in the middle of his half-assed white male privilege. Watching it brings me a weird mix of sadness, pity, guilt, schadenfreude, and glee.
My cousin’s held down one or two jobs that I know of. He never applied or interviewed for them. His parents simply talked friends into hiring him. Each one lasted a few weeks.
His parents can’t really teach him anything about the world now. Their parents got them their first jobs. And they stayed in those jobs their entire lives. So they don’t know anything about agile, or python.
My in-laws are just extreme examples of the same privilege we see every day. I’ve seen friends fall down the same staircase. They lucked into wealthy, educated families.
Except it wasn’t so lucky. They never learned how to fend for themselves. They never felt uncertainty, denial, or rejection — not until later. Turns out, surviving disappointment is a valuable life skill.
There’s this myth we all subscribe to. If you feel down, look at someone less fortunate. They’ll make you appreciate what you have.
Fortunate is a relative term.
Think about the people who had it “better” than you. How did that turn out for them? Privilege breaks as many people as it makes.
It just takes a while.
Some people in this world enjoy far too much privilege. It’s bad for our culture. Bad for them. Bad for everyone. Others come with no privilege at all. They fight for everything and often lose.
The rest of us see just enough. If we give a shit, we try to make the world a slightly fairer place.
We all know the cliches about appreciating what we have. But let’s also appreciate what we don’t. Too much privilege turns you into one limp little pissy pants of a lost cause.