Scattered Privilege with a Chance of Afternoon Hell

Owning your privilege is about self-awareness, not guilt.

You know something’s up when your mom keeps insisting you’re not abused. She gets defensive anytime one of those commercials comes on TV — the ones that list all the signs of abuse. As if a kid’s going to make a checklist right there. The commercial says things like, “Has your mom ever called you worthless?”

Well, not in those exact words. But tell me more…

In your 30s, you finally understand. No, that’s not what abusers do. They don’t call you worthless.

They just say your friends only play with you so they can steal your toys. And you should feel guilty for letting them.

They mention that you’ll never be cool like they were. So you might as well stop trying and just play by yourself. They don’t call you ugly or stupid. Just slice away at your self-esteem until you’re afraid to go outside, and start thinking of them as your only friend. That’s when they grimace and tell you to grow the hell up already.

See, it’s subtle. Your mom’s not an abuser. She’s a mean girl.

Most kids don’t want to believe they’re abused. They want to believe they come from a nice home.

That’s why I believed my mom when she started arguments with those commercials. The 1980s practically nuked us with ads trying to make us better people, and my mom couldn’t stand them.

Stop littering. Stop drinking behind the wheel. Stop doing drugs. Stop hitting your kids and yelling at them.

Gah. You couldn’t do anything fun anymore.

My mom always drew a careful distinction between real abuse and what she was doing. Real abuse involved punching your kid. Not throwing stuff at them. Not mind games. Not screaming, or making fun of your body. Throwing stuff doesn’t even count unless it actually hits you.

Of course, all of this happened before the mental illness(es) kicked in hardcore. My teen years would make me nostalgic for the days when my mom actually apologized and promised to do better — even as she pointed out that technically she wasn’t abusive.

But hey, my childhood didn’t completely suck. My family could afford a television. That’s something. In fact, I was one of the first kids I knew to enjoy my own TV. And my own bedroom. We didn’t go hungry, and never worried about rent or sudden evictions.

We lived in one of those neighborhoods that had a pool with a lifeguard and a diving board and vending machines.

So, privilege scattered my life.

I’m not kidding when I say that. It really did. Had I not grown up in the midst of the middle class, with a middle class income, things could’ve turned out very different for me.

It’s one thing to endure an abusive, mentally-ill parent in a middle class household. Something else to deal with two of those in poverty. We know it happens. Visit any prison, and you’ll find someone who had it worse than you did— and then they got picked up by the police for a little weed in their glove box, and then screwed over by a vindictive judge.

More people could recognize this point, especially at a time when so many want to deny their privilege.

These days, we regard privilege as a kind of sin nobody wants to confess to. Too many people think admitting privilege means you’re a bad person, or that you had it too easy, or that you’ll have to give up all your wealth. But admitting your privilege doesn’t mean any of that. All it means, really, is that you give someone else a break.

Those who live in comfort want everyone else to think they grew up poor, abused, or somehow disadvantaged. It’s not just the one percenters, but also those in the upper echelons of the middle class.

Someone posted a lengthy comment on an article I wrote about privilege last week. He’s retired, or close to it. His thought process illustrates exactly the kind of attitude I’m talking about, even while trying to convince me otherwise. Here’s the first part of what he wrote:

I think part of your financial insecurity was a career choice and where you chose to live. With a simple BS degree I had multiple job offers with a starting pay equal to $65,000 today and with multiple offers I chose one that let me live in an affordable community a easy commute from work.

Even Luck and Hard Work are not enough, you need to be Smart about it as well.

On the privilege spectrum, I admit I had some but we were poor enough that I had to work to supplement my Pell Grant to pay for school.

I’m not really into shaming people who post stuff I disagree with. But I feel compelled to respond. First, does this guy understand that most people don’t get to choose where they live? You either stay where you’re born, or you follow the jobs.

To most people, multiple jobs offers sounds like a privilege.

According to this guy, I made a huge career mistake by going into the field of education. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to become a college professor. It’s expensive. Grad students don’t qualify for Pell grants. And the pay doesn’t really cover the cost of living anymore. At least not when about 15 percent of your salary goes to your loans.

Imagine if everyone took this guy’s advice. We wouldn’t have any more teachers, would we? It’s already starting to happen. The U.S. faces an increasingly severe teacher shortage — all due to stagnant salaries and deplorable working conditions.

It’s ironic, though. Because this guy brags about how his college degree enabled his cozy life. Also, I wonder if he knows that Pell grants max out around $5K now, barely half a year’s tuition at a public university these days. Sounds to me like someone’s ignoring his privileges left and right. The privilege of a free college education. The privilege of people like me, passionate about teaching and willing to work for less money. Not that he seems to appreciate any of it.

Anyway, he closes his comment with these words of wisdom:

I think the biggest cause of poverty is ignorance and stupidity. The smart people even in the poorest communities seem to find a way to get ahead.

Smart is not necessarily a high IQ.

Luck and hard work are not enough you have to be smart.

So there you have it, folks. I’m ignorant and stupid for deciding to become a teacher, even when I knew that they don’t make much money. I just thought I’d be able to support myself without extra jobs.

I was so wrong, and I should’ve seen that earlier. Our nation used to care about affordable education, back when this guy got his college degree and instantly saw multiple job offers.

Our current situation is our fault, for failing to predict that a bunch of banks would wreck the economy in 2008, and that all the jobs we were qualified for would suddenly disappear.

I should’ve listened to my dad and stayed on my pre-law track. By now, I could be working for a major corporation that manufactures goods in sweatshops. And I could spend my free time bragging about my career choices to waitresses and baristas when I ask for extra foam on my latte. Honestly, it looks like a lot of fun. I’m still young. I could change careers.

Everyone believes in their own Dickensian sob story, especially in college. Maybe you remember that group of friends who always tried to outdo one another. They competed to see who had things worse. Felicity over there doesn’t think anyone will ever understand why she keeps popping Adderall and dumping her bohemian boyfriends.

Everyone knows that if you don’t smoke weed with them on the weekends, there’s nothing wrong with you.

Me, I always lost these contests. I was the one who always hung out with the crowd that did drugs, but never participated myself.

My generation’s Tom Wolfe, I guess. Although that’s thinking rather highly of myself, isn’t it?

To them I was just a boring, normal girl with no interesting story to tell about their tragic upbringing or life struggles. This is also a kind of privilege, the one of feeling confident enough to express yourself while judging anyone who just wants to pretend to be normal.

It’s also the privilege of carrying around weed, without having to worry about police harassment or trumped up drug charges.

People who’ve lived a comfy life don’t want to help anyone else. They want you to understand they struggled just as hard. They’re just smarter than you. That’s how they came out on top.

They enjoyed a life of Pell grants and healthy economies. They minimize and trivialize all the help and sacrifices that got them where they are now. They don’t want to say thanks to teachers, or advocate for a higher minimum wage. Why should they? You should just choose to live in a more affordable city. Or predict which professions and industries remain immune to economic rifts. Everyone should just major in math and design Fitbits.

They will never admit that maybe the government could afford to let millennials pay back their student loans without a 6 percent interest rate tacked on. That’s just not fair.

And yet, people who’ve actually gone through some real shit tend to count their privileges and cut other people some slack. So I’ve noticed. They become more empathetic toward others, because they know what struggle looks like. They won’t stand by and judge you.

Despite my mom’s illness and abuse, I still know the privilege of a relatively stable household. The privilege of never being raped or molested. Of never having to ask anyone for change. Of never spending a single night on the streets.

These don’t sound like privileges if you’ve always enjoyed them. But if you haven’t, they do.

That’s the nature of privilege — you always see the ones you don’t have first. You’re blind to the ones you do, until someone points them out. When that happens, it stings a little.

Then you develop a little self-awareness.

Even my mom was privileged to have a spouse who supported her financially. Who sacrificed his own ambitions to pay for hospital bills and medications. Even though she grew to hate him. Even though she attacked him with kitchen knives and threatened to kill us all.

In a different world, my mom could’ve easily wound up dead under a bridge in the middle of a big city. I could’ve wound up in foster care, split up from the brother I found so annoying. From the dad I found so cold and emotionally distant. In short, it could’ve sucked more.

Most of us have it rough. Just rough in different ways. If you’ve been through shit, you understand the shit could’ve been deeper.

You’re grateful it wasn’t.

At some point we finally realize that and stop competing for the trophy of most tragic person, or biggest rags to richest tale. This award doesn’t exist. And if it did, you probably wouldn’t want it.

Instead we start learning from each other. How one person handled their shit shows someone else how to handle theirs.

Owning your privilege doesn’t mean you discount your own experiences. You just make room for others. You stop being such a Kate Winslet, and pull Leo up onto your floating door.

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