Talking About Privilege: An Open Discussion
Ann Bauer has an interesting essay in Salon about how she can be a freelance writer and consultant because her husband has a more traditional job that pays very well and offers great benefits. She wishes more artists were open about coming from wealth and gives the example of two highly successful artists who feigned tougher circumstances upon being asked “How did you support yourself while writing your book?” questions from young and impressionable people in the audience. One writer (a guy) is the heir to mega-millions and the other writer grew up with lots of connections because of her parents.
Ann Bauer believes that feigned modesty and false answers does young people from more moderate circumstances a disservice and she is probably right.
Anyone who has been involved with the arts or writing will probably know a bunch of people who come from serious money and can live very well while being “independently employed in the arts.” I’ve known my fair share of these people. Sometimes they tell me directly about their circumstances and other times I hear things from other people.
I am also someone who comes from very comfortable but not amazing wealthy circumstances. My grandparents worked hard and saved lots of money. This allowed me to attend college, grad school, and law school debt-free (and have a small bit left in savings) and I am eternally grateful for this. But I don’t like to advertise the fact even if it does get awkward when people are complaining about their student loans and they assume you also have student loans. There are also loans and then there are loans. I know a lot of people with normal student loans from banks with interest rates. I also know people whose loans came from the Bank of Mom and Dad.
There are also times when modest showings of wealth can lead to a lot of grief. My undergrad had 1.5 dining hall options (one only accepted meal plan points part of the time), neither of which were very good because this was before the amenities arm race. The one nearby local option was a greasy spoon Chinese place that served heaping portions of food for about 5 dollars. I once suggested to a group of friends that we go to said greasy spoon Chinese place instead of dining hall and got yelled at like there was no tomorrow because one of my companions could only eat if she ate on the meal plan. Undergrad economics were weird. Most students probably came from middle-class suburbs and 60 percent of us went to public school. The other 40 percent went to some of the most exclusive private schools in the country and world. I also know of classmates who grew up very poor but attended extremely exclusive private schools from Kindergarten onwards because some benefactor so them as being very smart and acted as a guardian angel.
Getting snapped at like I was Louis the XIV for suggesting we go to a greasy spoon Chinese restaurant certainly taught me to shut-up about money and just do things on my own if I did not feel like eating at campus dining. But I also do get galled when I know people who come from lots of money but try to act as one of the crowd by complaining about the freelancers, artists, or adjuncts lot.
There is a problem of relative economic privilege though and it seems constantly easier to look up instead of looking down and I’ve mentioned that I have known people who were much, much wealthier than me. It is very easy to get defensive when you can think of someone and say “Why are you angry at me? Why aren’t you angry at X who goes to school with us and lives in a better apartment, buys more expensive clothes, and goes on international vacations by him or herself between semesters.”
Where is the balance? How does a person acknowledge that they come from relatively to very fortunate circumstances while appearing humble and also with having open dialogue instead of getting screamed at? Or should one just take the rage? Is there an ethical responsibility to say that you don’t have student loans when others are complaining about their student loans?