The word “privilege” is daunting and while it’s pretty easy to think about the aspects of my identity that have been oppressed (I am a black girl who spent 19 years living in Arizona after all), it’s important to acknowledge how certain aspects of my life have given me benefits over others. For example, I am able-bodied, cisgendered, which means I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth, and I have thin privilege. I’ve never been belittled by those obnoxious “take the stairs” ads on elevators, worry about being murdered by a stranger because I’m trans, or have someone question if I really need to order dessert. But the greatest privilege I have is class privilege. Privilege isn’t a guarantee for a life free of struggle, but it does give me certain benefits and make certain things more attainable. Of course, I’ve always been aware of the benefit class has given me; I’ve gone to rigorous schools all my life and didn’t stop wearing unflattering plaid skirts until I went to college. Don’t get me wrong, my parents are certainly not wealthy enough to pay college tuition without my brother and I doing the loan tango and them having their weekly “tuition dinner” of hot dogs and grilled cheese. But while the feds and Wells Fargo will certainly be the first to knock on my door with a congratulations balloon and an open hand after I graduate from college, I’m lucky enough that my pool of loans isn’t an ocean. The first time that I truly started to realize and think about how much privilege I have happened a few days ago while I was thinking about my experience participating in the White House Summit for Working Families and discussing policies to help working families, especially discussing education policy.
Taking classes in the education department has been simultaneously the most infuriating and influential experience at Duke in my two years there. Influential because I now hope to have a career in education policy and infuriating because of how much I had to get over myself and my over-inflated ego as well as those of others in class. I can’t be too superior because I had also always bought the empty promise that my hard work got me ahead until I realized that’s what wealthy CEOs say to justify making eight figures and not providing health insurance to their employees that work two other jobs to pay the rent. Now I couldn’t get anywhere if I lacked any work ethic (my parents are Baby Boomers after all) but having the means to buy books and have access to a computer all my life played a big role in my academic success. I’ve come to realize that hard work is fine and dandy but doesn’t mean a thing when not going to school in the summer means there’s no stable source of food. Or when babysitting your siblings means you can’t study the SAT that is already biased against you. Conceptualizing this and actually living it are two entirely different experiences, which was especially obvious at the White House Summit. While I appreciate the amazing opportunity to have people realize that the #selfie generation isn’t filled with lazy, technology obsessed narcissists but people with actual ideas, I thought it was questionable that a group of kids from Duke and Cornell were figuring out policy recommendations for working class families.
It’s patently false to say that all top 25 university students came from the same socioeconomic class, but there is some amount of privilege in all of our lives that enabled us to end up at them. Whether it was the fact that we could afford to go to private schools, we had books readily available, or happened to be lucky enough to be in a school district that offered decent classes, there was no way most of us could relate to a number of the struggles that working class families face, especially in education. It was especially obvious how out of touch my group, which focused education reform that could accommodate working class families was when the the conversation pertained to the cost of higher education, especially elite universities. It was frustrating to have it dominate the conversation when most of the working families who we were supposed to be considering don’t even have the means to afford the application funds to apply to elite universities, let alone have the educational systems to support them before going to college. College affordability and the crushing burden of Ms. Sallie Mae is a discussion that needs to be had, but having access to a university education is a privileged experience. Even when we finally moved on to discussion about issues working class families encountered in the K-12 system, including standardized testing and the lack of summer and after school programs, there were comments made that seemed wildly out of touch with how most people experience the education system. As interesting as the discussion we had was, all I thought about after was why we were having our minds picked in rather than young adults and teenagers who would be affected by these policies.
Though my group’s discussion was frustrating for a number of reasons (asking colleges to lower tuition as a policy recommendation makes no sense and merit pay for teachers is an awful suggestion), it was also enlightening. As much as I rail against the patriarchy and white supremacy, I need to acknowledge my own compliance in other systems and actively speak against them while recognizing what my privilege affords me and how I need to realize that my belonging to a dominant group allows my voice to be heard louder than those more affected than I am.