Race Privilege, Class Privilege

My upper middle class brown child talks about his race frequently. How do I get him to talk about his class? 


April 3, 2018

“Dad, why is everybody white?”

“Dad, why is everybody white?”

“Dad, why is everybody white?

That’s my 10-year-old son on our spring break trip last week. The first observation came on our tour of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the second in the dining room area of the Embassy Suites hotel in Louisville, and the third at Mammoth Caves, a national park in between those two cities. He probably said it a half dozen more times during the trip, I just don’t remember exactly where. 

My two boys are being raised in a multicultural neighborhood of Chicago and consuming a steady diet of Kendrick Lamar, Black Panther and The Voice, so for them overwhelming whiteness is an unnatural state of affairs.

Moreover, those cultural influences – not to mention their parents - teach that diversity is desirable. Where there is overwhelming whiteness, or any kind of homogeneity, there is a problem.

When I was a kid, I noticed the same pattern, but instead of pointing a finger at the whiteness of the audience at a Steppenwolf production or a Cubs game, I wondered why my skin was so brown. Overwhelming whiteness was entirely natural; the problem was my brownness.

I view the shift from my attitude as a 10-year-old to my 10-year-old’s attitude now as a sign of hard-won progress.

But here are some questions that my son doesn’t typically ask:

“Dad, is everyone allowed to take a paid vacation from work over spring break?”

“Does every family take their kids to college campuses when they visit a new city?

“Does the PTA of every public school in Chicago raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for educational enrichment programs?”  

There are a thousand other examples of what would generally be called class privilege (by which I mean both educational attainment and income level, separately and together) that my kids take entirely for granted.

And while I’d like to think of myself as enlightened, I no doubt take my class privilege for granted too.

I’ve been wondering about this dynamic for a while now. In my experience, students at elite schools like Swarthmore and Columbia use the language of privilege far more than students at the more working class colleges I visit. But it’s always about male privilege and white privilege (which things are very real), never about the massive amounts of privilege that they are inhaling simply by walking around campus.

So here are my questions about all of this:

Is class privilege just less important than race or gender privilege, and consequently not as worthy of being remarked upon? (This is not to say it never comes up, just not as much. And of course race, class and gender marginalization are often connected, but, as in the case of our family, also sometimes not.)

Are human beings just more likely to notice the dimension(s) of their identity that place them at the margins and ignore the ones that put them at the center?

Is this innate, or is it cultural? In other words, are we teaching people to zoom in on the identities that make life harder for them rather than to highlight the ones that make life easier?

Is this a good thing? I mean, honestly I’d like my kids to spend a lot more time commenting on how fortunate they are and the responsibilities that flow from that, rather than the other way around.    

Is class privilege fundamentally different than race or gender privilege? One Swarthmore student earlier this academic year insisted to me that this was the case because she worked hard to earn her place at an elite school. But my kids did not earn their places at the excellent school they attend, or their comfort on college campuses. That is something my wife and I give to them. Sure, my wife and I have done the work to buy a home in a comfortable, safe, multicultural neighborhood, but we did not earn our places at the excellent public schools we attended as kids either. That is a class privilege our parents gave to us.

In other words, we used unearned class privilege to earn more, and passed it down to our kids. We were born on second base, made it to third, and now our kids view third base as their natural habitat, and probably also their birthright.    

In future posts, I’ll be exploring whether it is ethical to pass your privilege on to the next generation.


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