I graduated college in 1993 with a B.A. in English and, perhaps more importantly, no student debt. I did that by busting my ass in high school so that I could win scholarships and qualify for various grants that covered my tuition. And I did that by working a full-time job at a pizza shop while going to school full time. And did I mention that I paid my parents rent AND did chores while living at home?
But this isn’t an “I was able to do it, so why can’t you?” story. It’s just the opposite, in fact.
For a long time, I thought like much of the Republican party does. The poor are poor because they made bad choices. They didn’t get a good education. They aren’t willing to make the sacrifices now to build for the future. Sometimes, particularly in my obnoxious twenties, I felt it was simply because poor people were just dumb.
But a funny thing happened. I started to actually pay attention to how the world worked. And I finally saw my privilege.
People get weird when you talk about privilege. The get defensive and often downright hostile. But just stop thinking about your ego for a few minutes and read on. Because this isn’t about you or me.
My teachers recognized early that I was bright, so I was constantly pushed and challenged to work harder. I was placed in college prep courses, encouraged to join extra-curricular activities, and had a lot of guidance support to help me navigate the college application and scholarship process. But looking back, despite the fact that my high school was predominately a minority school, my college prep courses were mostly white kids. I didn’t think much of it at the time. And I am not going to pretend I know the minds of my teachers, particularly all these years later. But I had black and Hispanic friends that seemed to me just as smart as I was, but they were never in the college prep courses.
Some of them did seem to slack off in school. But in retrospect, that was probably because many of them were working part-time jobs to help support their families. Or they were responsible for taking care of younger siblings while their parents worked, so they couldn’t stay after school for academic clubs. Many of the black kids were active in sports and encouraged to do so. Of course, being involved in sports meant sometimes missing class for practice, or the coach giving a gentle nudge to another teacher to “lay off” so the kid could focus on football or baseball or whatever sport they were involved in. Academics came second to athletics.
While I had full scholarships to cover tuition, I couldn’t afford to live on campus. Fortunately, I was able to live at home. $200 a month covered all of my living expenses. This was a lot less than if I had to pay for all of my own expenses. At $6.50 an hour (my pay at the time, if I remember right), I could easily pay my rent to my parents and cover all of my miscellaneous school expenses like books and supplies and save up for a car.
I didn’t have a car my first semester. But a co-worker took me back and forth to college for $10 a week. The fact is that the only reason I was able to work full time and go to school full time was that I had someone willing to play taxi for me for $10 a week. If I had to use the practically non-existent public transporation, it would have taken me two and half hours instead of twenty minutes to get to campus, and, of course, the same amount of time to get back.
I was lucky to have someone willing to do that for me. Most people don’t have that luxury. And it was a luxury, because even in 1993 I don’t think $10 was covering her gas and time. But she wanted to make sure I got to college. I would never have been able to get through that first year otherwise.
Though, honestly, even if someone today does have a wonderful benefactor willing to drive them to school, it may not help with their work situation. See, I was able to work full-time and go to school full time because my employer was AMAZING.
See, I always knew my schedule in advance and it changed very little from week to week unless they asked me first. Most people working in retail or hospitality positions do not have that luxury. Most people working in these low-paying positions are also time-slaves to their employers. Their schedules change radically from week to week, and sometimes they don’t find out until the day before what the schedule will be. That is unless, of course, the employer uses “on-call” scheduling where you are expected to just sit around and wait to be called into work. You might not even know if you are working until an HOUR before you are expected to be at work.
Such schedules make it impossible to plan a life. After college, I worked two jobs for a while. But I was only able to do that because both employers gave me regular schedules. A person willing to work full time or even work two jobs can’t when employers won’t provide steady schedules.
By some estimates, almost 2.5 million workers have on-call positions, and the majority of those are in low-paying hospitality and retail jobs. Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine how different your life would be if you didn’t know whether or not you would be working, and getting paid, until one hour before your shift is supposed to start? Every…damn…day.
So, yes, I did earn scholarship and I did work full-time and I did go to school full time. But I was able to do those thing because I had the opportunities given to me to do those things.
Oh, and that $6.50 an hour I was making? That would be the equivalent of $11.06 today. The average wages in retail today? $7.50-$9.25 an hour. Average hourly wage in fast food today? $9.07 an hour. Accounting for inflation, people in these positions are actually making LESS per hour today than I was making twenty years ago! And they are being given fewer hours and less stability with scheduling from week to week.
The point of this story is simple: before smugly looking down your nose at people struggling and reciting your trite, self-congratulatory story of self-reliance and being a self-made person, just shut up and actually think about all the people that helped you along and all of the circumstances you benefited from.
Recognizing your privilege; whether we are talking white privilege or male privilege or just the luxury of being born into a stable, middle-class family, doesn’t make you a bad person or diminish your own accomplishments. Make no mistake, this girl right here has earned everything she has and isn’t ashamed to say it. All recognizing it means is that, there but for the grace of the gods go I. There are a dozen points in my teen and young adult years where if things had gone differently, I would never have gotten through college (and possibly not even high school).
It also means that YOU have the rare opportunity to share that privilege with someone else. Maybe that means you help out the neighbor’s kid or a co-worker by giving him or her a ride to school. Maybe that means making sure your employees have a stable schedule. Maybe that means looking at your minority students and seeing actual students capable of learning and not just someone to push through so they can play sports.
Maybe it means not muttered under your breath like an asshole at the woman paying for her groceries with food stamps. Or maybe being willing to pay an extra 50 or 75 cents at McDonald’s so that the woman can get paid a living wage and not need food stamps in the first place.
Benefiting from privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. Pretending it doesn’t exist so you can vilify the poor, however, does.