They say there’s three things a lady should never bring up in conversation: politics, money, or religion. I say, why not? I’ve taken on politics–heck, that’s my major.
First and foremost I will say this: I have middle class privilege. My family has never had to live paycheck to paycheck. Anything I needed (not wanted, but needed) I have gotten. My parents are paying for my college education from money they have been able to save up since my birth for exactly that. I have never needed to work to pay for anything–I chose to work to further myself and my real-life education.
However, this is not something I am very proud of, whatsoever. Would I prefer to have a life where I cannot afford to go to college and my paychecks went toward the family income? No. I do feel a sense of guilt for being born into the family I was and having the luxuries I’ve had when I meet so many wonderful people who have not had any such luxuries and have had to work for every thing they needed.
I have a few case studies to illustrate this–incidents recently where I catch myself with my privilege showing.
The first one, the incident that really inspired this post in the first place, took place at Wal-Mart a couple weeks back. I was in the area, so I decided to pop my head in, take a look around. Within five minutes I felt uncomfortable–uncomfortable with supporting a big business that oppresses its workers, not allowing them to unionize or even provide a decent wage. Then I realized how silly I was being. Yes, those things are still true, but there are people who cannot afford to shop elsewhere, whatever their personal beliefs on the business politics of Wal-Mart. There are also people who work there to feed their families, maybe put a little extra something in their kids’ backpacks as they go off to school–whether or not they agree with what Wal-Mart Inc. has to say about the state of the world. I can, quite literally, afford to care about the politics and policies of this corporation and to vote with my dollar.
The second incident came about a week later when I was in Portland with my mother and sister. The fact that we can afford to travel, even just by train with the economy the way it is–privilege right there. That we can afford to pay for a hotel–not just any hotel, but a fairly nice one in the middle of the city–obscenely privileged. I felt out of place there–this is not a place where the kind of people I prefer to associate myself with would hang out. Even when we were waiting for the bus we were the ones that were asked for spare change–our clothes gave us away as possibly having some to spare. The shopping bags were even more conspicuous. The fact that my traveling companions seemed grossly unaware of just how much our class was buying us–disappointing. The fact that we could prefer to save money by taking public transportation rather than require it–well, we could have done worse.
The third incident took place about three years ago–my family took a river cruise in Europe over the Christmas season–mostly to visit the Christmas markets in the cities we stopped in. I do not often mention the specifics of this trip to people–it makes me look like a little rich girl. In fact, it was the first cruise I’d ever taken, but how is anyone else supposed to know that without hearing an explanation that sounds like an excuse. We were probably the poorest people on the cruise–our clothes and our talk of experiences gave us away as middle class. It was a bit of a humbling experience to be the poor ones, but it was only a very small experience–there are times I do wish that feeling to be mine again.
I may depend on my parents to pay for my college education, but everything else, that’s mine to pay for. I feel like I can commiserate better with my friends if it is my own money on the line for my buying experiences and mistakes. It makes me feel like a better person I guess–puts me temporarily in a place where I am more comfortable being–more solidly middle class, rather than verging on upper-middle class. I think as long as I can realize what my privilege brings me in this society–little worry about debts and where the next meal will be coming from, this is an okay thing to do.
I worry though, about my sister, who has little to no knowledge of her class privilege. Mommy and daddy have been paying for everything for her and she has not held a job until this summer and that only because my folks told her she should. She depends on them and their money to be able to dress and associate with people who are fairly firmly upper-middle to upper class. I don’t think she quite realizes that she won’t always be able to live like that and that there’s a certain amount of pride being able to, even if just in some small way, live on your own money, earned by your own merits, not hanging off the coattails of one’s parents. I think it’s also part of growing up–learning how to be financially independent.
Class is a touchy subject because it is attached to the idea of money–but not just because of that. It shapes our growing up years, our education, our politics. It is hard to detach one’s experiences in life from one’s class, unless you know/realize that the best experiences in life have little to do with money and much more to do with intellectual, emotional, spiritual, mental, and sexual happiness.