My Privilege

Privilege: a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most

Several years ago I was picking on my oldest son, then a teen, for something I thought he was doing wrong, and called him spoiled. He answered me: “Mom, I know I’m privileged, but I don’t think I’m spoiled.”

He was right, of course. He lived in a nice, spacious home in a safe neighborhood with a good school, plenty of food in the pantry at all times, clean clothes and sturdy shoes, a car (albeit a horribly beat up Chevy S-10 with cracked windshield, torn upholstery and almost no paint). He had friends whose parents  had high incomes, and he had friends whose families struggled every day. By that time a single parent, I worked hard to keep the same house and maintain, as best I could, the same life we had before his father moved out. A lot of women, families, in my situation would have been forced to dramatically downsize their home. Friends and acquaintenances  questioned me frequently about when I was going to sell our house, I guess assuming that a woman couldn’t afford it alone. But I could. I’m privileged.

I read a lot about “white male privilege” but I know there are other kinds. If you look at our corporate website, you see several rows of white male faces (with a couple of Hispanics) that represent the ‘management team’ at our place. There are no women. But then again, we have essentially no women beating the doors down to work in pipeline and oilfield construction, even though these are very good paying jobs. I’m the director of a subsidiary, and we had only men, and mostly white men, apply for some high-paying positions. Does that make the company a bulwark of white male privilege with some Hispanics as tokens? Of course not. (By the way, my new engineer is female and black. She was the best person we interviewed, so she got the job).

My father was an NCO in the Air Force, and after 20+ years he retired and worked another 20 years for the U.S. postal service. My mother was always a homemaker. Until I was in high school, we rented our house (always leaving it in better condition than when we moved in). My mother made most of my clothes until I started working part-time in high school. Our vacations were camping and fishing trips; we never ate out. Things were tight but we never lacked for necessities. There was also never any expectation that they would be paying my way through college. When I, biology/science nerd from my earliest school days, I wanted to be a doctor, my dad told me to set my sights lower, because “we aren’t rich people.” I had no idea, and no one to mentor me, about grants, loans, and scholarships. Being a military family, we also moved frequently. This isn’t a positive thing: I have no childhood friends, I have no ‘roots’ as in a place that I am from, I was always the outsider, but moving every two years did at least teach me flexibility.

I am privileged that I was born into a family that let me indulge my love of books with library cards and a couple of dollars a month to buy from the little school brochures, when paperbacks were 25 to 50 cents apiece. I was privileged to have a first grade teacher who recognized my abilities and arranged for me to have special math and reading classes in second grade.

I had a job through high school, and between two and three jobs at a time during college, while getting my chemical engineering degree. But if hard work was all it took to get ahead, there would be thousands of millionaire migrant farm workers. It also takes some luck, some privilege.

One side of my office, two years ago. A hiring boom meant all the offices were divided into smaller rooms, so I lost the sofa.

I was lucky that my grandparents lived next door to the woman in charge of a scholarship fund at the community college, so my first four semesters were essentially free, and I could live at home and save my money. I was privileged to live in a state where the oil companies paid huge royalties on state lands, meaning that my college tuition was $4 per semester hour, and lucky enough to get a full-time job on campus. It was a regular state job, not a work-study job, so some semesters I didn’t pay any of the high fees that drive college costs up.  I was lucky that I had a way to get my BS degree from a high quality state university for sometimes $50 per semester, plus books.

I’m privileged to live in a country where I had access to birth control (for now) so that I could put off having children until my husband and I were out of college and had a home. We were lucky to find good jobs in our respective fields in the same town, that happened to be the town where all the grandparents lived, so my sons could grow up around family.  I’m lucky and privileged to have had good-paying jobs, so I never had to choose between vaccinations, utilities, and baby food. I’ve also been unemployed, more than once. My particular skill set, and my flexibility, made it easier for me to find jobs than some other people. That’s partly luck, partly hard work, being willing to move across the country for a better job, and partly having the foresight to choose a career that is nearly always in demand.

I’ve always been lucky that I found, or created, opportunities to meet people who later turned out to help me in other ways. That’s called ‘networking’ nowadays, but it’s been known for a very long time that many of your jobs come through connections, not just ability. Of course, if you have NO ability, connections won’t help. Someone is not going to recommend you or hire you if are lazy, incompetent, or crooked.

None of this is to say that I haven’t worked damn hard. My luck, my privilege, was augmented by taking the hardest classes offered in school, signing up for the extra after-hours class, picking out difficult books to read. Not everyone who busts their butt can succeed but, with rare exception, no one succeeds without a lot of effort. As a good friend once said, and which I repeat to all young people I meet:  “If you want to do something great, pick what is rare and difficult.”  Rare, because rare things are more valuable. Difficult, because if it’s easy, anyone can do it. When my oldest was in the Navy, he was part of the nuclear crew. He told me some sonar techs grumbled that the nukes made more money, but when it was suggested that they, too, could have become nukes to get the extra pay, the answer was “that program was too much extra work”.  Just because hard work doesn’t always mean success, doesn’t mean that you should avoid hard work.

Most of all, I think, is that I was lucky in the genetic crap shoot. I’m not brilliant, but I’ve got a good brain on me and can figure things out. I didn’t do anything to earn this ability. I didn’t do anything to deserve it. I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t play Mozart at me in utero.

Talking about privilege is always in context. There are many people who would say that I’m privileged and don’t understand problems. I struggled and had months where my checking balance was a couple of dollars before I got paid. I thought my college classmates who had Daddy’s American Express card to get them through school were privileged and just knew they had higher GPAs because they could study full time instead of working full time. People who knew that my job that allowed me to eliminate fees from my tuition bill probably thought I was privileged. Lack of privilege shouldn’t keep you from trying. That someone else has privilege, or what you feel is privilege compared to your own lot in life, doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own struggles. That doesn’t mean that a single parent with poor education in a bad economy doesn’t struggle much much more than a middle-manager busted in corporate downsizing who is losing his pension. Don’t be an ass, I know the difference and in no way equate the two. I’m writing this on an iPad using a 4G account. (And one-fingered at that so I reserve the right to go back and repair typos and autocomplete.) I fully understand my own level of privilege and that I could lose what I have through non fault of my own: layoffs, a major illness, an accident that left me incapable of working.

The way some of my classmates got through college.

What privileges have you had in your own life? Do you think someone else’s privileges (or luck) keeps you from obtaining your own goals?



Categories: Family, Feminism, Skeptic, Women

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