Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Privileged, owned and disowned

No one wants to admit they come from privilege, if for no reason other than it makes whatever you have achieved in your life seem relatively unimpressive. Case in point: Samantha Henig's take on being a not-massively-rich student at Trinity - the Manhattan prep school, not the preppy Connecticut college:

For my junior year of high school, my father took a one-year fellowship in Manhattan, and my mom and I tagged along. Included in his package: a subsidized apartment for us in a doorman building at 64th and Third (which I learned within my first week did not qualify as the Upper East Side) and money to help my family send me to private school for the first time in my life. I chose Trinity on the Upper West Side because it seemed the furthest from what I had known. I was coming from a packed and diverse high school of 3,200 students, more than half of whom were black and Hispanic. At Trinity, there were 100 kids per grade, and most of them were white and very, very rich. [....]

[...] I couldn’t come close to affording the clothes and restaurants my Trinity peers took for granted. (And unlike [fictional scholarship student] Anna, whose only non-Langdon friend is a banker who’s also living the glamorous life, I still had my public-school friends back home to keep me honest.)

Obviously we are not privy to the whole story, but from the information given... if your father is not only present in your life, but has a fellowship prestigious enough to bring him perks that include a posh Manhattan apartment and private-school tuition for you, you come from privilege. Not the same kind of privilege that permits Gossip-Girl-level excesses, but privilege all the same.

If you're going to use your own socioeconomic background to make some broader point about how the world works, you have to own up to what that background was, not relative to the world's three richest people, but relative to, I don't know, some slightly larger set. It's not that the subtle differences between Manhattan prep-school's upper and upper middle classes, the ones that feel massive to insiders only, should not be explored for all they're worth (although I'm not signing up for that task). But if that's what you're describing, and you're telling it from the 'lowly' upper-middle end of that spectrum, you sort of have to be clear that you know you didn't grow up poor, or even, in all likelihood, middle-class.

And then the idea that public-school friends are some kind of magical force keeping one attuned to what really matters in life just strikes me as unlikely. Is teenage materialism so fundamentally different if it's kids with $900 designer handbags sniffing at those with $80 North Face backpacks than it is if the North Face kids feel superior to those whose backpacks are off-brands? Clearly the former makes for better television - 'rich' being best indicated by Big Shiny Things, but as far as I'm concerned, the difference ends there.

Anyway, part of me feels for Henig, because I too grew up poor-relative-to-some-really-rich-Manhattan-prep-school-classmates, and I understand the temptation to present this sort of upbringing as one from which it's still possible to emerge self-made. But I tend to think it's not.


kei said...

Wait you can be a sociology major with a concentration in "inequality"??? Maybe I'm just out of the loop but that sounds kind of funny given this post.

PG said...

I have the reverse: I feel hyper privileged economically because my family had more money than 95% of my schoolmates' families. Then again, I went to a public high school where almost a quarter of the folks in my freshman class didn't graduate with me, and even of those who graduated, only 2/3 went to any kind of college, with community college a popular option. So I feel educationally under-privileged relative to all the folks I met later in life who went to private schools and the places that make it into magazines' Best Public Schools in America issues, even though I'm aware that having been in whatever AP and honors classes my school offered, I still got a better education than the average American. It's just that I'm not competing for admissions or jobs or any of the other shiny stuff with the average American; I'm competing with an elite.

(I have an ongoing argument with my husband telling him that he didn't go to a *real* Southern high school, because people didn't care about the football team and you could learn Japanese. Pfft. My high school not only could have been "Friday Night Lights," it was mentioned in the movie.)

My parents made me as successful as I am despite the schools they were sending me to, and having money was definitely helpful in that -- I had three hours of test prep every week until senior year. Money can correct for the absence of many other kinds of social or cultural privilege. I never went to a regatta or knew someone who did, but I could get the definition drilled into my head for the analogies section.

Also, NY and maybe America as a whole in 2009 is different from what I experienced in East Texas in the early '90s. If I had brought the classic Chanel bag to class, I doubt anyone would have been impressed because I doubt many people would have been familiar with the brand or seen the style as anything other than overly-adult, not fun or cute. Really high-end brands have simultaneously gone down market and become well-known everywhere. (I first heard of Chanel, Dior, et al. through trashy novels, not through the masser-media of TV or music.)

Phoebe said...


One would think such a major would, if nothing else, lead to extra sensitivity in matters having to do with class. Anyway, the link was more to offer a more complete picture of what the author was presenting as a background that was something other than one of fairly indisputable privilege.


Do you still feel you grew up wealthy because of your relative wealth growing up? I can't say I still feel like any kind of underdog, just because my classmates found my lack of a country house (or car, tutors, ample weekend spending money...) slightly tragic back in the day. No doubt money can make up for lack of cultural capital, but the same goes for the other way around - professors' kids are not (usually) heirs, but tend to do just fine.

As for handbags, I went to one of the snootiest Manhattan girls' schools around, but when grunge was still in fashion, and the must-have clothing items peaked price-wise with $100 Doc Martens, and were usually far cheaper than that. Popularity was in some background way about wealth (who parents encouraged their kids to socialize with; who did or did not get to see whichever other kids on weekends in the Hamptons), but dressing like a socialite would have made you look uncool, like you were letting your parents dress you.

That said, that was middle school. Once in (public) high school, I would notice private-school girls in the neighborhood in full socialite garb (it-bags, tasteful highlights, heels) from age 15 or so on, which suggests either that things change in high school, or (more likely, given what I remember from early-1990s upper-school students' grungy dress) that something changed in the fashion of the era. If anything, today it's probably more extreme, what with the life-imitating-art-based-on-the-very-same-lives influence Gossip Girl and the like seem to have in that milieu.

PG said...

I still think I grew up wealthy, because even compared to America as a whole rather than just one ruralish area, my family is probably in the top 5% of income now.

But my sense of these things is a bit skewed because my parents made drastically more money over time. When I was little we had a used car and secondhand toys, we drove for any vacation in the continental U.S., and helped Mom clip coupons. By the time I was in high school, my parents could afford to pay my entire way through college. By the time I was getting married, they were trying to bargain with the vendors just out of habit and suspicion, not because they couldn't afford the stated prices. So I've lived in both the middle and the upper classes, which makes for an economically irrational hodgepodge of behavior. I'll go to really nice restaurants without worrying about the menu prices, and then feel sad because it's not appropriate to ask for any leftover food to be doggie-bagged, but it hurts me to see it wasted. In short, I'm well-off and cheap like the child of successful immigrants should be.

Grunge never penetrated far among the popular kids at my schools. We still adhered to the 1950s/ "Glee" hierarchies in which athletes and cheerleaders and those whom they chose to date were the coolest, and the cheerleaders were perky and preppy. Since it was a racially integrated high school (thanks to a court order that we were still under when I graduated), the athletes in the cool sports were mostly black while the cheerleaders were still predominately white, though we had an odd racial quota system for electing cheerleaders and the Homecoming court that probably dates to some late '70s riot.

Samantha Henig said...

You're right, I did grow up relatively privileged, which is something I am aware of, and which made feeling like the poor kid all the more ludicrous. In my next post in this dialogue, I talk a little more about times when that has made me uncomfortable -- knowing that I'm benefiting from connections in an industry where connections, and the ability to accept unpaid summer internships, make a huge difference. I hope my self awareness comes across more in that one. And thanks for the thoughtful response.

Phoebe said...


What you describe re: family sounds familiar. It's remarkable how long (some) multi-generation-American Jewish - and no doubt others as well - families maintain the successful-immigrant values of which you speak.

My high school is notorious for having just about no black students, yet the proportion of black cheerleaders probably matched that of the general population. I never figured out why this was the case, but always thought of cheerleading - for this reason but primarily others - as the school's one link to any kind of outside reality.

Samantha Henig,

Thanks for the response! If my post came off as snarky, this could well have to do with this subject hitting close to home. I, for one, don't know how to address my past as a privileged-but-less-so private-school student without coming across as out-of-touch, so I let Jenny Humphrey do it for me.

PG said...

It's remarkable how long (some) multi-generation-American Jewish - and no doubt others as well - families maintain the successful-immigrant values of which you speak.

Hurrah, I can look forward to embarrassing my own descendants! "Grandma, you can't try one of the grapes on the bunch to make sure they're good. You just have to buy it."

Britta said...

Interesting post. Talking about privilege is extremely complicated, it's certainly something I've thought a lot about and am conflicted. On the one hand, it's important to have perspective, but on the other, it's easy for conversations to devolve into a "privilege" witch hunt, and pointing out that anyone who is not starving is, on some level, privileged is relatively unproductive. Also, relative privilege/wealth is an important psychological phenomenon, and (I think) studies have shown that being relatively poorer than those around you can lead to stress, anxiety, and ill health (to a certain point) regardless of objective wealth. That is, on some level it's better to be seen as well-off in a poor neighborhood than "poor" in a wealthy neighborhood.
Of course, instead of saying "poor little rich kids", I think it's important to acknowledge the lack of perspective that goes along with only hanging out in certain socio-economic circles, and that perhaps a remedy is dealing with a wider circle of people, not indulging in feelings of victimhood and entitlement. (Of course, this can happen at any level. At my fancy-pants liberal art school, there were poorer students who felt like they had a right to mooch off richer friends, to the point where I knew a girl who drove her friend's car without permission, crashed it, and her response was, "you're rich, deal with it." That she had grown up on welfare does not excuse atrociously bad manners and and mooching off those from Park Ave apartments).
In part, it's hard for me personally, simply because I don't know where I fit in on the American class system, I feel like my upbringing in many ways is so far from the American norm, I feel I simply can't classify myself accurately, and don't always have the perspective to do so. My parents in many ways have more "European" spending habits, which in some ways correlate more with upper middle class American life styles, though in some ways don't. They were also in many ways extremely cheap in some ways most Americans aren't willing to be (though not as cheap in others), as well as quite leftist in a way most Americans aren't. Because of that, it's hard to separate out the Scandinavian-protestant-socialist-tightfistedness/non-mainstream-American cultural elements from the class-based American ones, especially since I was raised to see many of the trappings of wealth as moral or personal failings to be scorned and avoided, not desired. (Until I went to college, I didn't realize that people still had house cleaners, nannies, or that boarding school wasn't a relic of British children's literature. I also had zero name brand recognition towards clothing brands or cars, to the point where it became a game in the dorm). On top of that, growing up I felt incredibly wealthy, mainly because I went to a school where most students were on welfare, and being "rich" meant at least one person in your family had a job. Looking back at my "rich" friends, I now realize many were barely middle class (e.g. having a single mom who worked as a bus driver). Of course, my view of rich has changed as I've gone to schools with progressively wealthy student bodies (and spent time on the East coast, which is a whole different level than the Pacific NW), yet on some level I've never lost my feeling of being wealthy.

(This is probably way longer than I meant it to be, sorry if it is rambling and incoherent and/or uninteresting.)

Anonymous said...

Britta, I wish you would expand on what you meant by "European spending habits"? I am curious, and it is interesting.

Phoebe said...


Did you grow up in Scandinavia or the States? I also to this day can't tell a thing about car brands, but I take it that's a NYC thing.

Agreed re: privilege witch-hunts. They're the bloggy equivalent of denouncing all classic literature as written by interchangeable white men. However, my reason for responding to the DoubleX piece was not to gratuitously 'out' the author as upper-middle-class, but because the piece itself depended on the author coming from an underdog status, something it was clear from hints in the piece itself could not have been the case. While I don't think writing about yourself should require offering a no-detail-spared autobiography, let alone a copy of your parents' bank statements, I think it helps to reveal as much as is relevant to the subject at hand, so as to avoid John Edwards son-of-a-mill-worker territory.

Then again, revealing too much about yourself as it relates to your subject can also get you in trouble, as happened recently when NYT shopping columnist Cintra Wilson wrote about the difficulty she had finding size 2 at J.C. Penney. This information was relevant to the story - lots of people reading the NYT style section probably take a small size - but combined with a cutting tone overall, the size-two remark got lumped in as just one more insult. Had Wilson left her own size ambiguous, her other remarks might not have been taken so harshly.

Anyway, re: relative wealth, that sounds like it would make sense. But having spent nine years being told I was poor and four being told the opposite, I'd have to say the latter was more of a pain on a day-to-day basis. Because... bringing me back to the original point, admitting to privilege (I should have specified: within a meritocracy or something perceived of as such) is never pleasant.

Britta said...

No, totally Phoebe, it's much harder to be the spoiled rich kid than the virtuous poor one (in part why privileged people are unwilling to acknowledge their own privilege). Also, class is very hard to pin down, as it's both economic as well as something much more intangible, in a way that is both hard to quantify as well as qualify.
I was raised in the US, though with the classic neither here nor there upbringing, too Scandinavian to feel American, too American to feel Scandinavian. In terms of European spending habits, it's an impression, not empirical research, but from my own experience, my parents' spending habits seem more in line with middle-class French/German/Scandinavian spending habits (not that they're necessarily the same) than they are with American ones. For example, my parents are more willing to spend more on travel/food/cultural things than the average American, and less on housing/technology/cars/clothes, etc. than the average American. For example, I grew up shopping at the goodwill, and my father drove a 1970 volkswagen beetle for about 25 years, but at the same time, we traveled extensively and ate very well, etc., making me both upper/upper middle by American standards, but also lower middle/lower class in America. Also, my parents felt very little shame in taking advantage of government program available to my family in a way I feel the average American family might not be willing to.

Andrew Stevens said...

No, totally Phoebe, it's much harder to be the spoiled rich kid than the virtuous poor one (in part why privileged people are unwilling to acknowledge their own privilege).

Saying things like this is why weak-minded people become Marxists. I realize that you mean psychologically, and only provided material circumstances don't change, but it's still not true. It is in fact easier psychologically to be the rich kid as well.

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens,

This discussion had evolved into one about *relative* wealth, and I was comparing having the same socioeconomic familial situation as a younger and older kid, but being at school first with those wealthier, then with those less wealthy,* and explaining that psychologically, I found the latter more of a pain. I'll let Britta speak for herself, although I doubt she'd disagree with this - obviously we're not saying it's easier to be poor than rich objectively, materially, when it comes to applying to and attending college, etc., but that for one and the same kid, in a situation presenting itself as a meritocracy, it's perhaps better to see yourself as there on merit than there due to familial advantages - this was, again, my own experience. But assuming we're not talking about more definitive forms of poverty, but rather kids from different places in what's broadly called the middle class, I don't know how you could say that it's easier psychologically one way or the other. I'll never know whether I was more embarrassed by my own background in high school than were friends who've told me they were embarrassed by theirs for the opposite reason - all I'll know is that there was embarrassment all around. The question, again, is not whether it's tougher to have more than less money (no one's arguing this), but which social background is more embarrassing in a meritocracy.

*This assessment doesn't quite describe anything though - it's more about the tone at both schools than who actually came from what background.

Andrew Stevens said...

Yes, I realize it was relative. That's what I meant by my second sentence, though after re-reading it, I confess that it's hardly a masterpiece of clarity, so I can see why you thought I had missed it.

I am arguing that, even if we're just talking about the psychology, it's still harder to be the poor kid (relatively) than the rich kid (again relatively), while you're still a kid. (I do agree that the richer kids do suffer from some embarrassment as well, but this is compensated for by the psychological advantages that relative wealth confers.) However, I agree that once you're an adult (college or later), it's more embarrassing to have come from a rich background than a poor background. That's certainly true.

Andrew Stevens said...

It occurs to me that I should probably briefly justify my opinion. The psychological difficulty in being relatively poor doesn't have much to do with being embarrassed because your friends say, "Dude, your parents don't have much money." It has to do with missing out on the things your peer group are able to experience - not going to the same movies, not having the same toys, not being able to afford to go places that your friends are going to, wearing noticeably less-nice clothes, etc. The embarrassment of being relatively rich is pretty much limited to being embarrassed when your friends say, "Dude, your parents have a lot of money."

Britta said...

When I said "kid" I meant college-age student, which might help clarify my point. Basically I agree with what Phoebe said--in a meritocracy, pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps is to be admired, skating by through connections is not, so there is a certain cache to being poor yet successful that is not true of being born into money. Of course, my experience is limited, and I'm sure there are social circles where that is not the case. At the East-coast liberal arts school I attended (famous for having a fairly leftish student body), the wealthier the student, the more they downplayed their wealth and the more likely they were to call people out on their privilege. Certainly there were poor kids with chips on their shoulder, but they were able to claim a certain sort of righteousness often envied or admired by the wealthier students.

In terms of actual children, you might be right. My experience at my elementary school was that rich was insulting enough that you would deny it, but being labeled rich was not necessarily socially or psychologically that damning, although it did mean you probably didn't know how to keep it real (the requirement for being rich was that at least one parent in your house had a job) . There seemed to be a norm, and if you deviated too far above or below that in terms of socio-economic status, you were deemed either "rich" or "poor," and being poor definitely carried a stigma, though in part it could be that the standards were so low, to be actually marked out and teased as poor usually meant you smelled like urine and wore the same unwashed clothes every day for a month, and once you have reached that level of poverty and neglect, the resources (psychological or otherwise) available to you are very slim.

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens and Britta,

Maybe a way to reconcile all this is to say that there are some situations (ages of kid, types of school environment) in which the psychological advantages to being from a rich background outweigh any occasional insults this might inspire (very young children, very preppy schools), but that there are others (older kids - college or high school, schools with particular emphasis on meritocracy) where having nicer clothes or getting sent to a summer program or tutors or whatever is actually embarrassing.

Ultimately, one could say this all adds up as fair - as I remember from college, students on need-based financial aid were often quite open about this, while those whose parents could pay the full way as good as didn't exist, because no such student would ever admit to this, as it was considered highly embarrassing (granted both because it meant privilege and because it meant feeling indebted to one's own parents, rather than an impersonal bank). But it's certainly easier once you graduate not to have loans than to have them, and however indebted students may feel to their parents, I've never heard of anyone having to pay them back with interest.

Andrew Stevens said...

As long as we're talking about college students, I withdraw my objection. By that point, one's parents' economic circumstances aren't terribly significant, so the meritocracy embarrassment argument does gain more weight.

Of course, I would not argue that it all adds up as fair. People from lower initial economic circumstances genuinely are much less likely to obtain good outcomes, so I'm not sure it's a good idea to compare people who have obtained the same outcomes (both going to Harvard, say) and then conclude that rich people have it rough, because you're better off being a poor kid who obtained that outcome than a rich kid who did. The reason why that embarrassment exists is because it genuinely was more difficult for the poor kid than the rich kid and the poor kid really has shown more merit in obtaining it.

Phoebe said...

I meant "fair" as a way of arguing against the rich-kids-have-it-easy argument and was basically agreeing with you, but I should have been clearer.

But I still think what you're refusing to do is to separate out material and psychological issues - you're absolutely right that if two people arrive at the same place, the one who had farther to go is more impressive.

So, to get personal: To this day I suspect I've achieved precisely nothing in my life, because I'm hardly the first in my family to attend college or grad school, etc. That I'm a doctoral student proves nothing in terms of self-made-ness in my case. I got into a highly selective free high school based on a test score and not parental connections, yes... but the test is far easier to pass if you've had a good education till that point, if you have educated parents speaking to you in English your whole childhood, etc. Basically, nothing I could ever do short of curing AIDS, becoming ridiculously wealthy, or being the next Proust will make me anything more than the predictable product of my upbringing. What I feel, then, is a mix of lucky and unimpressive. I don't know if all children of educated parents see it this way, but I doubt if I'm alone.

Anyway, it seems what you're arguing is that whatever embarrassment someone in a situation like mine feels at social stagnation is somehow both merited and unimportant, because ultimately the privileged are, well, privileged, and we're in poor-little-upper-middle-class-girl territory. And I get that. But the reason I think this sort of psychological distress matters is not because I think anyone should be shedding a tear over it - I don't - but because I believe that knowing it exists impacts how we understand various discussions of class, in particular how people present themselves in these discussions, and what should or should not be taken at face value.

Which alas brings us back to the Double X piece. My sense is indeed that my own case is not unique, and that the way children of sub-heir levels of privilege - i.e. children of what could be deemed the meritocratic elite - discuss class is informed/distorted by this sense of shame.

If any of that makes sense...

Andrew Stevens said...

We appear now to be in 100% agreement. We probably always were.

For what it's worth, your feelings aren't unusual, even in poor kids who got there through "merit." Most of them were born with intellectual gifts (or athletic or artistic or whatever) they did nothing to earn and many of them are fully aware that what separates them from the kids who never leave the wrong side of the tracks is simply good luck. Certainly there are some kids who were born poor and ungifted and who rose to the top through sheer determination, hard work, and force of will, but they are very rare animals indeed.

In any event, you shouldn't view your accomplishments as unimpressive. Yes, they were probably easier due to circumstances of your birth than they would have been for 85% of people, but I can show you plenty of people in that top 15% who washed out because they didn't have sufficient character to accomplish what you have accomplished. True, a good helping of your character is also probably owed to your parents and your environment, but by no means all of it. Ultimately, you are the product of your own choices. Even if you haven't succeeded spectacularly, you also haven't failed spectacularly and I can point you to plenty of people who have.

PG said...

The Double-X piece is also an interesting exhibition of how those of us who have been privileged (had more economic resources than the average American) want to participate in the great American pastime of shaking our heads censoriously at those with even greater levels of privilege.

It reminds me of Democrats' desire to tag the estate tax (or "death tax" as its opponents prefer) as being something that falls on the Paris Hiltons of the world. If the estate tax is still around and not made even more progressive by then, my parents' estate will probably get hit by the tax, but somehow nobody is trying to make the point about how the estate tax only affects the undeserving wastrels of the world by pointing to my parents' kids (a hospital administrator, a lawyer, a future radiologist).

I am very much in favor of the estate tax, but will leave it to my nonexistent shrink to puzzle out to what extent this is just part of my general liberalism, and to what extent it's due to the knowledge that I lack the character to donate half of it to the needy if the decision is left to me instead of the government.