The Depth of Privilege

A few years ago my friend John (not his real name) and I got into a discussion about what it means to be privileged in the United States.  John had grown up in one of the wealthiest cities in the Bay Area to two parents who had graduate degrees and distinguished careers in medicine and education.  However, John said that he wasn’t that privileged and he told me why.

When John turned 16, his father gave him $1,000 to open a brokerage account and learn about the stock market.  Later that night John told his best friend Mark about the gift and asked what Mark had gotten for his birthday since they were both born around the same date.  Mark said he had gotten the exact same gift from his father.

John was shocked to hear this.  He knew that his dad and Mark’s dad were good friends, so it seemed plausible that they had planned to gift their sons the same thing, but John also knew that Mark’s family was far wealthier than his.  In fact, Mark’s family was loaded. 

Mark’s grandfather had founded a famous investment firm and Mark’s father was on the board of a major telecommunications company.  On paper Mark’s family were billionaires, so it confused John when he heard that Mark had only gotten $1,000. 

When John asked Mark, “So you got $1,000 too?” Mark replied hesitantly, “Well no.  It was $100,000. But, it’s basically the same gift.”

There’s rich and then there’s rich.

From 2002 to 2007, I thought I was rich too.  Or at least kind of rich.

My family owned a big screen TV (it was 2 and 1/2 feet deep).  We had a dune buggy and a sports car.  We lived in a three story house in a gated community that kids at my school simply called “The Gates.”  I later found out that this life of luxury was only temporary. 

In 2002, when my Mom and Stepdad bought our three story house, it cost $271,000.  By early 2007, the house reached a peak value of $625,000.  And the entire ride up my family refinanced the mortgage over and over and extracted increasing amounts of home equity.  We could keep living high off of this equity as long as house prices kept going up. 

Unfortunately, when house prices started to crash in late 2007, everything came undone.  We lost the house and were forced to sell the dune buggy, the TV, and the sports car.  The Gates we once called home were now a barrier to a life that was no longer ours.  We weren’t rich after all.

But it wasn’t until college that I realized just how un-rich we were.  I’ll never forget during my first week of school when I found out that I was one of two kids, out of the 20 in my freshman hall, that had never been to Europe.  In fact, at that point in time the furthest I had ever flown from California was New Mexico, and that flight had been paid for by a science grant.

It also came as a shock to me to find out that Sizzler and Red Lobster weren’t fancy restaurants and that the word summer could be used as a verb (i.e. I summer in the Hamptons).    

Looking back now I understand why I thought I was rich from 2002 to 2007.  It was because I knew what it was like to live under worse conditions.  

Right before living in The Gates my family and I lived in a condominium that had an infestation of roaches under the oven.  Anytime we went to bake something they would come out and “bask” on the oven’s control panel like little lizards in the sun.  They constantly invaded our pantry and left behind little brown specs of you know what.  It was disgusting.  To this day I can’t stand roaches.

However, as bad as that situation was, I had a lot of nice things going for me.  I never went hungry, I had an incredibly supportive family, and I even had my own computer (back in 2001).  Yet, I couldn’t see how well I had it because it was all I knew.  Just like my friend John couldn’t see his privilege because all he knew was being relatively poorer than his high school friends.

I’ve discussed this idea before, but with the recent focus on racial disparities in the United States we should spend more time thinking about our privilege and why it’s so difficult to see. 

It reminds me of the beginning of David Foster Wallace’s This is Water:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” 

When you grow up with certain advantages, their presence can be hard to notice.  

For example, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now if it weren’t for my friend Michael who told me about applying for summer internships in our junior year of college.  He came up to me one day and said, “How are your applications going?”  And I said, “What applications?”  

I had no idea that recruiting for summer internships between junior and senior year was well under way.  However, many other students knew the process intimately as if they had been handed a playbook.  You have to get a great sophomore summer internship in order to get a great junior summer internship to then recruit for a great full-time job in the fall of your senior year.  I, unfortunately, was clueless about all of this at the time.

Despite going to the same school and being in the same major as these other students, I didn’t know about the intricacies of the recruiting process, but they did.  How did they learn it?  From their friends?  Their parents?  I don’t know.  Regardless, this is just another level of privilege.  Another level of exposure to opportunity that some students had and some didn’t.

And I was lucky in this regard.  Because I attended an ultra-competitive school where I was around people like Michael who could help me out.  What if I had gone to a different school or had a different set of friends?  Where would I be now?

But privilege goes beyond growing up with wealth or having more opportunities than others.  Privilege is in the color of your skin, the community you grew up in, and so much more. 

We all should take a step back and recognize the depth of privilege in our lives.  If I can see it in mine, maybe you can see it in yours.  Once you acknowledge that privilege, it is so much easier to provide support and help bring about real change for those who didn’t have the same opportunities.   

I know this isn’t a comfortable topic to discuss, but it is one that needs to be discussed now.  Because while I have the privilege to ignore this issue if I choose to, people of color don’t have that same privilege.   

You can help to change this by donating to one of the following charities today:

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This is post 189. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data


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