Friday, December 16, 2005


I've been thinking about the concept of what it means to have some level of privilege... and I think my concept of it is much broader than others. In order to explain my concept better, I think I need to explain how I see myself as having a pretty large dose of it myself.. so, here goes --

This post is more about how I got some things I clearly haven't deserved or worked for. It is exactly this sort of stuff Rawls is trying to compensate for in Theory of Justice -- and, although I admire him for trying to make things more equal, I don't necessarily think it can be done without causing more harm.

I often make this comparison in my classroom, while teaching about affirmative action. I think it speaks as well to the ways in which I have enjoyed a privileged position in society..

I think about myself and my family's opportunities compared to those of a black woman of similar intelligence (whatever level you think I have or don't.. this mythical woman is similar to me in that way..). Call her "June"... she's college educated and pretty well informed etc... she has a comfortable middle class life and no kids -- only 3 aging cats --. She could be my neighbor or the woman I stand behind at SuperTarget.

In order to get where she is now, she's had to work a hell of a lot harder than me... I'm not talking about doing an extra year or two arranging education at a beauty supply or working at McDonalds (both of which I've done..) rather, from the start she's had a harder time of it than me. Did I deserve this boost -- hell no. That is privilege.

So -- the more cynical of my students may ask at this point -- how is it that she had it so much harder than you??

Well, to start -- in the mid 1800s, my family was in the class of the working poor in Sweeden and Scotland (mostly..).. My ancestors were poor, but they understood and promoted education in their children. Those children brought their children to the US sooner or later...

We weren't owned by a family in Georgia... June's grea-great grandparents were slaves.

Two of those children were my mother's grandfathers. Both brought as infants to the US, to settle in the northern US, poor but free. Their parents had farming skills. They had some money and bought some land and were off to the races.

We weren't prohibited from owining land, we weren't treated like slaves even when we were free. June's ancestors didn't have any money, so even when they became free people, they were share-croppers, which is nearly as limiting.

One of my great-grandfathers went to college and was the engineer at a mine in Michigan's UP. He married, had three girls and then his wife died... he insisted his girls all get college educations. My Aunt Kay went to Cornell (and did debate, way back then..) my Aunt Bobbie went to Michigan and my Grandma Joy to Iowa... where she met my grandfather.

June's grandmother and great aunts had to ride in the back of three busses to clean some white person's house, because that was the best job they could get. Her great uncles worked manual labor jobs in the north. They felt as if they'd "made it" when they moved to the north to get away from the rampant racism.

The other great-grandfather stayed in Iowa and had 5 kids, 3 boys and 2 girls -- 1 girl and 2 boys went to college as well... the girl went on to get a graduate degree and teach at a community college in Madison...

June's grandfather was smart, he could read and write well for a black man. He was prevented from going to college because of his race. There wasn't really any question that he'd go to college. June's mom didn't have the family influence my mom did.

One of the boys was my grandfather, who decided that he had to keep up with my grandmother and finished his degree in psychology and plant sciences. She finished her degree in Home Ec and had a career as a social worker in Des Moines. He ended up working for the state of Iowa, developing the techniques to do land reclamation for coal mines. When you think about people out to save the world, my grandparents are amazing role models.... (and, Republicans... hmmm).

June's grandparents couldn't get stable state jobs in the early 1960s, letting them have nice house in a small town in Iowa. In fact, they probably would have been treated with hostility if they'd moved to that small town.

My grandparents had 4 kids, all of whom have degrees. One is a nurse (mom), another a degree in Art History, a third in business and the youngest has a law degree. The lawyer works for the Small Business Administration backing loans... another generation pretty much out to save the world.

June's grandparents faced a hard choice, send June's mom to a sub-standard "separate but equal" school in their neighborhood, or send her across town to integrate and put their daughter at ground-zero in the fight for integration.

In my generation, all of us (save one in-law we love anyway :) ) have at least one degree, or are in school at the moment -- or both (me & hubby) in-laws included. 5 of the 12 of us have taught or are TAing, -- at all levels from special ed to University. Among the other cousins I have an award winning actor and someone who works in a group home for the developmentally disabled. None of us have chosen to make money -- although I kind of wish at least one or two of us would... it would be handy to have a rich cousin --

June and her cousins have been overtly and covertly discriminated against in many ways from being denied housing or employment to the hassle of being stopped for driving while black. They are too busy making sure their kids are in diverse but not dangerous schools to worry about saving the world. June is worried about saving her 10 year old nephew from the worst the society has to offer. She went to college because she saw that it was the only way she'd ever get ahead. Sometimes she wonders if it was worth the time and trouble.

The point of all this is to say that all of my grandparent's children and grandchildren have privilege. We are privileged to have been born into a family that values education and made sure we were all educated and able to support ourselves... and, take it from someone who left college for a while before getting her BA -- that isn't a situation my family takes lightly. The phone calls, the Christmas and Birthday cards, not to mention every family reunion started with "are you back in school yet".

We have been privileged due to our race and relative position in society. None of us are wealthy, nor is our family. We are privileged none the less.

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