Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Back of the (Upper) Class

(In which I vent some feelings of irritation that – I fully realize – have everything to do with me and very little to do with any of the fine, reflective, socially responsible posts that have been published lately about the nature of the blogging community and its relation to society as a whole.)

There has been a lot of talk around the blogosphere this week about privilege. Bloggers, by and large, are a privileged bunch. We have computers; we have internet access; we have high levels of literacy and (often) high levels of education. We may, of course, also have terrifying amounts of debt, low job security, minimal access to day-care, inadequate parental leave, and impossible choices to make in balancing the demands of motherhood with those of paid employment. We may have debilitating illnesses; our children may struggle with conditions that society has collectively decided not to address because, you know, tax breaks and 6000-seat arenas are more important than special ed or respite care. But we’ve got computers! Not like the less fortunate!

A collective ecstasy of self-recrimination seems to have taken hold, in which we repent of the sin of having a roof over our heads and then pat ourselves on the back for having "acknowledged our privilege." Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against the practice of remembering those less fortunate than ourselves – what rubs me the wrong way is the implication that our level of privilege is somehow intrinsically tied to the worth of what we have to say. If we can just manage to accumulate enough Underprivilege Points, our voices will be really worth hearing. Am I the only one who feels this way? – who feels tempted sometimes to flaunt my student loans and the fact that I’ve never owned a real couch, as if that somehow legitimizes me?

Perhaps, having lived most of my adult life in the academic ivory tower, I am over-exposed to this form of self-flagellation. I go to work and I am surrounded by meditations on the nature of white privilege, upper-class privilege, North American privilege, Western culture privilege. Then I go home. My next door neighbour strikes up a conversation about his recovery from bankruptcy, his son’s ADD, and his wife’s abusive ex. My other next door neighbour stops to chat about his job loss, and his need to cobble together two part-time jobs to keep paying down his mortgage. I go to watch the Survivor finale on a friend’s new big-screen TV and we congratulate her on the fact that her husband is now getting occasional work as a garbage collector (source of surprisingly good Christmas presents – you’d be amazed at what people throw away). I go home, and my 24-inch TV suddenly looks a little smaller.

I don’t know where I fit on the scale of privilege. My husband wears a suit to work. My kitchen table wobbles when I put my elbows on it. I’ve never held a full-time job. I have a car and a house and shoes with scuffs across the toe. I went on a Greek Islands cruise for my honeymoon; I haven’t been on a vacation since then. I have three university degrees; I cried for hours last spring when I got turned down for three part-time jobs, all on the same day. In global terms, I am immensely wealthy; that doesn’t stop me from staying up nights sometimes, worrying about how to make ends meet.

All of these things have the ability to make me feel both proud and ashamed. In some contexts, I might draw attention to my graduate degrees in order to be taken seriously; in others, it might be my lack of disposable income or RRSPs. Both tactics make me feel soiled, slimy.

My sense of self-worth does not depend upon wearing Tommy Hilfiger clothing or driving a Bugaboo stroller. What’s more difficult, sometimes, is to remember that it also doesn’t depend on my faded futon, hand-me-down toys, or as-is Ikea décor. I am not what I own. My loneliness and fear are neither more nor less legitimate than those of the wealthy or the poor. I am privileged – but that doesn’t mean that my problems are not problems, or that there is no value in addressing ideas about motherhood that make me (like all the rest of you) a little crazy sometimes.


Beck said...

Preach it, sister.
I have to say that the whole idea that my ideas are somehow less valueable because of a perceived idea of "priviledge" is incredibly grating. It's the worst kind of Baby Boomer self-loathing and I hope that it dies off with them.
Hey, I finally do have a real couch, though! It's INCREDIBLY old, like from some earlier era, and has passed through a shocking number of hands. When we got it, it was covered in dog pee and torn up, springs sprung. WE saw potential, though, and my long-suffering mother-in-law reupholstered and refinished it for us. Ta da! Adult couch. Which we are wrecking.

Mary-LUE said...

I started one long comment and then got lost in it. So, let me just say that I haven't been following the posts which you have been. I do like what you have to say. I have my own strong, personality-driven idealism which lends itself to making sweeping statements about class, sexism, privilege, etc. Invariably, at some point later--sometimes days, sometimes years--I am brought back to a more reasonable point of view that has more perspective. Maybe that is something that comes with age, I don't know. This post is a reminder for me to stop. and. think. first.

bubandpie said...

Beck - Couch before 40! That's my goal. At least I've got four years left to save up.

bren j. said...

We haven't been married that long, but we never owned a real couch until this past November either. My parents were so sick of sitting on our gross cat-hair covered, ugly and stained couches that they gave us money when we bought our house and insisted that we use it for a couch. Now if they could only insist on a new car!

Kelly said...

Why bother with a couch? Mine probably puffs up a cloud of bacteria every time I sit down on it. I've spilled more breastmilk and formula on it than I care to admit, and not to mention potty training mishaps and stomach bugs. Ugh.

I really appreciate this post, mostly because I don't feel privileged, though, like you say, compared to the world at large I'm Donald Trump. We struggle, daily, and though I am very grateful for what I have, we wonder how the hell we can afford to pay our bills, send our children to decent schools (because most of the schools in our area suck) and move, when most of the houses in our area average well beyond our means. And I want to go back to school, which ultimately might saddle us with a bit more debt. We have definite problems, financial and otherwise, which aren't negated by the fact that I am currently typing on my very own computer.

Ah, anyway. Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

Gwen said...

Love this post, for the way you communicated your feelings so clearly.

As it works, I have been thinking about class, especially, and have a post hopefully coming on it in a few days (hopefully for me, not for anyone else).

Here's what I find interesting: I've been reading some of the same posts on privilege that you have and I've never "heard" that my opinion is less valuable because it's an opinion of privilege. I'm not saying that that idea wasn't implied, just that I didn't feel that. But this is something I've worked on in therapy, being okay with the problems I have instead of discounting their effect on me because someone else has worse or more dramatic problems.

I'm looking forward to hearing what your other commenters have to say.

slouching mom said...

I have been going back and forth on this point. Yes, my family is relatively socioeconomally disadvantaged, in that we still have mountains of debt, even as we are about to turn 40 years old. But I think the key may be in the relativity. Relative to many North Americans, we have very little. Relative to many living the third world, we are filthy rich.

I think HBM's mother was getting at a different sort of privilege, one that's indisputably linked to socioeconomic privilege: the time to be self-reflective, to do meta-thinking. And, maybe, the privilege inherent in the opportunities in our pasts that led us to our ivory towers.

But I refuse to feel guilty for being privileged in that way: privilege is a pretty vague term. It needs context in order to make any sense at all. I was privileged to be able to go to graduate school without spending a dime. (But: my graduate school was privileged to be able to spend never more than $1K per month on my stipend in exchange for my teaching many, many classes.)

It strikes me that the conversation among bloggers during the last week is pretty dramatically oversimplified as well as more than a little confusing, because we all define privilege differently.

Blog Antagonist said...

Wonderful post as always. I wrestle with this daily. We live in a very affluent area, but we ourselves are middle class. There are days that I wish like hell we had more, and there are days I am enormously grateful just to have a roof over our heads. As another poster said, relativity is one key, perspective is another. Because you're right, privilege alone does not a happy person make. True happiness and fulfillment have to be achieved on an emotional level and that can't be guaranteed by a degree, or a steady job, or a big house with a pool.

I think it's patently foolish to assume that economically privileged people are always better off.

Lisa b said...

B&P I'm glad you wrote this. I was thinking about your comment at Catherine's as it summed up what I was feeling but didn't find the words for.
There is something that bothers me about how the term "priviledge" is being thrown around too.
Maybe, as Gwen points out, I am reading into comments that my opinion is less valued since I am white and middle class. I hadn't considered that possibility.
The other thing that has struck me in previous discussions, which Slouching Mom mentions, is that we are not all talking about the same thing. Some of us are coming to the discussion as academics from very specific disciplines, with very specific understandings of certain terms, some of us have some theoretical experience with these ideas and some are talking about experiences from their daily lives. All of these perspectives are valid but they raise the issue of how to have these conversations be productive.
Maybe its my mommy brain but in my mind this relates to the topics you Catherine and Joy are posting about so I just wanted to say again thanks for waking up a part of my brain that's been dormant for a while.

Mad Hatter said...

I find this fascinating. First off, without a doubt, I don't take offense to what you have written here. None whatsoever.

When I wrote my post I was trying to get over the obligatory hurdle of "the privlege issue" so that I could make the argument that, from where I'm standing, the blogosphere is pretty damn diverse. But here is the thing: in the first draft I didn't have the sentence that posited my subject position as someone who grew up poor. In the final draft I added it and I wondered to myself at the time why I was adding it. I'm still not sure I know why.

In those first 5 months of blogging when no one read my writing whatsoever, I just wrote the posts. Pretty much all of them were reflections on life with my daughter. Then I started getting a few readers. Fine. By Christmas I had more readers than I realistically understood how to manage. My posts started foregrounding all sorts of things about me. My background, my politics, my current working conditions, the nature of where and how I live. I've been caught up in identity politics in a way I haven't been since I studied Theory 491 at the institution where you now teach (under a certain shoulder-padded feminist professor). Why? I'm still trying to figure this out and, for me, the comments on that post you cite have led me into a deeper contempation of this. Is it just that I am uneasy in this genre where so often we write as if we weren't tied to the material bits and pieces of how we live each day?

When I hear blogging critiques of the like "you should be with your child not on your blog," I am always quick, too quick, to reply "my child is alseep and my husband works 6 nights a week." I sometimes feel desperate to convey what it means to live in a town where you can't buy a home pregnancy test without one of your husband's students seeing you.

I think it is mainly that I never quite feel comfortable as this disembodied writer. I don't trust my text to just let me be and then I start tripping over the ways to sum up my life so that you will know who I am and where I am coming from.

BTW, I am comfortably middle class even though I have the same beat-up discout couch we bought 14 years ago. I really don't have significant financial worries. Why? Because the people my husband and I loved most in this world died. I find my class status awkward almost all the time but mainly I find it awkward by the means in which it was achieved. Maybe I am still making excuses for this...

bubandpie said...

Gwen - Yeah. I know I'm bringing plenty of my own baggage into this one. Part of my reaction stems from being an academic in an environment which is, on the one hand, intensely competitive and sometimes viciously hierarchical, but on the other hand characterized by a kind of strained and hypocritical concern for the disadvantaged.

I can remember one grad class, in particular, that devolved into a kind of Victimhood Olympics, with extremely painful debates about whether Jews were entitled to as many Victim Points as Asians/"visible" minorities, the more or less overt point being that victimhood was the prerequisite for meaningful speech.

Mad, Slouching Mom - The urge to contextualize is an important one. If mere possession of a computer is enough to qualify one as "privileged" (which undoubtedly it is, in some contexts and by some definitions), how does that serve to elide some very real differences that exist even amid the supposed homogeneity of the blogosphere? Does the caveat, "We're all very privileged" make the blogosphere more welcoming or more exclusionary?

Gwen said...

See, I knew I was going to love the comments. You have such great readers, B&P. And I couldn't think clearly yesterday because I was in the middle of baking a cake--hello, privileged SAHM who can fulfill her love of dessert whenever she damn pleases (oh, and it was chocolate, with this sickly good milk chocolate frosting, details I think you might appreciate, as long as I remembered to put the commas in the right place).

A couple things: privilege IS relative. By North American standards, I had an extremely poor childhood. My parents, working full time, together, made an income that fell, even at the time, far below the poverty level. But compared to the surrounding culture, we were wealthy beyond all measure. And being the white man in a brown world further informed the issues of privilege.

But it can't be the case that only the disadvantaged have the right to speak about disadvantage, can it? Like someone above said, that seems too simplistic. And yet, it's difficult to strike the balance between being helpful and being arrogant and pushy. Empathy is probably the stabilizing influence there and I don't think anyone can say with any real certainty who among the "privileged bloggers" has the "right" amount.

I guess what I am taking away from the conversations about privilege in blogging is that voices that are traditionally less vocal are being heard, the voices of mothers who have realistic things to say about motherhood and family and work and love and life. But that it's not going far enough. Because voices that are even more traditionally silenced--the voices of the poor and disadvantaged--have no access to this medium of communication. So. What do we do about it.

And, just to make sure I compose the longest comment EVER, I will take on your question about the exclusionary aspects of blogging. I'm not sure how you can generalize an answer across the blogosphere, really. Some circles are very welcoming; some aren't. I think bloggers, in general, are initially open to new relationships (isn't that one reason to blog? to connect?) but I think social pressures and concerns as well as just plain old human chemistry dictate a lot of what goes on after that. I don't see how privilege ties into that, except in the notion that if you're not blogging, for whatever reason (you don't have a computer; you think bloggers are weird, etc), you are naturally excluded, no?

bubandpie said...

Gwen - It's so true. My readers rock. And your chocolate cake sentence was so elegantly punctuated! ;)

Like "privilege," the word "exclusion" has so many different ways of being applied. There is exclusion through lack of access (no computer, no internet connection, no time, lack of literacy); there is social exclusion (either through overt snubs/ignoring OR through heedless remarks that may throw a reader into a sense of not-belonging); and then there is a kind of self-selection exclusion.

I know many people who could blog, if they wanted to, but they choose not to. I think this group will always be a large one - the blogosphere can never (and shouldn't try) to speak for all mothers, because even in a perfect world where everyone had computers enough and time, there are only certain personalities who will be drawn to blogging.

Bloggers often feel like misfits in a randomly collected playgroup of mothers; they struggle with depression (I suspect) in higher numbers than the general population; they love to read and write (obviously) - these are all traits that motivate one to blog and enable one to blog. I wholly agree with the idea that the discourse this group produces is not a universal expression of some kind of essential motherhood - what I object to is the idea that the ideas we explore here in the blogosphere are of less value precisely because they are the thoughts of a relatively privileged group of women (women without real problems, since real problems are, by definition, not experienced by women with computers and the time/literacy to articulate their experience).

Pieces said...

This is one of the main reasons that I don't share with people that my kids go to a private school. Because I feel compelled to follow it up with excuses: my son was being crushed in the public school, he has ADD, he needs a smaller class size, we scrimp and scrounge to be able to afford it, we never take a vacation, God miraculously provides the money. Those things are all true--I just wish I wasn't so ashamed of the fact that we are able to do something that the majority of people can't.

This also flows nicely in my brain following a discussion with friends last night about the affirmative-action bake sales. Have you seen these on your campus? The price for baked goods is scaled to your socioeconomic status--based solely on gender and race. My husband would pay more for a cookie than I would. Our chinese-american friend would pay less than I would. I find the whole thing screamingly offensive--which makes me then feel guilty. I know that I am extremely privileged but am I supposed to feel bad about that at all times? Growing weary of justifying our lifestyle and our right to an opinion does not negate our desire for social justice.

The crux of the whole thing is that my friend teaches ABE classes to white men with life-long disabilities who were marginalized when younger and never learned basic skills. How much would they pay at the bake sale? The most--because of their skin color.

ewe are here said...

I'm finally catching up a little on my reading and just read HBM's piece on 'privilege', too. I think HBM's piece, and the resulting comments, and yours should be mandatory reading for a lot of people I know or read or hear. Really. Because it is so.dead.on.

Why are my thoughts and feelings perceived as 'lesser' by so many because I'm considered 'privileged'? No, we're not starving. But we're certainly not living it up. Mostly second hand clothes and toys and furniture etc for the boys, almost all IKEA do-it-yourself furniture, careful shopping, etc. It's why we can afford for me to stay home right now. Yes, a privilege, but not one we both haven't worked hard for, and will have to continue to work hard for.

And someday I'm going to struggle trying to find gainful employment again. And I'm sure there will be a lot of tears as I try to figure out what to do with the second half of my career/life!

Again, fabulous piece.

Gwen said...

Here's something I love about blogging: how universal I discover our experiences are, as HUMANS, not even just as women or as mothers. Sometimes I'll say something that I'm sure makes me a complete freak and someone will almost always reply, "No, I agree with you." It's both humbling and comforting to know that truly, I'm not alone. And then there are blogs I read where from the photos or the usual topics, I'll form a picture in my head about the blogger's "perfect" life. Soon after, that picture is shattered by some revelation the blogger makes about his or her suffering. I love that, honestly, the way I am constantly surprised by how deep people really are and how our pain humanizes and connects us, which isn't as sadistic as it might sound. And even though it's a lesson I learn over and over, I still find myself applying that in real life, to people who I want to box in. Nothing is ever that simple.

Everyone has a right to a voice, even people who have been heard all along.

Julie Pippert said...

You are not alone.

I've been thinking a lot about all of this since reading those posts. I've beenthinking about my POV,and what I want to say.

I mentioned liberal guilt to Catherine. I confessed I think by most US standards I'm not that privileged, but am very much so by others to Jen. I'm still pendin gon a reply to Joy and Mad.

I do agree with Gwen (what a surprise...hey Gwen, is it true that nobody loves a kiss-ass?) in that I didn't hear that one voice is more releveant than another due to circumstance. I got more of a sense of "context should be considered" vibe. Which is actually a significant part of the scientific process.

It's like drug testing; they rarely test on women of child-bearing age, never on kids, and so forth...and yet prescribe certain doses of this same drug to those very people. Then are surprised to not find the expected efficacy, or unexpected side-effects. KWIM?

Anyway...I do agree with a lot of what you say, which is, as always very clearly and well written.

kgirl said...

you state your point super-well of course, but i seriously don't think i can handle one more word about privilege.
and it's only partly because some of the bloggers sending the hail mary's out over it are the same that blog about the tiffany's boxes and coach bags they recieve as gifts from their husbands simply because they deserve them.

sorry, but if you blog about that shit, you want very much for the world to know that you are privileged.

Mary G said...

I've just done a really fast scan down the comments and they are so good; thoughtful, cogent and well punctuated. (Snork)
I get really tired of getting brushed off because 'You don't really know what it's like!' or because 'You don't understand.' Which is another way of saying 'You stuck-up, privileged geek!'
What I am finding here is a bunch of lucky people who are intelligent, educated well (with or without formal acknowledgement of same), and thoughtful. You can also type. (I add this because a lot of university educated women in their sixties chose not to learn to type because that's what secretaries did.)

I believe thinking you are 'privileged' (and others are therefore less worthy) is a life view, alright. But the writers here don't share it.

If anything, you are too conscientious about factoring your relative advantages in.

I just noticed I was saying 'you' in this comment instead of the 'we' I more commonly feel. I guess because I have a new couch, quite expensive, that only gets crumbed on at intervals. *That* is privilege.

Andrea said...


By most standards, I'm very privileged (race, class, education, region).

I'm in a very strange position--everything visible about me is privileged. Everything invisible about me is not--I'm a witch, diabetic, my daughter is 'different.' It's enough to throw me out of the conversation when everyone else at the table seems to think they're in a group of like minds. I can't count the number of times I've been nuking my lunch at work while some folks sit around the kitchen table and bitch about how christians are persecuted in Canada today. I have no idea why they think I would sympathize with this point of view.

I don't think the point is not to have a point of view, or to pretend to have the point of view who has a radically different living situation. To me, the point is only to admit that we have a perspective that's based on being able to take certain things for granted, and as a result, there are large segments of the population we can't speak for. Hey, type 1 diabetics are treated like shit in Ontario. There is no government support outside of occassional doctor's appointments and blood tests. THe entire $600/month prescription burden is left on my shoulders--necessitating a job w/ good health insurance. So much for universal health care, right?

I am going somewhere with this:

On the one hand, when people w/o chronic health conditions start talking about "universal health care" and "what Canada needs to fix the system" and "how lucky we are compared to the Americans," it is glaringly obvious how very little they know. And it's very obvious that they know so little because their knowledge of the system is based on a position of privilege, the privilege of being healthy and able-bodied. That's one part. I really wish people in that position, when speaking about health care, would acknowledge their position, that of people who rarely need to use this health care system. Whose personal experience is as a healthy person, because it influences their point of view and the solutions they advocate.

ON the other hand, I speak myself as a person of privilege--the privilege created by a good education that allows me to have a job w/ good health insurance coverage that, after I leave Erik, will leave me paying $120/month out of pocket. This is a considerable benefit.

Or, do you know how very very few people in Ontario can afford to buy insulin pumps and supply them? Pumps cost $7000. Most health insurance plans don't cover them, so even most people with health insurance are left using second-best treatments that will not be as effective in preventing complications and extending their life expectancy. HOw incredibly lucky am I that my health insurance will pay to replace my pump when I need to? (At the same time the gov't does pay for CPAP machines for people w/ sleep apnea. Don't ask me to explain this logic. I can't.)

There is no gov't assistance in the costs of type 1 diabetes in Ontario for people of working age (meanwhile, Saskatchewan pays for insulin for diabetics), unless you are on welfare, and even then the assistance is paltry. We're talking $50/month to buy test strips ($50 worth would last for about ten days), and that's it. How do these people live? I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea; and to me, recognizing my privilege only means that when I advocate for particular solutions, there is a large part of that experience I am simply ignorant of. If the government actually came to me and said, "Andrea, how do we fix the health care system to better serve Ontarians w/ type 1?" I would say: "here's what I think. But that's not good enough. YOu need to convene a panel or a group that includes type 1's from different socioeconomic classes, who will have different perspectives than I will."

I don't feel the slightest bit guilty for not knowing what it's like to have an extra $550/month medical bill. I feel incredibly fortunate. I hope to never know what that's like. To me, acknowledging privilege is no different than acknowledging any other kind of ignorance. I wouldn't enter a conversation and pretend to be an astrophysicist, or a biologist, or a chemist, because I'm not. And it's no different, when speaking about any of my pet issues--feminism, ableism, environmentalism, social justice generally--simply to acknowledge that I am ignorant. That, due to my particular circumstances, there's a lot I don't know, a lot of experiences and I am ignorant of, that shape my knowledge and the solutions I propose. That I can't speak for everyone, and shouldn't pretend to. And that's all.

flutter said...

Thank you.

I was reading some things, and I am not entirely certain why it all hit this week, about the concept of privilege. I have to agree with you, while we may, as a group, have more than some, we certainly have less than others. I reject the notion of because I worked hard to get what I have that I should feel badly about still having problems, or voicing my opinion about things that matter.

toyfoto said...

I think privilege is relative, too. I also think privilege doesn't save you from life's worst or buy you the best it has to offer.

I like to think of it as influence. If we have some influence, perhaps we should be spreading that around.

Bon said...

well said. and i think timely, in the midst of all the meta-conversation going around this week.

i think that the points about exclusion and access in terms of so-called 'mommyblogging' are valid, but also in danger of drowning out the actual diversities and commonalities making up this community. if anyone out there actually think all moms are the same, or that mombloggers represent some previously silent voice of the universal mother, then obviously they need to be beaten about the head with the "hey, welcome to social theory 101" stick.

but i also think dismissing the work being done in this community - in terms of expression, social networking, and meta-mothering - as privileged navel-gazing is just enforcing exclusion out one side of one's mouth while lamenting it with the other. which necessitates the "social theory 102" stick, perhaps...recognition that just because you cannot stand above a particular group and pity them doesn't make them automatically monolithic and worthy of being dismissed as "privileged."

on a more personal note, i too am on the 'real couch by 40' dreamplan...but as i live in the Maritimes where ugly furniture seems to go to die, i may not have any hope of succeeding in this ambition.


jen said...

I might look at it as a truth. Priviledged. Varying by degrees. But it does color our world view - we aren't the sort (generally) to be sleeping outside, to not have food for dinner. To not be able to get a sick kid medical treatment.

It's a reality that makes it hard to comprehend the reality of others, domestically and internationally. Does that make us less entitled to suffer?

Perhaps if that is as long as my lens extended itself, I might say yes, it does - if indeed i view suffering by comparison and i do that, it's my way of contextualizing the world. But if it keeps my mind open, my opinions qualified, my desire to learn intact, then perhaps that is different.

Everyone struggles. It's the keeping the forest for the trees view in the midst of it that matters, not so much in how i am percieved, but for how i find my own way through.

Anonymous said...

I've been stewing over your post for a day now.

I think, for me, it's easier to think about privilege and what it means to our society when I think about what it means for children. Bub and Pie, I am sure, are exposed to enrichening language environments, that alone makes such a huge difference in terms of child development. Research tells us that children in middle and upper class homes, by the time they enter kindergarten, have 3x the vocabulary as children from poverty. This phenomenon is caused, in part, because middle-class parents talk to thier children more than parents in poverty do. So, when I think about the story that "her bad mother" told the other day about the newborn in the umbrella story, the issue of privilege comes up because I wonder what else might not happen in that little one's immediate experiences that might put her at more risk than your Pie.

I guess all this to say the following: I totally understand your frustration with the term "privilege" and its implications for adults. We all have our problems, and to a degree, we all have the ability to change our situations. For adults, it is easy to see that privilege is relative. But with children, it's different. For them, privilege isn't relative, it's obvious.

Just a few thoughts, and I'm enjoying what every one has to say. It's a tough situation to admit one's own privilege when we all live with our own difficulties every day...

Rock the Cradle said...

There will always be people with more or less money than I. If privilege were based on the premise of monetary wealth alone,I might be a much less privileged woman.

But when I volunteered for a domestic violence hot line years ago, I realized that there are many more privileges I had completely overlooked. The privilege of skin color, of beauty, of lineage. The privilege of education. The privilege of seeing, of hearing, of walking. Of being thin. And healthy. Of youth. Of age. Of being a man, or a woman. All of these a privilege, or not, depending on circumstance.

Regardless of how many privileges we enjoy, (or take for granted), when a loved one dies, it hurts like hell. When we are betrayed, or humiliated, or we triumph over ourselves, or we find beauty in a flower, or a rainfall, or a sunset, privilege doesn't matter. Emotion knows no privilege.

So write on. And enjoy that couch when you get it.

Aliki2006 said...

I am following all this with immense interest, and catching up on the other threads as well.

Well said...sorry I don't have anything more profound to say--I must mull it all over some more.

Denguy said...

I live in a different world now--different from the one in which I grew up. My mother raised four boys on her own and she did it with plenty of help from the government. She also insisted that we further our education: two of us went to college, and two to university.

We are all grown now and all successful. It's interesting to raise "privileged" children when I've never lived that way before. I don't even think that way--I'm not sure I know how.

bubandpie said...

Anonymous - Another stat that has stayed with me is that children of "professional" parents have a 7:1 ratio of positive to negative verbal interactions with their parents - that is, for every time they're told they're doing something wrong, there are 7 words of affirmation and/or shared enjoyment. Among middle income children the ratio goes down (5:1? 3:1? I can't remember the exact number). Among the lowest-income families, however, the ratio reverses to 1:3 - for every positive word these children hear, they're being blamed, reproved, or told to stop three times.

I don't know if "privilege" is the word I'd use to describe the children from the professional and middle-income groups. I might say a child is privileged if he has thousands of dollars worth of toys, if he goes to incredibly expensive private schools, or if he wears designer clothing. To me, "privilege" implies an unfair advantage, or a monopoly of more resources than one is entitled to (which is why, in environmental terms, nearly everybody in Western society is privileged).

All children ought to have parents who talk to them, who support them - and that support is often possible only when the parents themselves are supported. Even among higher-income or professional families, maternal depression contributes significantly to mothers not talking to their children. We all need that support - and some of us find it in the blogosphere.

For me, at least, the experience of blogging has emphasized the need for everyone to have an environment in which parenting can be discussed realistically without judgment. That's part of the reason I got involved in the parenting class/support group I've been doing for the last few weeks for at-risk mothers - because we all need that support to do this really difficult job.

Jenifer G. said...

Just wanted to pop in and say I am enjoying all the comments and of course your thought-provoking words as well...I have read most of the other posts as well...

So much to mull over, and not ready to weigh in. I will say I am much more on your side of the fence on this issue, I think we approach this from the same angle.

Privilege, when not clearly defined, can be a frustrating topic to debate. Like many others I can entirely view my life as extremely privileged and yet in another light not at all. By and large, living in the West we are privileged by default, this however does not speak to everyone's individual circumstances. Oh. I think I just weighed in.

As for the couch. We have one we bought right after we moved in nearly 10 years ago. Someone mentioned her couch being toxic, I am sure mine qualifies as we have only one room - no separate family room or anything. Ours has been in constant use (day and night) for ten years, one arm is worn through (the favourite side we all squabble over) thank goodness the pattern hides most of the other damage. I have been looking at covers at Sears and WalMart, but so far have not spent the near $100 for one, just seems like so much money to cover my dirt.

I do love your goal of a couch before 40, sounds like something I would say.

Thanks for another great - from the heart post.

wordgirl said...

Me, too. On global terms I am very rich, but every trip to the grocery store has me wincing over the price of toothpaste and face soap and WHY DO OUR KIDS CONSUME NINE GALLONS OF MILK PER WEEK???

So we don't live on the poverty level...why does this mean that our words are less valid and who is it that is saying such trash?

Anonymous said...


I think I would qualify rich language environments as an example of privilege for the same reason you said they shouldn't be: "unfair advantage."

I have also seen the same statistics you have cited--and they're heartbreaking. I totally agree that all children should have access to parents who use language (and positive, affirming language, at that) with their children. But not all children do, for whatever reasons (and maternal depression is a HUGE problem).

I guess I think about it like this: children who are exposed to rich language environments are at an unfair advantage over children who are not exposed to the same environments. Should all children have that access? Well, yes, I think we would all say they should. But, for some reason or another, they don't. And so, even though it doesn't seem "right" that we would classify access to language as a tot as an "unfair advantage," (because it's something that SHOULD be universal), it's still the reality, and therefore, still leaves one kindergartner with an advantage over his/her classmate.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I have just a little bit more. I published and then went back and reread your comment, B&P.

"Privilege" has been a hard topic for me to grasp and I hesitate to buy into the phenomenon that it is everywhere I look and that it can't be escaped or reduced. The idea that because one has come from an environment where he/she has a little bit more than others and should, therefore, not be allowed to have a voice, or have his/her voice heard, is absurd (but it happens, A LOT, especially here in good ol' Cambridge, MA).

What may be more important than defining privilege, particularly for this realm, is identifying what we can do about in our own communities. How can the veteran mother help out the new mother? How can the middle-class help those living in poverty? How can we ensure that ALL children are read to and talked to and come to kindergarten ready-to-learn?

Even if we cannot agree on what privilege is, we can agree that some have and others don't. How can we make our own community a better place? Opening up a forum for discussion (such as the blogosphere has allowed) is a great start, now we must transfer the discussion to action (i.e. working with at-risk mothers).

bubandpie said...

Wordgirl - Really, no one is saying such trash. The conversation tends to go like this:

"Mommy-blogging is producing a ground-breaking discourse about motherhood."

"Yes, but whose experience of motherhood is being represented in the blogosphere? By and large, blogs are written by educate, white, married, middle-class mothers. Other voices are still excluded."

"That's true. We are very privileged."

And then I start sputtering and saying "Yeah but some are more privileged than others" and "blah blah blah I'm a victim too" and "blah blah blah I shouldn't have to be a victim in order for my words to have value," and then I start swiping myself upside the head. Ad nauseum.

kittenpie said...

I started a post about this last night myself. But as I said to lisa b, before I post it, I have to find the privilege of time and headspace to finish it... Anyhow, when I get there, I will sure be linking to this! I feel the same in many ways. As toyfoto said in HBM's comments: We are all lucky. We are all unlucky.

cinnamon gurl said...

Wow, fantastic post! Somehow stupid bloglines didn't catch this one, or the one below, which I am about to read.

I have been percolating some of these thoughts, but not to a point where I could articulate them yet.

We have a futon... with a chocolate brown faux suede cover mind you... a friend of mine is on me constantly that I should get a real couch, but it functions perfectly, so I'm not inclined to.

On another totally irrelevant note, I am the only one of my uni friends to be married, have a baby and own a house... I am very uncomfortable being so comfortably middle class.

cinnamon gurl said...

Also, the whole privilege and blogging thing. Several times I have commented to my husband that there seem to be a lot of academics blogging; then I realize that perhaps I am just drawn to the academic bloggers, because I am drawn to "word people" like me, People who care about words. (I love lots of unacademic bloggers by the way.) Then I wonder at just how many people love to write...

I'm blathering... it's why I've barely been able to comment on the other posts... I can't quite figure out what I'm trying to say.

Great post!

Tina C. said...

Most of the time, I think, intellectuals (of all types and class) should just go ahead and think and postulate and then share with the rest of us.

Other times, I think, they should examine how what they think and say reflects their background and class and ethnicity, and etc.

But thinking about things should be their primary concern.

Lawyer Mama said...

I must leave a comment now before I run out of time again! I haven't made my way through all of the comments though yet, so please forgive me if I'm not following the flow of the conversation.

I think "privilege" is all relative. If you take a world view, pretty much 99% of the North American (almost said U.S. & caught myself!) population is privileged. Perhaps we do give a bit more credibility to the views of someone who has grown up poor because they've struggled a bit more to get where they are. (Maybe this is why I insist on telling everyone that I went to public schools & didn't have a lot of money, as if that somehow gives me more street cred.) But even so, I don't think that our "privileged" voices should be taken less seriously.

Maybe we do tend to write about issues that only affect a certain set of the population (the stay at home versus working debate, for instance), but our blogs are just that *our* blogs. It would be ridiculous for me to write about motherhood, children, politics and social issues in the abstract. I'm not a social scientist and I'm not a child psychologist. I can only write about these things from my "privileged" perspective.

Oh & my kitchen table has a folded up travel brochure under one of the legs keeping it balanced!

Mimi said...


I've been doing some self-loathing and feeling icky about it.


I took a public feminisms class in grad school that trod a similar path to this and it all went to hell rather quickly and it left such a sour taste in my mouth that I'd do anything not to be talked (or to talk myself) into that corner ever again.

But I don't know how. You did a good job of it here, though. Thanks.

(oh, just read your comment about 'victimhood olympics. yes, that's exactly it ...)

Mimi said...

My comment might sound telegraphically snarky. Don't mean it to. Lovely, lovely conversation.

Mimi, who has one first hand (IKEA) couch, and one hand me down couch, and calls it a draw.

Kyla said...

Bravo. This was excellent, B&P.

Thailand Gal said...

I am strictly a "not privileged" person by this culture's standards ~ yet I was raised in it.

90210 Limousine Liberals, parlor pinkos...oh, yes... all around me. There is a certain hollowness in their voices though when they try to legitimize themselves by aligning with those they consider underprivileged. It was always a bit condescending and patronizing. They didn't loath themselves at all. They just tried to justify their exploitation of others by pretending to be "charitable".

I didn't buy it then ~ and I don't buy it now.

"Privileged" or "underprivileged" is a state of mind, a system of beliefs. For those who live consciously, it is a self-determined standard.

I am in late middle-age. What I own would fit into the back of a Toyota pick-up truck. I live on less than $1300.00 a month. I will be spending the remainder of my years in a third world country. I am surrounded by books, beautiful music, kind people and somehow, I always manage to have what I need. I have the gift of unstructured time.

And in my opinion, that is damned "privileged"!

As you said, we are not what we own. But we own who we are.

I hope you are heard.



NotSoSage said...

Oh, crap. Too much for my brain right now and lots more to read! I will ruminate on what you and others have had to say. Like Cin, bloglines didn't notify me of these posts, so I'm late to the party.

metro mama said...

I missed this post somehow (just found it through Kittenpie). Lots of comments already.

I don't think we need to be apologetic about privilege (and by privilege I mean literacy and time). I just think it needs to be acknowleged lest we begin to think we are representative of all mothers (which we clearly are not).

karrie said...

I'm not sure where I fit either. My current lifestyle seems embarrassingly privileged when compared to how I grew up.

There are plenty of less economically/educationally privileged women who blog. I know several who work very low wage jobs and/or struggle daily to keep a roof over their families heads.

Their voices are not silenced because I post about getting a new Scooba or something equally inane, yet judging from comments and links, most of them seem to have far fewer readers.

Ideally, all of our voices would be worth reading. And I'm not sure those of us who are relatively privileged can completely ignore the fact that we can bitch about a hang nail and someone will say "Oh, me too! You know exactly how I feel!" Can the same be said for someone facing eviction or who is worried about keeping a job at Wal-mart?

Momish said...

Great post, B&P, as usual. I have to agree with you and most of the comments here that priviledge is relative and not solely based on econmics.

I remember in college when I discovered in my social studies class that my family income actually fell below the poverty range. I was floored and devestated (and yes, thoroughly embarrassed!). I had no idea that we as a family unit were poor. I never knew that, relative to most of America, we had the least.

According to my happiness, comfort and own comparisons, we had so much and I felt lucky. It was an eye opening experience because I realized that financially we were poor, but otherwise we were rich. I will never forget that feeling of shock. All in all, I would say I was a priliedged child just becuase I had no idea how poor I was.

Her Bad Mother said...

I too have wanted to smack myself upside the head for my reactions to all the talk about privilege - yes I am no I'm not yes I am no I'm not ad infinitum. Which is why I had to take a stand, for myself, and say, yes, I AM privileged, if only because I am able to write.

But I had to couple it (sloppily) with that other dirty word, narcissism, to really get at my concern: why why why do we worry this so? why do we declaim it in any measure? Narcissism is obviously problematic, undesirable, unless it is re-written as self-actualized self-love. But privilege? Is that we none of us really believe ourselves to be privileged? That we resent privilege?

Our insistence upon declaiming and apologizing for our advantages only *dis*advantages us. We need to own them, whatever they are, and in whatever measure they come. And USE them. For the better.

gingajoy said...

Hey Bub,
I am out and about catching up and much of what you are saying here rings home for me. I do hope that when I presented my caveat that I was arguing that analyses have to be situated (socially--which includes class, race, etc.,) before we can make too broad a claim (or be accused of that). I'm not apologizing for being a white woman with a computer and a PhD. I am happy to still make BIG claims (as you know) but with the reservation that while this is very significant, it does not account for everything.

Mine was not an act of self-flagellation, I don't think. (unless you count flagellating one's self for being a bad theorist;--) Just acknowledgement--this, for me, is about sound theoretical practice and not identity politics over "who can speak" (although, as you so astutely mention, it very easily elides into this type of policing. Annoys the crap out of me).

Not being defensive *at all*--just thinking through some of this as I write. Your writing is provocative as always.

And when we meet next week, let's compare notes on who's applied for the most jobs lately and not got them;-) And then let's sink a bottle of CHEAP wine.