Week 12: Privilege

June 9, 2020

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I know the internet is chock-full of silly quizzes, and I know I take them at my peril. Still, when this Buzzfeed quiz on privilege rolled up on my Facebook feed last week, I thought, hmm….

It’s one of those quizzes where you are supposed to post your results to Facebook. If you follow me on there, and don’t remember seeing my score, no worries, I didn’t post it. I was too embarrassed.

This is what popped up after I hit “calculate”:

You live with 75 out of 100 points of privilege.

You’re among the most privileged people in the world. We don’t live in an ideal world, but you happened to be born into an ideal lot. 

Good heavens. And I think my life is tough (I mean, not all the time, but I’m totally known to fly off the handle for what seem to me in the moment very good reasons).

I’ve been sitting on this declaration for days, thinking about it, turning it over in my head. It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I grew up white and Jewish in a wealthy household with both of my biological parents. I went to private high school, and a top public university. I only worked in college for pocket change.

I’ve always either worked or been supported by someone who has. Never known hunger and had only fleeting moments of economic insecurity. Today, thanks in no small part to my parents, who gave us a down payment, my husband and I live in a home we own, with a mortgage payment that is within our means, in a neighborhood that is safe and charming. And I’ve never in my life had to lie about my sexuality or any other part of my identity. Sometimes, I don’t mention that I’m Jewish, and it’s easy for me to pass because neither my last name nor my coloring is particularly Semitic. But I don’t think that really counts.

So, yeah, serious privilege.

It’s tempting now to list all the ways I’ve been unfortunate, to counter that damning conclusion. But that’s how we distract ourselves, I think. Everyone has their moments when Lady Fortune decides to go on holiday. What’s significant is the structure around life’s struggles, and mine is, I guess, unusually solid.

So I’ve been asking myself questions, the same ones I’ve asked of myself for years, only in light of the recent protests and national discussion around race and privilege, and my own privilege quiz score, with more-than-usual urgency: what do I owe the world because of how much I’ve been given? How best to repay that debt?

And maybe, most elemental of all: am I even aware of my privilege? When I’m not — because who ever does go around, consistently aware — whose souls do I trample upon?

This is no idle question, as I write for pay. For the last few years, I’ve written dozens of articles, for the same personal finance website, about credit scores, credit cards, and any and all other things credit-related. It took me until this week, and listening to a New Yorker podcast, to realize that I’d framed all these articles with “white” as the default experience.

At times, I’ve tried to bring in a diversity of views, particularly when I’m writing about personal finance advice. There are a lot of people out there, of all different backgrounds, doling out this kind of wisdom (although, come to think of it, most of them trace their financial awakening to Dave Ramsey, a cisgender white male, which is a framing problem in itself).

But I’m wrapping up work tomorrow on a story I’ve reported, on and off, for weeks, about small business financial struggles during this time of COVID-19. I didn’t ask about anyone’s skin color, but I am almost positive that everyone I interviewed for that story was white. Most of them were male. I didn’t do that because I didn’t care about other experiences. I did it because it was easy, and I was trying to be “efficient” with my time, and those were the names that popped up first, and sometimes repeatedly, when I did my Google searches.

What’s horrifying isn’t that it happened with that one article. Or that it goes on with most of my articles. What’s horrifying is that it’s true of most articles, by most reporters, most of the time.

I don’t know that I can even turn my own habits around in reporting on next week’s article, transform myself into a paragon of enlightened journalism because Now I Know. It’s hard and time-consuming and energy intensive, to do the work differently, and frankly, they only pay me just so much. But I vow to try. Really, it’s the least I can do.

I’ve also been thinking about an exchange this week I had over Messenger, with Jennifer, a yoga teacher of mine who is African-American. We’ve only been in touch sporadically since the lockdown, though I used to see her every Sunday, at her class at the YMCA. I reached out over the weekend to let her know I was thinking about her, and to see how she was doing. This is what she wrote back:

This week has been a mix of emotions from hate to hope and everything in between. It’s surreal. Definitely not freeing because there’s a long way to go to be free of the weight I have carried in this country and I don’t trust people really get it.

I’m sure I don’t. I don’t know that I ever will. But I will try, at least, to listen.

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P.S. I’m going to be attending a Zoom seminar for freelance writers this weekend, and one of the guest speakers is an African-American journalist who’s started a newsletter to chronicle how the coronavirus is impacting her community. I urge you to take a look, and consider subscribing. If it’s your jam, you may even consider supporting her work with a small monthly donation (she’s set up a Patreon account).