I graduated from college last Sunday, and on the ride home later that day (mind you, for a quick visit, not an indefinite stay), my parents asked me: "What was the most important thing you learned about in college?" My answer: privilege, how I have it and my responsibility to address it. I explained that were it not for my privileges -- ranging from white male privilege, to being born in a developed nation to a family that highly values education -- it is doubtful that I'd be where I am today. My parents seemed uneasy with this answer and instantly reminded me that I worked very hard for my diploma. I don't disagree with that -- I worked extraordinarily hard -- but this gets to the core of a problem with how people view privilege. Just because one works hard does not mean one is not privileged.
The Wall Street executives who take home millions in bonuses are not sitting in their offices twiddling their thumbs all day; they're working. The man who makes more money at his job than an equally qualified woman in the same position is probably working hard, too. With work comes a notion of deservingness: people feel that if they work, they have earned their rewards. To an extent this is true, but this overlooks the fact that it is a combination of privilege and work that allows people to succeed, or to get a raise. Were a Wall Street executive who makes millions in bonuses born into a low-income family with more pressing issues -- such as putting food on the table -- than fostering a love for learning, he may be working just as hard in a manufacturing job, but taking home far less money.
My class's commencement speaker, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, reminded us of this:
The top executive of the top hedge fund in the United States was paid a total of eight billion dollars in 2010 and 2011... He may be a very nice, hard-working, well-intended man. But it seems hard to comprehend one man being paid at least four times more money than all 150,000 farm workers in the state of Washington will earn this year.
Privilege is, in a way, the difference between the grueling work that Washington's farm workers do and the hard work the hedge fund manager does. In order to make it big, it helps to be a white male, come from a well-off background and have access to teachers, tutors and connections along the way that help one reach their educational potential and get jobs. It helps to be motivated and work hard, too, but these are not attributes lacking among, for example, farm workers -- they work very hard, oftentimes in unsafe conditions, to provide for their families. And while it is easier to acquire the skills to be a farm worker than it is to be a hedge fund manager -- thus the lower pay -- the work of one hedge fund manager does not equate to that of hundreds of thousands of other hard workers. (If this seems like an abstract example, consider that the hedge fund manager is likely profiting from stocks of food corporations whose profits are higher because of the exploitation of farm workers.)
It is easy to demonize the 1 percent, but it's harder to look at one's own privilege. Over the last several years, I learned to examine how my statuses allowed me to grow up comfortably, focus on education and go to a prestigious college. I never had to deal with the hardships of poverty or broken families, I grew up in a good neighborhood with an excellent school system and being a white male minimized the amount of discrimination I experienced. I still worked hard along the way -- graduating with Latin honors serves as a testament to that -- but it would have been much harder to succeed in the way I have without privilege.
As far as addressing privilege, my parents were relieved when I assured them that I will not pass down opportunities (such as that college education they just paid for) because inequalities exist; to do so wouldn't solve anything. Rather, I feel a responsibility to use my privilege to address privilege. This comes through my awareness of privilege and prejudices, and my efforts to critically address my own prejudices and call others out on theirs, too. Another part of this comes through the work I do. During my undergraduate years, I worked on research about how stigma affects mental health and had a practicum at a teen center serving many low-income youth. In the future, I want to -- and I know many of my classmates will -- continue to better understand and address inequalities. I don't think we will ever eliminate privilege altogether, but I do believe that -- through our hard work -- we can make the world a fairer place.
Follow Josh A. Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joshagoodman