39 Comments

  1. Right on. We get no choice about the circumstances into which we’re born, good or bad. It doesn’t bother me that someone’s family bought them a home and then gave them a second one to live in. It does bother me that someone would be so oblivious to her own privilege in that scenario as to say, “If I can do it, anyone can.” That is so tone-deaf and out-of-touch with the massive diversity of human experience in this world. Frankly, that sentence should be permanently scrapped no matter who the author. Like you, I’ll give the interviewee the benefit of the doubt, though; media snippets are not always representative of the actual flow of a conversation.

    I have always tried to make my privileges as clear as possible in my writing. I’ve worked hard to be where I am, sure, but I was also set up for success by a hundred circumstantial factors. I hope that calling them out not only makes my story more authentic and transparent but also serves to remind readers that there are plenty of people who unjustly don’t have those advantages.

      • Yes. Whenever people say luck isn’t a thing, that grinds my gears, too. There are so very many variables and factors. And none of it diminishes the amazing things that people achieve.

    • I’m still conflicted if it’s really her tone-deafness or a deliberate/accidental choice of the writing. And maybe it’s both! Asking for transparency (as much as it can exist) is important. But wanting her to apologize for a very generous wedding gift is silly.

      And I love the way you tell your story, Matt!

    • Right. There are many ways to experience privilege and many degrees of it. And that’s not to say people don’t struggle and work hard. I love your point about using it as an opportunity to look out for others.

  2. Yaaaasss!

    My first thought was along the same too, but then I saw people’s reaction to that online. To me, almost EVERYONE seems privileged, so I was like, “Wait, you people are hypocrites – you are privileged too!”

    Everyone is privileged in some way compared to others. There are almost 7 1/2 billion people on Earth and we all stack up somewhere along that pole.

    The personal finance world is full of people whose parents paid for college, who were lucky enough to graduate into a great job market, who bought a house at the right time, or who started blogging and using X Y Z social media platform at precisely the right time and rode that train to fame before it stopped being useful to new bloggers.

    I have none of those things.

    But when you step back, I have a shit ton compared to a lot of other people. I am privileged to have been able to read constantly for a lifetime, and now because of that I’m able to write and make money to support myself. Not everyone has been able to read enough books to grant them a visual acuity as poor as me. I am privileged to have married a veteran who now receives enough GI Bill money to support us because I can’t on my own. I am privileged because of the color of my skin.

    Everyone is privileged in some way or another. I agree though; for extreme privileges like the one mentioned in the article, that needs to not just be a footnote or it invalidates the entire article.

    P.S. I like your writing style. 🙂

  3. Every one of us who is reading this post is privileged. We can read, we’re better at managing our money than “average”, and we were fortunate to be born in the right country.

    I’m an American. I’m privileged.

    And I’m not apologizing.

    • And I think that’s the right attitude. (Of course I do. I mean, I wrote the post. Ha!) No apology can change any of those qualities. Instead, we have to make sure we speak about them, capitalize on them, and do what good we can.

  4. I think gratitude is really the foundation. When I take a look around I see the infirm and less privileged every day where I live overseas. I really tire of folks who whine and make excuses.

    That I have health and mental acuity alone is humbling. Great perspective!

  5. I never thought she had to apologize for the facts of her life, I know plenty of people with all kinds of similar privilege. But I absolutely hated the clickbait nature of the title and blase “of course you can best student debt, my path is for the masses!” I think that’s almost always so tone deaf and ignorant it makes the reader forget any thoughts of merit that came before that.

    • The second part of what you said especially! Now, maybe it really is the interviewee’s fault. But if the writer created clickbait and controversy just because (or even unintentionally), it makes it so easy to write off this person.

  6. This. When I signed up to participate in VITA (the volunteer tax program at my local library that is run through the IRS), I thought I was just going to prepare a lot of tax returns. I have done that, but I have also gotten a huge privilege check. The program is only for households that make under $64,000 per year which in my city is not really sufficient to live in the city without money stress. I have prepared returns for so many homeless people or people whose only income is social security. It’s been absolutely fascinating and terrifying some days, all at the same time.

    • That is incredible of you to do. I can’t imagine what you’re learning and how much you’re giving back. Thanks for being so generous with your time and knowledge, Leigh

  7. I have a friend and mentor who is brilliant about dealing with these issues. To the detriment of us all, I can’t get her to write a book, article or blog post, no matter how much I beg, plead and bribe her. But she grew up in a very comfortable way and now lives and runs an organization helping support the immigrant community. Surrounded by poverty and the issues that come with it, she can very clearly see her privilege, acknowledge it and be thankful.

    We both flew across country to spend the weekend together last month. She talked the fact that her family has never, or would never ask her for money. All her family members can take care of themselves financially, and even if there was some emergency, the “kids” (in their 30’s) would be the last people anyone would go to.

    That alone is a huge contrast! In her community if you can keep a few hundred dollars to your name, your the “stable” one everyone asks for help. If they need to see a doctor, or fix their car, or are about to have the power shut off.

    There is a challenge when not only you are poor, but everyone you care about is poor and struggling as well.

    I think privilege is best dealt with when people can see the nuance, know how others are struggling and just simply be thankful for their privilege. As in, “I can see how hard that is, thankfully that isn’t part of my story, but thank you for sharing your story. I care about you.”
    Because the most annoying thing when you are struggling with something is having a person think they understand (when they don’t) then pretend they also have a similar struggle.

    She is a midwest born, well educated, white woman living with poor, undocumented workers. The struggles are different. The privilege is different. =) And she handles it exceptionally well in a way that empowers the community instead of pities.

    • She sounds amazing! Not surprising at all given how wonderful YOU are.

      My first two years as a teacher were at a school that was 80%+ free and reduced lunch. It was the best fish-out-of-water experience of my life. The most important thing I learned from that particular experience was that long-term sympathy and pity don’t do anyone any good. Figuring out how I could leverage my own experiences, knowledge, and privilege to help them meet their goals was where I made the most traction. Leaving was the hardest decision I ever made, but the school budget didn’t have room to keep me 🙁

  8. Growing up with immigrant parents from a third-world country, sometimes it’s hard for me to relate to the experiences I read about on all of these blogs. Even though I grew up in America, the way I was raised was vastly different from other kids. So, sometimes I wish people would realize that they don’t need to be rich or handed things to be privileged. There are really simple things, like knowing how to use a lawn mower because you grew up in a house, or even having your parents attend a single school event. And yes, even though my parents couldn’t really help me navigate success in America, there are tons of ways I myself am privileged, as well.

    There’s an article I read a while back that details all the life skills the author didn’t know because she was an immigrant kid. An example for me that I can think of: when I was 19, in college and went to a job interview, I showed up in a thrift store T-shirt and ripped jeans. I didn’t know I was supposed to dress up! Some of my classmates might have called their parents and asked what they should wear. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. Little nuances like that. Really eye opening, but of course I can’t find that link right now 🙂

    • I’m so glad you chimed in. What an important perspective! I can only really get a sense of that because of my students who are immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants.

      And you’re right that privilege isn’t always money. My parents were always able to provide for me, but neither of them went to college. They were blue collar workers, and when they moved us to a more affluent suburb, to say we didn’t fit in was an understatement. My first serious boyfriend’s mother told me that we were from different circles so I couldn’t understand his world. And then trying to navigate colleges. Well…that was something else, too.

  9. You already know I love this post, and I think your idea here is clearer than you think! 🙂 I think the thing I’d love more bloggers to take away from this is that it’s not enough just to say “I’m privileged,” but to be a bit clearer about what that means. Not just growing up in the U.S. or in a two-parent household, but doing a little more work to understand the experiences we’ve each had that are not universal (or even close). We’re so heavily influenced by those in our immediate vicinity that if you grew up in a middle class suburb, we may have no clue what people living in poverty have experienced or experience every day. It’s that kind of insularity that leads not just to the “If I can do it, anyone can!” lie but also the judgment of others’ choices that are so pervasive across our blog community. And that helps exactly no one, expect for maybe the smug few who get to feel more smug reading that kind of thing, feeling superior about their wonderful choices. But we learn nothing, those who have tougher circumstances get turned off and conclude our community offers nothing for them (which is sad, because it’s not true!), and that’s a huge missed opportunity all around. Okay, off the soapbox, but THANK YOU for writing this and hitting publish!

    • And I think another piece of this shows up in conversations between white-class and blue-class workers. There are so many perspectives and so many nuances that we need to consider. Owning what we have and recognizing what we don’t really is invaluable, especially when talking with others. Thanks for the vote of confidence. It means a lot!

  10. I saw that story this morning and I chuckled quite a bit. I have no issue with the lady in the story using her privilege to pay off her debt. I only take issue with the fact that people use her story as a way to motivate others. It’s just not applicable to 98% of the population; it was a poor editorial choice in general.

    I try to be pretty upfront about my privilege as a white, middle-class woman. Even then I get reader comments saying I’m a snooty-pants–nobody’s perfect, after all. I don’t need to apologize for being able-bodied and white, but I do need to acknowledge that my debt journey and experience is different from other people’s. In many ways my journey is easier because of my skin color and the family I was born into–neither of which I can control. It’s important to recognize how everyone’s journey is different.

    • And when people do have a great deal of privilege that I don’t have, I think we can still mine the story for takeaways. For example, she could have just tried to sell the condo and been satisfied with that. But she really did find a way to capitalize on what she was given and dig her way out quickly. Now, is exact formula of renting a gifted condo going to work for me to pay off my mortgage? Not at all. But I can try to pull out other things from her story.

      (And this doesn’t make up for the lack of disclosure. But I really think that was the writer/editor more than anything. I hope.)

  11. Privilege and luck are two things that I try to acknowledge often, especially when discussing my years in grad school and a few rocky years in my 20’s. There were many times I was on the precipice of financial disaster, but I somehow managed to skate through. Examples: my parents gave me a little cash when I REALLY needed it (much more common for white, middle class young adults than their minority counterparts), my car was broken but I had a free student bus pass, I managed to survive grad school with relatively good health thanks to free/cheap student health services, etc. These things were available to me, as a grad student, but wouldn’t be available to a service employee making $20,000 a year, or someone who did’t have family that was able to help them financially when they were in a pinch. I was NOT on equal footing with a person working an hourly job with a similar wage. I lucked out because I had access. And I will acknowledge that and work towards helping others to have the same access.

  12. I think it’s important to just be open and honest about your situation – and agree that there’s no need to apologize for it. Why share the story of your success in the first place? If you’re trying to inspire other or help them devise a plan for a better future, you’re not accomplishing that goal if you don’t provide all of the relevant information.

    I’ve certainly benefited from some privilege over the years, but I didn’t get any big handouts. I’m also working very hard to fix our financial situation. All of this is relevant to our story.

    • I wonder if that’s a by-product of all the list-icles. People really are searching for a formula or a recipe to follow. And I think there are certainly general guiding principles that work for a lot of situations, but there’s so much uniqueness to every situation as well.

  13. Penny, you’ve done an excellent job at fostering conversations about privilege, in this post and others, and I commend you for it. I agree that privilege is not something to apologize for, but it is something to acknowledge and recognize. While I didn’t grow up well off financially, I did have a lot of advantages in life that have eased my path. This is a great reminder to stay aware and to advocate for those who don’t share all of those advantages.

  14. I hate when people say sorry and you know it’s anything but sincere. (“I’m sorry you feel that way” takes the cake.)
    Even watching little kids who are forced to apologize is hilarious and painful at the same time, but as a non-parent I have no idea how to teach children to apologize properly when there’s an actual indication and how not to when they’ve done nothing wrong.

    I think a lot of people apologize for their privilege when they feel they haven’t used it well. If they’re feeling guilty about wasting opportunities or about not paying it forward. Otherwise, many people are grateful and eager to give credit to those who have helped them along the way.

    • That’s the real struggle as a teacher, too. Kids are so good at spotting phoney baloney a mile away! 🙂

      I love your point about finding ways to pay it forward and not wasting what we have (whether it’s been given to us and/or earned!).

  15. I wound up getting parental money (loan) toward buying a house and I totally felt embarrassed about it. I have such a hang up about independence and struggle … Really like your take: acknowledge don’t apologise. And totally agree I’m sure the interviewee wasn’t quite as smug as portrayed. It’ll be in the editing.

    • That’s how I felt about living at home! But now that I’m about to be a parent, I realize that there are lots of ways I’d like to gift privilege to my child. I will do my darndest to make sure that he or she grows up practicing gratitude and valuing independence at the same time. Privilege doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s what we do with it!

  16. We all have different advantages and disadvantages. No sense in being embarrassed about either one. You had family help – that’s great! You didn’t – good for you on succeeding on your own! I didn’t have help from my family when I first moved out, put myself through college, etc. (left home a few months after I turned 20), but I don’t begrudge those that got help, lived at home, or had their college paid for. I think it’s great that their parents were able to help, and I hope one day to give a leg up to my kids so they don’t need to struggle the way I did.

    • That’s a great perspective, Liz. Now that I’m about to be a parent, too, I think there are lots of ways I want my kids to have privilege (early education, support at home, etc., etc.) that some of my students don’t have.

  17. Right after the election, I had a lot of uncomfortable conversations with people who heard the word “privilege” as an accusation and dismissal of their hard work. It was a shock for me to learn of how many people don’t believe in systemic sexism and racism, who believe the playing field is equal. It’s so very different from my own world view. I think acknowledging privilege is pretty simple, but in others it will take a complete shift in how they experience the world (which is probably how that article got published in the first place.) Anyway, this is an important topic and a terrific post about how we start making the change.

  18. The current definition of privilege is a farce. I’m not “privileged” because I grew up in a two parent household. The government’s not giving marriage licenses to some parents and denying them to others. Privilege, properly defined, is when the government uses its coercive powers to give one group an artificial advantage over other groups. In other words, privilege is when the government shields you from competition. To join the marines, for example, women don’t have to do as many pull ups as men. That’s privilege. But some would claim that men are “privileged” because nature gave the male sex greater upper body strength. Meh. I’m sorry for the rant, Penny. But I really think the word privilege is being used as a political weapon to shame people into not defending their unalienable rights.

    • Hmmm. That’s definitely an interesting take on it, Mr G. But there are things that the government (and not just the current administration by any means!) makes easier for certain groups. I guess I don’t look at privilege coming from the government per se so much as I view it coming from society and/or societal norms. You might not consider yourself as privileged for having grown up in a two-person household, but you’re also not disadvantaged. It’s nothing anyone needs to apologize for (and I really, really hate when I see people backed into a corner over it), but I definitely think that if people have been given a leg up in some situations, it’s worth owning that. We’re not all on an equal playing field from birth – whether it’s nature or nurture or some other force entirely. I’d be curious how you’d reconcile the Business Insider post against how you define privilege or if you view it as something else entirely 🙂

  19. This is an important topic. I did one post on global privilege: http://www.thethreeyearexperiment.com/are-you-the-1/ but definitely haven’t talked enough about my own upbringing.

    Truth is, I grew up in an extremely privileged upper-middle-class home (WASP, dad was a physician, family valued education, no mental health, addiction problems, or childhood trauma, etc.). And my husband grew up in an extremely non-privileged third world country home (born under a dictatorship, father died when he was 13, not enough money to heat their house, raised by a mom with terrible anxiety, etc.). I think that dichotomy makes me hyper aware of my privilege, but I don’t necessarily talk about it enough in my writing. So thanks for the inspiration to talk more about how I was “born on third, and thought I hit a triple.”

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