The Privilege They Believe – Class Privilege

People hear the word privilege and assume it means what most of us have used it for over the previous hundred years – class privilege. Then they think, I’m not rich, and their brain shuts down. That’s fine, I’m not here to convince them. But I’d like to discuss class privilege for a minute because, like many shrieking status quo warrior jackoffs, I am lacking in class privilege – and it has genuinely caused me harm.

This is something we don’t discuss much in the USA compared to the UK, with its more formalized class distinctions. It has been said many times that we need more class awareness here and I’d say that’s true. Social justice discourse could use a little more focus on it, where it won’t derail another important issue. Indeed, a huge problem for black people in the USA is the intersection of race and class oppression. Not all black people are poor, but those that are? Intersectional problems multiply.

Because we have so little focus on class oppression, its effects are seldom laid out. That is why it’s taken me a very very long time to realize what that damage is in myself. First off, from about age ten onward this undefined despair interfered with my schooling. I reached some kind of developmental plateau at that age – maybe something to do with self awareness, or considering the future – which caused me to go from straight As to nearly straight Fs. I never graduated high school.

It was strange because I did have oodles of white, and male, and mental and physical health privilege making me feel like I’m some kind of cool genius, that I’d wake up one day and the world would recognize me and I’d get whatever I wanted. In Fight Club when Tyler Durden said we all thought we’d grow up to be rock stars or astronauts, many people found that unrelatable or absurd. Palahniuk wasn’t talking about you – he was talking about people like me.

I’d have that attitude at a conscious level, but also felt this hopelessness about escaping family strife and poverty, like it was unimaginable. So the weird grandiose expectation on one hand, despair on the other, gave me a kind of license to put off work, throw myself into escapism. I’d doodle and dream and play shoplifted RPGs all day, let school slide completely, because I felt like all I had to do is show my talent to the right person, the right moment, the right way, and opportunity would lift me out of the sewer. It was a little fiction I used to excuse myself from responsibility.

Those responsibilities included hygiene. Ever wonder why some poor people are stanky goblins? When home is a filthy mess where people alternate between sulking and screaming for most of your life, there’s a definite sense of why fucking bother. I was thoroughly disgusting for a pretty long time. Quarantine has me backsliding, unfortunately. Something to watch out for.

After school I spent my entire 20s in fast food and other chump jobs, never learned to drive, never had a car, never could afford a place of my own. I had a few sympathetic friends’ families that let me rent a basement or attic space for a few hundred a month. I was healing from the damage of poverty youth. I got into a scammy art school around thirty, racked up a student debt that makes the remaining FtB legal debt look like chump change, on the promise of getting a good-paying job in the video game or entertainment animation industries. Little did I know the amount of money those jobs pay rocketed into a black hole over the years and I was better off as a security guard by the time I graduated – still without enough money to dream of ever repaying what I owed.

How did I let myself get snowed by my alma mater when all I’d have to do to know the job promises were smoke and mirrors was to google some job listings? Because that combination of despair and grandiosity again. Of course there’s opportunities for me, I’m awesome, right? And bothering to do any work above the bare minimum in life? Too emotionally draining. I have dreams to dream. I probably sound like a huge asshole by now, haha. That is accurate enough.

All those years though, there was a much bigger aspect of my class damage I never noticed in myself. I felt like a criminal (years after I stopped doing crimes), like I don’t belong wherever the “good people” are. This KILLS me in job interviews. I fucking suuuuuuck at job interviews because in some weird way I don’t feel like I belong where the money is. I feel like a permanent member of the underclass, only allowed to have jobs on my feet, busting my hump.

What allowed me to realize this was that finally, at about the age of 43, I landed my first white collar job. It’s nothing fancy, but I work in an office (presently from home), I earn something close to the median income of my region, and I’m not falling to pieces from physical labor. But I came close to losing that opportunity, felt my face flush with stress, stuttered and flubbed for reasons I didn’t initially understand.

Now I get it. I never felt like I belonged there, in the office. I felt like I was going to get caught, get bounced at any moment, for any little thing. (If my employer was worse, I probably would have been.) I felt like I was trespassing because the building itself was too clean. Like I’m not fit to touch the hem of prosperity’s garment.

If you’ve been poor, how do you think that affected you? I’d really like to hear what people have to say about this, because I hear it so rarely. I’ll even take comments from regressive scumfuckers, if they are insightful and not full of poison. This is what you think “privilege” means, the kind of privilege you might believe exists. Talk about it.


  1. says

    If you’ve been poor, how do you think that affected you? I’d really like to hear what people have to say about this, because I hear it so rarely.

    I wrote about that recently —

    Poverty definitely messes up a person’s mind. That being said, my experiences somewhat differed from yours.

    At school I had perfect exam scores, I got numerous scholarships. In university my exam scores were always good enough that I qualified for free education. Basically, the state was paying me to study. I knew that I cannot afford to pay for studies, so I worked hard to make sure that I am getting paid for studying instead.

    I also never had low esteem or believed that I don’t deserve something. Instead, I became a bitter cynic who believed that the world is not fair and that those people who have money and power are assholes who do not deserve their luxuries.

    But there definitely was (still is) some lack of motivation. The world is unfair. Those with money will never allow me to join their ranks. So why bother working hard? I am better off figuring out how to comfortably life with as little income as possible. Currently I work only a few hours per week. When you own your own home, don’t have any loans, don’t have children, grow some of your own food, are willing to eat cat food, dog food, and cattle food (organ meats, tiny fish, various grains that are perceived as “cattle food” by people with money), travel on foot or by cycling, you realize that you can live comfortably with below average income.

    So yeah, I became a bitter cynic and a lazy hedonist.

  2. says

    Cubist – Kind of hilarious that the poor Scalzi describes – indeed the poor Andreas describes – look like luxury compared to what I grew up with. There’s tiers to this crapola.

    Andreas – As different as our countries and lives have been, poverty has had a similar effect on us, and I think that’s interesting. I requested a change of shift from 40 to 32 hours and was recently approved. I’m willingly throwing away 20% of my income and slowing my career progress because I value an easy time more than I value anything money can buy.

    I do know some poor people would love to be able to afford status symbols, but that was never me. Even if I got rich tomorrow, everything I want in life is cheap to free. Sex and love? Playing games with friends? Making art? All it costs is a bit of time and effort. Unfortunately in the USA you can lose everything in a heartbeat without a million to fall back on, due to the cost of medical care. I still have some hustling to do, but best believe I’m retiring the first chance I get.

  3. Dago Red says

    If you’ve been poor, how do you think that affected you? I’d really like to hear what people have to say about this, because I hear it so rarely.

    Poverty I think comes in many flavors. I am one whose family has a long history of being super-frugal (and hence, economically, considered quite poor, making-due with a level of income quite below the poverty level here in the US), and I inherited this useful skill from my ancestors. It allows me to live quite inexpensively (even by the standards of my parents and grandparents) and avoid many of the traps the US culture sets up to enslave the poor. As a consequence, I was also able to squirrel away a good sum of money over my life, which I don’t touch without also devising a plan to replenish it.

    My frugality alone allows me to have a (fiscally) adequate job anywhere at anytime — since even a part time job is sufficient to cover my economic needs — and allows me, in the rare instances when I have gotten a good job for a while, to squirrel away money for the proverbial rainy day. Secondly (and perhaps more importantly to my over all mental health) I have always kept this financial “safety net” that I believe constantly re-assures me that I can handle most of the common disasters that might befall me and, in the two rare instances in which they did happen, I weathered them without a lot of stress (things like needing a new car NOW, or a new place to live, or having an extended period of unemployment, or dealing with a pandemic, etc) and I haven’t worried too much about what next year (or next week) is going to throw at me to fuck up my currently quite acceptable lifestyle. I do realize now in my late middle-ages, that this is a rare talent to have, so I thank my mom and pop (and grandparents, and everyone else in my clan) for giving me this very valuable skills from an early age.

    In short, living super cheaply and maintaining a small but adequate safety net, I believe, allows a fairly poor person to avoid the life-crushing stress that befalls people in our socioeconomic class fairly regularly, and makes one’s economically challenged life fairly relatively indistinguishable from that in the middle class. I may have to do without the nice place to live (I live in my vehicle), the finer clothes, the fairly new car, or kids, or eating out…many of the things that many people can’t seem to live without….but also my version of poor is also without the inherent crap that middle-class life comes with (e.g. the need for a certain income to keep the debt and junk trains chugging, the need to constantly impress other people in some way, the constant need for bigger and better employment often in a field that has long becomes soul crushing for you, etc).

    While I am anathema to the idea of “the nobility of the poor” and such intellectual pablum that richer people say to avoid the looking at problems often associated with poverty, I think (at least in a country like mine that has a — perhaps barely — adequate social welfare system), finance problems are often less frequent and less problematic for the frugal poor than for those far wealthier (or, at least, its easier to wrap your head around the simpler life than a more complex one), and thus I feel I have been allowed to live a life that I find far more fulfilling, and (frankly) far more moral, than I believe many of my far wealthier friends have lived. For me, that has made poverty a better path (but perhaps I have been simply luckier — I don’t really know).

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