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.