Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reflections on the Perception of Privilege

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

While I do not believe in the importance of coincidence, I sometimes notice similar things happening in a close time period.  I know that this is mostly a matter of selective attention on my part, but it is a delight nevertheless to notice coincidences.

The first incidence: I was conducting a staff development workshop on student learning and social class at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater for the student affairs staff and I introduced myself by saying:  “Hi, I am Will Barratt.  I am an old white guy, and I am the child of privilege.”  I thought it was only fair to contextualize myself within social class since I was talking about social class.  After I was done with my presentation people came up to the front with questions and comments as usual, but one comment stood out for me.  “You said you were privileged and then you didn’t apologize for it.  You made us deal with it.”  I had not intended to challenge people in that way and it was nice to know that was how my introduction was perceived.

The second incidence: In my research team meeting a week after my work at UW-Whitewater one of the team members noted that he had a comment made to him after a mock interview in the job search process.  After his mock interview he was given two comments in particular "Don't say 'Child of Privilege" "Admitted privilege--deliberately put himself in the position of outsider."  The research team members had spent a year talking about social class so the comment that he was privileged was for him a statement of fact.  Apparently such a statement makes other people nervous. 

The third incidence: I am re-reading Vance Packard’s 1959 classic on social class The Status Seekers

Sociologist August B. Hollingshead of Yale University found that psychiatrists—supposedly uninhibited, open-minded individuals—“tend to react with embarrassment when the question of social class is raised.”  One responded to a direct question about the social classes in his town of New Haven, Connecticut, by saying, “I don’t like to think too much about this. (p. 6)

Is it more socially acceptable to be first generation on campus than to be the child of privilege?  Is there perceived virtue in humble beginnings?  Are people being judged for the social class standing of their parents?  Are some of those judgments negative if you were the child of privilege?

I was an Ivy League professor’s kid.  I didn‘t grow up wealthy, but I had a lot of experiences and met a lot of famous and talented people.  I was an Eagle Scout and went to Philmont ranch, to Schiff, and to the National Jamboree.  I had access to computers in high school in 1966.  I had a great college and graduate education with little debt.  I had strong family support.  Even when I was of an age to be held accountable for my own life I still had privilege to draw on; when I was working on my dissertation I could call my sister, or my father, or my wife for advice since they all had a Ph.D.

Being the child of privilege enabled me to experience social class contrast and that has enabled me to see social class in certain ways.  First generation students experience social class contrast on campus and that enables them to see social class in other ways.  The key to seeing social class was the contrast between how we grew up and the settings in which we find ourselves now. 

Zachary D. Nicolazzo in Men Behaving Badly: Making Connections between Moral Development and Fraternity Men ( uses the phrase bad-dogging to describe how men are sometimes treated when they misbehave.  I have loved this phrase since I first heard it.  Are the children of privilege being bad-dogged just because of the family of origin?  Is it my fault that you have difficulty with my having had more economic, social, and cultural resources as a child and as a college student? 

We should all be held accountable for our lives after a certain point.  I should be held accountable for understanding my privilege, for what it has meant, for what it means, and what it will mean.  I should be able to read Peggy MacIntosh’s White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack ( and understand both whiteness and social class privilege.  Similarly others should be held accountable for understanding their attitudes toward privilege.  Social class conflict is complicated, and we all need to understand the pieces we co-create.  Social class does not exist without our consent.  

keywords: social class privilege prestige rich guilt 

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