We were all sitting around the table, steaming dishes heaped full of rice and water buffalo. I was slowly eating through the pieces of liver on my plate, a delicacy reserved for important guests, so I was trying not to offend my host by gagging.
“What are your plans,” she asked us, and we told her: one person would be flying straight home from Nepal to work on his thesis, another was heading to her sister’s wedding, and I was going to Bhutan, a neighboring country for two weeks on the tail end of my summer.
“You can do that because you’re rich,” she said matter-of-factly, giving me one more reason to make me choke on the liver. I sputtered and shook my head, but in that moment I realized that I couldn’t argue. The four of us Americans, even though we felt like broke college students most of the time, had lived lives nearly unimaginable to the entire population of the town.
It wasn’t until I had to fight the instinct to argue, to play off our privilege, that I realized many of us have a very hard time ever accepting the truth of it. Privilege is sometimes touted as an accusation as if you got to where you are purely because of factors outside your control. It can be hard to swallow the truth of your own privilege is the implication is that you haven’t suffered the same way others have.
Humans throughout history have had varying levels of privilege. Humans have unconditionally suffered and unconditionally experienced happiness. Acknowledging your own privilege doesn’t mean you’re admitting that you’ve necessarily had it easy, life handed to you on a silver platter, but the opposite: you can recognize that others face obstacles you never came across. You can also let go of the phantom illusion that your skill alone got you to where you are.
The Parallel Truths of Privilege and Hard Work
I like to think of myself as a skilled, strong-willed, disciplined person. But I also grew up in a nice suburban neighborhood with two parents that stayed married, supported my education and encouraged me throughout. I worked hard, but I didn’t have to take care of my sister when I got home because my parents didn’t work late. I studied into the night, but I didn’t have to take on a job because my parents were supporting me financially. I worked my butt off for an engineering degree, but I had tons of support behind me while I did it.
It is important to acknowledge that while I think financial freedom is an attainable dream for many people who may doubt the idea– I also recognize that it’s near impossible to imagine saving up 4x your annual expenses when you’re struggling to live until your next paycheck.
It’s not about blame– a lot of the elements of privilege are something we don’t get to choose. I was born with incredible amounts of privilege, I know there are tons of problems I don’t think about because they don’t affect me every day. I’m white, straight, cisgender, and grew up in a happy middle-class family. It’s not something I asked for, but it is something I have benefitted from in many ways. Whether or not I consciously realize that those benefits were tied to my privilege.
In a 2015 survey conducted by CNBC, 84% of millionaires said they would define themselves as middle class or upper-middle class, while only 9% said they were upper-class or rich. It’s easy to get swept up in keeping up with your peers, to tout working hard to get ahead, but don’t forget the privilege that got you there. Even though it feels uncomfortable, I know the truth of my Nepali host’s words, “I can do this because I’m rich.” I can write this blog because I have income that exceeds my spending.
Privilege is not having to think about problems just because they don’t affect you. You might not be affected by microaggressions every day because of the color of your skin, or find it more difficult to get a job because of a disability. Your earning potential is significantly affected by your privilege. Ultimately one important think of acknowledging the privilege you have is to use it to give a voice and a platform to those with less privilege than you. You step aside as the default and let others into the conversation.
Do you consider yourself “rich”? What are your thoughts on privilege and money?