The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Should we be ashamed of privilege?

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And more importantly: Will we be able to remedy the inequalities in our society if we are?

Recently, I joined students, faculty and community members at Hope College in Holland, Michigan for their annual Critical Issues Symposium. This year’s Symposium focused on economic inequality and democracy.

During the lunchtime discussion, a really interesting conversation emerged around privilege. Hope is a private college that costs around $45,000 per year to attend, and the student body is nearly 86 percent white. Derek, a student of color from Orange County, raised his hand.

He told us that in high school he felt privileged because all he had to do was focus on sports and studying. Unlike kids living in poorer parts of southern California, he didn’t have to have a job. Derek spoke about how lucky he is that his parents can simply write a check for his tuition and expenses each year. His dad also committed to paying for law school when he graduates from Hope.

I liked hearing Derek’s story. But I was really moved when he said that privilege shouldn’t cause anyone shame. Privilege isn’t something we should hide or downplay. Rather, we should be very open and honest if we live with privileges that others do not have.

I agree that people should not be ashamed for being privileged. In fact, I don’t think we’ll be able to seriously address inequality in the U.S. without such an honest accounting of our individual privileges.

Reflecting on my own life, I can immediately recognize privileges I enjoyed that gave me advantages. For instance, unlike Derek, I had to work throughout high school. Still, my privileges were (and are) abundant. These include the color of my skin, that I’m male, and that I grew up in a stable home. I was also privileged by having a wide network of loving adults who fed my confidence, and the luck of being born in the wealthiest society the world has ever known.

I didn’t grow up in a wealthy household. Neither of my parents went to college, and my dad is an immigrant who was born poor and started at the bottom when he arrived to the U.S. While I didn’t grow up rich by U.S. standards, I was privileged to have parents with sufficient resources to give my brothers and me a good life. We could play sports, ride our bikes in a safe neighborhood, and though most adults I knew ended their school careers around 18, my parents demanded I attend college (I needed convincing). All of these advantages made an enormous impact on my life in terms of creating opportunities that others, including my parents, didn’t have.

I think that honesty about the privileges we are fortunate to have is a crucial step toward empathy; and creating space for the honest conversations needed to move our society forward.

We can’t control our gender, race, the country or family we’re born into. Yet, these things matter a lot for how we develop as human beings. They’re also important drivers of economic inequality. Kids with wealthier parents – who have the resources to access tutors, learn new languages and utilize their parent’s network for internships and jobs – most often end up replacing their parents at the top of the income ladder. The same is true for poor kids who end up stuck at the bottom. In fact, social mobility in the US has actually declined in recent years – so even if you work hard, it’s increasingly difficult to get ahead.

During my visit to Hope, Dr. Temple Smith, a professor of sociology, reminded me that most of us experience some modicum of privilege, despite how wealthy our families may have been. And while it might be most important for those of us with high levels of privilege to recognize and be up front about it, I think it’s also important for us to take a broader view – allowing ourselves to understand that though we might not be privileged in some areas, we may be in others.

Often people with privilege who want to fight inequalities, feel as though they need to downplay their advantages in order to enter into tough conversations about inequalities like racism and sexism.  Yet, as Derek suggests, an honest and open accounting of our own privileges can help us find agreement on the things that will help ensure everyone has a fair shot at an economically secure life.

In many ways, my commitment to working to reduce extreme inequalities derives from my recognition of my own privilege. I want to talk openly about my privilege because I believe everyone deserves to have economic security, safety, and opportunity. And if circumstances of birth diminish their opportunities, then there is a moral and political imperative to push for change.

To be clear, I’m not only in favor of policies that create more equal opportunities. I believe extremely unequal outcomes, such as a world where 60 people have more wealth than the bottom half of the human population, is unacceptable. And outcomes and opportunity are intrinsically connected.

It’s important that we all take the time to look deeply at ourselves to understand if and how we’re privileged and how that influences our lives and the lives of those around us. A clear understanding will allow us to speak more honestly about ourselves and to use our advantages to heal injustice.

I invite you to join me.

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