I need to write the journalistic article I discuss here and two academic articles, and I need to do these things very soon. But it is Sunday and everyone in town but my pagan self is in church confessing, so I will confess, too. I dislike a post to which I will not link and the long comments thread it generated because it is a quite gratuitous attack on a friend of mine who had a very tough life until she was at least 25 if not much longer and who is now expected to say Oh dear, I am privileged! to a puritanical and even inquisitorial crowd.
One of the ways in which I am privileged is that it has always been clear to me that I was. In our modest neighborhood other families washed out sandwich bags to use again the next day and ours did not. At school I was one of the white ones who spoke native English, and I was therefore not ostracized the way some people were. I could afford to give pieces of my lunch away to others living in situations of “food insecurity.” We had to push-start our car until we got a good one when I was seven, but we always had good health insurance. We did not shop at Good Will or even very often at discount stores, and I went to Europe three times before I was eighteen.
On television Black people were being dragged away by police, and I was not; I leafleted Safeway for César Chávez but that was on behalf of the people working the fields, which I was not. And in the parts of Europe where we lived when I was very young, we sat in cafés and ordered espresso. Poverty stricken children with mangled and twisted limbs would ask for the empty sugar packets, in which they considered that there was a taste of sweetness left. Half-starved Portuguese workers hiding under truck floorboards, trying to smuggle themselves out to France, were discovered at the Spanish border and arrested. This scene looked more tenebrous than any I had witnessed in the United States, in part because there was nobody on hand to take pictures.
I am also privileged insofar as I know who my relatives are. I am descended on both sides from Roger Williams and from Tench Tilghman on one. A great great grandfather, exiled from St. Petersburg by the Czar, had a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and his correspondence with Karl Marx is archived in the Kremlin. A great great grandfather on the other side was a United States Senator from a state of which his father had been Governor. His wife’s father, my great great great grandfather, had a plantation there which has been described in print by Frederick Douglass. Another famous ancestor of mine is Henry Ward Beecher. His sister Harriet wrote another classic text, whose sentimental Christianity we discussed in the living room when I was in middle school. One of my grandmothers graduated from the Pratt Institute and the other from the University of California. Her sister was a Socialist and her brother was a carpenter and a Wobbly. My father still has his hammer and I am going to inherit it.
My grandmother the Pratt Institute graduate married a man directly descended from that slaveowning family. He had a small insurance company which he did not lose even in the Depression. My grandmother the Berkeley graduate, who had grown up on a farm in Montana, married a man whose father had abandoned the family, then strawberry farmers in Glendale, California. My grandfather, the youngest in the family, left school in ninth grade to work as a lineman for the telephone company. His older brother left MIT where he had been a freshman that year. Their sister graduated high school. She worked all her life and her savings are responsible for my father’s Ph.D. and mine. I have a tenured job and I am a homeowner, and if I look younger than I am it is because I am the product of many generations of privilege.
My house has central air conditioning, which adds to my carbon footprint and contributes to global warming. The system needs new duct work, which I do not have the savings to pay for since I am a professor in a low wage state. Yet I could do it easily with a home equity line of credit. I am not because my parents are giving it to me for Christmas. And out of convenience I am not a tax resister. Even if I were, as long as I continue to contribute to the United States economy, which I do just by buying food, I am responsible for this, which I do not consider to be canceled out by my years of work on things like this. The next time anyone wants to come down on someone because of “privilege” they should come down on someone like me who has never spent a day hungry.