The "Financial Privilege" Label Really Doesn't Help

XAVIER BRETH, EDITOR: Normally, I make lots of notes in Caleb’s blog posts. Because this one is a bit more on the serious side, I cut back on those quite a bit. So yes, this is intentional. No, I am not getting sloppy. Yes, Caleb’s writing could do with a lot less Caleb and more refined Xavier-like expression.


Recently, I got to participate in a group discussion with some other students about privilege. Specifically, “financial privilege.” I heard about how some students had to struggle to make ends meet, and how important it was to realize that we were born privileged and thus needed to check said privilege when engaging in conversation with those less financially privileged than ourselves. Or something like that; I’m pretty sure I communicated the gist of it. But anyway, that got me thinking about a blog post. (Xavier: Oh good.  Lucky us.)

Note: We’re specifically talking about “financial privilege.” I repeatedly used that phrase earlier to make it clear that this piece is about the “stigma” that comes with being financially privileged, not just about normal “privilege” (which is usually super-complicated to define and requires a ton of digital ink that I’d rather not expend). We good? Awesome; on with the show.

“You don’t what it’s like to be poor, so…” This preamble usually is followed by: “…you wouldn’t understand. So shut up; you have nothing worthwhile to say.”

Obviously, no one would actually say that. But they do come up with more indirect, wordsmithed ways of expressing that sentiment. It seems somewhat hurtful, right? Well, yeah, but it’s okay to do so in order to shut down the privileged students who are out of touch with the reality of financial struggle.

At first glance, it seems like there are Very Many Good and Thoughtful Reasons why folks with more money should just shut up like a happy clam.  Take two American college students, Bubba and Suzie, for example:

Bubba had to take part-time jobs throughout high school in an inner-city environment just to help his single mother make ends meet, while his father was away being irresponsible. Working a lot around the house and take care of his younger siblings didn’t leave a whole lot of time for much of anything else.  He decided to attend college at a university within driving distance of his house so he could return if necessary. And of course, his financial aid package included a truckload of loans, so he worked throughout college as well to help recoup the cost of tuition and textbooks (which last I checked, cost exactly 1 Arm and 1 Leg in USD). (Xavier: Seriously. Who pays hundreds for a book they hate reading?! Students do.)

Suzie, on the other hand, came from an upper middle-class family and didn’t apply for employment until her first internship (unpaid, but her parents footed the bill). She only had to focus on school and extracurriculars, and it was easier to find study time. Completing high school with stellar grades, she was accepted into a prestigious, world-class research university. The school didn’t award large sums of merit-based scholarship money to anyone, but her parents could afford the cost of tuition and proudly sent her there to study, along with a shiny new car to get around campus. Commercial airliners took Suzie to school and back home again for holidays. While at school, Suzie made sure not to spend extravagantly, but she also never had to worry about money.

See the difference? That, right there, is financial privilege. Since Bubba clearly had it far tougher than Suzie, she needs to check her privilege.

Right?

No. Suzie didn’t just magically get financial privilege. Somewhere along the line, somebody—or several somebodies—sacrificed greatly so that Suzie wouldn’t have to. I went to all the trouble of making the Bubba-Suzie discrepancy so huge because even in cases like that, the “silver spoon” didn’t just fall from the sky.

Even a quick glance up her family tree illustrates the point. Both her father and mother came from low-income homes, but studied hard so they could get degrees in America and jobs that could provide a much more stable financial environment for Suzie and her siblings. Even further up the tree: Suzie’s grandmother had an awful childhood, spending all day working just to feed her brothers some watered-down porridge, and then all night studying under a streetlamp a block away from their darkened home, exposed to danger. Why? So she could get a steady job as a teacher and hopefully send Suzie’s mother to college and out of poverty. It was a chain of incredible, loving sacrifice that resulted in Suzie’s current “cushy and privileged” life. It’s why Suzie values fiscal responsibility and wakes up every day grateful for God’s many blessings. Thus, when someone comes along and lumps all that under the umbrella of “financial privilege,” he is effectively discounting all of the sweat and perseverance that supported her comfortable lifestyle.

Knowing the Internet, it’s quite possible that a reader might read this and go, “Oh, so you think Suzie understands Bubba’s situation perfectly?! Huh?!!” Obviously, nobody is saying that; I already made it clear that Suzie’s situation is vastly different. Any discussion about poverty cycles and money issues should most definitely include Bubba’s perspective.   But at the same time, you cannot just throw “financial privilege” in Suzie’s face and then blow off any of her opinions.

Anytime you meet a Suzie, be certain that you—and she herself—understands her story before you tag her with all of the negative labels.

See, if Suzie is acutely aware that others invested all they had for her sake, you aren’t staring at a bloviating pile of financial privilege. You are face-to-face with a humbled, walking, talking success story on beating poverty. And I promise you, you don’t want to brush that story aside; in fact, I’m sure it’ll be a privilege to hear. (Xavier: Annnnd THERE’S the cheesy closing line.)