You and I have a lot in common, Tal Fortgang. My parents also belonged to the first generation of college graduates in their families. My father worked hard and from humble beginnings went on to become a wealthy man. I too worked hard in school and while I didn’t attend an Ivy, I did graduate from one of the Seven Sisters. Ok, so you have a penis and I (as my four year old son likes to say) have a vagina for a penis. And I’m nearly twice your age. But when I was 19 I would have agreed with your op-ed completely.
I’m pretty ashamed of that.
When I was 19 I was proud and humbled by my grandfather’s youth. He was the son of an Italian immigrant who came to this country legally. Because it was easy to come to this country legally at that time. And I’ll bet you a lot of dough he would have come whether it was legal or not. My grandfather left school and a terrible home at age 12. He rented a room and got a job. He worked hard in grocery stores for his entire career. It was my father who achieved the American dream of wealth through hard work. My grandfather performed the hard work part of that equation, he just never was lucky enough with the wealth part. As my dad likes to say, it’s better to be lucky than to be smart. And he is one of the smartest men I’ve ever met.
Your grandparents’ history is horrific. In no way do I wish to diminish their suffering. But the evil visited upon your family several generations ago does not somehow lessen your privilege as a while male at an Ivy League school today.
Your hard work and your privilege and your family history are three separate entities. Your privilege does not negate your hard work or family hardship just as your hard work and family hardship do not negate your privilege.
I don’t know anything about your particular circumstances, so I’ll share how my privilege positively influenced my life. I worked my ass off to get into an elite college. With my parent’s full support. I never had to get a job in high school. I was free to concentrate on academics and extra curricular activities that colleges so prize. I never had to worry about student loans or a job while in college. I got one so I could have some spending money, but I didn’t need one. If I had gotten an internship once I’d finished school instead of a job my parents would have continued to bankroll me as I would have been resume building for my career. Yes, I worked very hard. But I received priceless support along the way.
At some point during my college years I started to pay a little attention to the people around me. I attended the most expensive college in the country at that time. Many of the students were on financial aid and the amount of debt they were amassing was a constant worry. They had jobs to pay for their books. I had an account at the bookstore and didn’t even look at the prices. After my junior year I moved to Manhattan and commuted to school. I lived in a neighborhood filled with recent immigrants. It still feels obscene to compare my privilege to theirs.
One of my closest friends at college had been in foster care. His family lived paycheck to paycheck, one emergency away from disaster. I remember lamenting to him, in the kind of shameful and tone deaf way only a 20 year old can manage, about my guilt at how I’d been given so much in life. He told me to shut the fuck up. He was poor. It sucked. He would do anything for a rich dad and he’d enjoy the hell out of it.
It was one of the most important conversations I’ve ever had in my life. Complaining about my privilege was not a mistake I’d make again. Instead I would remember to be grateful and aware. I would never miss an opportunity to speak with my vote, supporting candidates who were concerned with income inequality and discrimination.
I’ve spent my life trying to be a decent contributing member of society. There have been good years and bad years. You are right, everyone has their own story. Mine is suffering from a pretty severe mental illness. My 20s were ugly. I like to think I’m a hard worker. I’m proud of a lot of what I’ve done. My husband is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. He is a college professor at an excellent private university. He is a fierce feminist and I could not be more proud of him. His research is heavy on community activism and engagement. He teaches in the design school and I’ll be honest, his paycheck is decidedly middle class. I’m currently a stay at home mom to our two sons, a choice my 19 year old self would have scoffed at. Turns out that living an affluent lifestyle isn’t that important to us.
Here’s the thing, though. Our privilege colors every choice we make. The financially responsible decision would be for me to get a job. But having a parent at home with our boys before they enter kindergarden is of the utmost importance to us. We are squeaking by, but the reality is we have a safety net the size of Texas. We will never be one emergency away from financial catastrophe. I get the feeling that you never will be either. I recognize how that reality influences my choices and give me freedom, how incredibly lucky I am, how few other people have the same luxury. And I am grateful. Because it would be disingenuous and frankly offensive not to be.
I’m also mad as hell that my circumstances are those of the few. That people who are every bit as smart and hardworking as I am are in much more precarious situations because they don’t have a wealthy parent. That safety net you and I have? It should extend to everyone.
Listen, your hard work should be lauded. Full stop. End of thought.
Let’s move on. Also? You should be grateful for your privilege.
You need to recognize the difference between the two. And when you do perhaps you can be part of the solution.