Reflections on Privilege

I spent the weekend here, at my grandmother’s house in the Hamptons. While no one in my mother’s family has much money, this house has been passed down since only whalers and fishermen occupied the South Fork of Long Island. Now, this tiny plot of land is worth more than anything else they own, and it is the main vestige of family privilege.

I grew up steadily middle class, somewhere in the middle of the distribution in a boring suburban town in New England. White, male and educated at an expensive private university, I represent privilege to a lot of people even before we meet. Both of my parents earned graduate degrees, and they came from educated families, but there was never a ton of money around. My siblings and I all went into debt for college and worked our way through parts of high school and college.

All this is preamble to the dilemma I’ve been having recently: trying to reconcile my obvious privilege with my job in a high poverty school in Brooklyn. My identity makes me an outlier. Students had no problem with this, and neither did my colleagues. It’s my own uneasiness that makes my identity an obstacle. I’m the only one who makes it an issue.

In reality, the issue isn’t my privilege, it’s the enormous gap between my advantages and the shameful conditions experienced by my students and their families. In college, I had the opposite experience of privilege: at an prestigious liberal arts college, I was shocked by the wealth displayed all around me. I carried a chip on my shoulder because I couldn’t afford the costly spring break trips and other trappings of the super-rich. In some ways, my identity in socioeconomic terms is suffering from yo-yo syndrome: I went from the middle of the road through high school, close to the bottom in college, and now I find myself reacting to my comparably elite status next to the young people who have animated the past two years of my life.

I have more in common with the students I see in class than the powerful interests that control education reform, but in some important ways, I feel responsible to answer for the crimes of white people, elite interests, and the official world all at once. My students have been screwed by an unfair, discriminatory public school system, and although my career is so new, I carry guilt for history’s inequities. In an embarrassing acknowledgment of navel-gazing, I have to admit, I feel the weight of the stereotypes I’ve been known to rail against, white savior complexes and Freedom Writers alike.

I’ve been listening to a lot of 1990’s hip-hop recently, reconciling my upbringing idolizing Shaquille O’Neal, Deion Sanders and Jay-Z with my daily life, both in the mostly white neighborhood where I live and the predominantly black neighborhood where I work. So we’ll give Hov the last word:

Go with what makes sense
I know what I’m up against
We as rappers must decide what’s most impor-tant
And i can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
So I got rich and gave back
To me that’s the win, win