Archive for Privilege

Again. And Again. And… ENOUGH!

I can’t watch the latest videos of police murdering black men. I feel that I should watch them, to bear witness. But… the depressing regularity of these videos threatens to engulf me in despair. So, I am not watching the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Instead, I will write a few words — expressing sentiments I’ve shared before and that others have expressed more eloquently.

#BlackLivesMatterLet’s start with three words: black lives matter. If you are tempted to respond “all lives matter,” please don’t. Of course all lives matter. But all lives are not equally at risk. Black lives are much more susceptible to being cut short — by police, by stand-your-ground enthusiasts, by others. And that’s why we need to say black lives matter, but we don’t need to say all lives matter. If I see red flashing lights in my rear view mirror, and a member of the police signaling me to pull over, I do not fear for my life. I am calm because I am white. When a person of color sees those red flashing lights, his or her experience tends to be quite different. Hundreds of years of brutalization at the hands of the law can make a non-white person view representatives of that law more warily.

To say the least.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American LyricAs Jesse Williams observed a couple of weeks ago, “we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day.”

Or, as Claudia Rankine writes,

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying

If you haven’t read her Citizen or watched Williams’ speech, please take the time to do so.

I don’t for a minute believe that adding my words to their (far more eloquent) words will end police brutality, or transform America’s profoundly racist system of justice. Did the oxymoronic coupling of those last four words pass you by? Let’s revisit them: racist system of justice. In other words, it’s a system of justice which is not just. Until it is not racist, it is also not justice. This is why Williams also said, “we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on people routinely targeted by police

While I do not believe that my individual words will make a difference, I do believe that if enough people speak up, we can change the system, move it closer to justice.

I also believe that, as the primary beneficiaries of white supremacy, it is white people’s responsibility to end white supremacy. Stay with me here, fellow white people, and I’ll explain what I mean.

As a white person, I am a direct beneficiary of American racism. Every day. Let’s start with the fact that I have never been the target of racism. I’ve never been asked why I speak so “white.” Nor have I ever been asked to speak for all white people. While shopping, I’ve never been tailed by a store detective. My job application has never been passed over because my name looked “ethnic.” And red flashing lights in my rear view mirror do not make me mortally afraid. I could write a much longer list, but my point is that the unearned privileges of whiteness accrue over time. For non-white people, the penalties and their attendant psychic stresses also accrue over time. In other words, white supremacy not only grants me advantages; it actively penalizes non-whites. Every day.

I say this because a lot of white people fail to realize that you don’t have to actively support white supremacy in order to be a beneficiary of white supremacy. All white Americans are beneficiaries of white supremacy, whether they want to be or not. Our privilege conveniently conceals itself from us, and so we don’t notice our unearned advantages. As a result, we also don’t notice that those privileges are built on the oppression of others.

In other words, recognizing white privilege is not an occasion for hand-wringing or white guilt. It is instead an occasion for recognizing that whiteness makes all white people complicit in a system that disenfranchises, terrorizes, and murders people of color. Yes, we whites can and should mourn the loss of yet another black person. But we also need to ask ourselves what it feels like to be beneficiaries of the system that murdered Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and so many others.  As Naomi Murakawa puts it, rather than trying to imagine that you can feel black pain, you should instead ask yourself what it feels like to live in “a country that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation in the world, and that has built an elaborate system of cages that actually does cage black people… What does it feel like to be on the side of that where I pay taxes for that, and the defense happens mostly in my name?”

Start there.  Start with recognizing your complicity.  And then act.

Further reading

  • James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (originally published in The Saturday Review, 21 Dec. 1963). “any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”
  • Britt Bennett, “White Terrorism Is as Old as America” (New York Times, 19 June 2015). “This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil. … A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Reparations for Ferguson.” (The Atlantic. 18 Aug. 2014). “The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, 21 May 2014). Long and well worth your while.
  • Michael Eric Dyson, “What White America Fails to See” (New York Times, 7 July 2016). “The problem is you do not want to know anything different from what you think you know…. Whiteness is blindness. It is the wish not to see what it will not know.”
  • David Graham, “The Second Amendment’s Second-Class Citizens” (The Atlantic, 7 July 2016). “The two shootings give a strong sense that the Second Amendment does not apply to black Americans in the same way it does to white Americans.”
  • Sally Kohn, “This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter” (Washington Post, 6 Aug. 2015).
  • Chuck Wendig, “I Am a Racist and a Sexist and Probably Some Other –Ists, Too.” (Terrible Minds, 23 Nov. 2014)
  • Dan Zanes, “Be Less Racist: 12 Tips for White Dudes, by a White Dude” (The Mashup Americans, n.d.)

Related posts (on this blog)

Comments (2)

For Mom

My mother was my first best friend. My mother is the reason I have succeeded in life. My mother is the reason I managed to live through adolescence.

There have been many other important influences. Let’s not forget my sister, stepfather, friends, teachers, neighbors, and the many patient people who have managed to put up with me over the years. It takes a village, as they say. Growing up, I needed several villages, plus the occasional hamlet, borough, and suburb. My path to adulthood (such as it is) hasn’t exactly been smooth.

When I was in first grade, the teacher asked us, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” I answered, “Special Time.” A few times a week, my mother would set aside time — maybe 15 minutes, maybe a half hour — when she would play with just one of her two children. For that period of time, you had her undivided attention. She called it “Special Time.” It was.

Gloria and Phil read Richard Scarry, 16 May1971

This is why I say that she was my first best friend. True, despite my shyness, I did make friends with kids from the neighborhood and from school: there were several best friends during my grade-school years. But mom was the first.

I did not, at the time, think of her as my first best friend. I’ve only come to realize this in retrospect. About a year ago, while listening to the Dear Sugar podcast on “When Friendships End,” Emily Chenoweth spoke of her mother being her first best friend. And I thought: Exactly! My mother was my first best friend, too.

Unlike most friends (best or otherwise), my mother loved — and loves — me unconditionally.

I took this for granted at the time. Now, however, I realize how truly miraculous such a relationship is. I know people who had a mother addled by addiction, or who left the family, or whose own childhood left her too damaged to love well, or who died young, or who failed to protect her children from an abusive spouse. I know plenty of folks who have had wonderful mothers, too. But the unconditional love of a parent is not a given.

Her love kept me from killing myself. As a depressed teen-ager, I thought about suicide more often than I’d like to admit, and considered many different ways of doing it (slit wrists & lie in bathtub? use sleeping pills? asphyxiate in garage with car on? Etc.). To quote Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé,” a poem I memorized when I was a teen:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

The reason I lived, however, was not the inconvenience of the methods. I could never kill myself because I knew it would break my mother’s heart. Her love penetrated the fog of my depression.

From the relative emotional serenity of adulthood, I look back at my teenage self and think: What an idiot I was! Or, in the words of Bugs Bunny, “What a ma-roon!” (For those who neglected to squander their youth watching cartoons, that’s Bugs’ mispronunciation of “moron.”) However, when I was so depressed, I just wanted to end the pain. In hindsight, this “solution” seems daft. At the time, it seemed to offer a way out.

The better way, provided by my mother, was a first-class education. Most (though not all) of my public school education deadened my curiosity, sapped my motivation, nurtured my indifference. Having arrived at school already able to read, I began my formal education bored and then quickly tuned out. I could get A’s without paying attention …until about fifth or sixth grade, when I couldn’t. At that point, my grades began to slip, aided — no doubt — by the public-school ethos of just getting by. (Effort was frowned upon, coasting encouraged. Seeking my peers’ approval, I coasted.)

Gloria and Phil (dressed for Last Hurrah) at Choate, 1988

Then, mom got a job teaching at a private school, which allowed children of faculty to attend tuition-free. Suddenly, my sister and I were getting a first-class education where effort — not coasting — was the norm. After two years at the one school, she got a second job at an even better private school where, again, my sister and I attended at no additional cost. It took a few years for me to embrace this new emphasis on actually paying attention: I tended to work hard in classes that interested me, and to neglect those that did not. But, eventually, I got with the program. After repeating my senior year to get my grades up, I managed to get into a good college, and then into a good grad school, and ultimately became an English professor.

I owe this career to mom. She gave me a second chance. Had she not become a private-school teacher, it’s unlikely that I would have attended college, much less become a college professor. Indeed, when I think of my younger self’s half-assed approach to education, I blink and pinch myself: How could such an indifferent pupil become a teacher? Unlike most people in the world, past failures did not sabotage my future.

In addition to the incredible luck of having such a caring, intelligent, devoted mother, I of course reap many other unearned privileges. As a white person, I’ve never struggled under the daily (hourly!) burden of racism. As a man, I’ve never felt the sharp lacerations of sexism. As a heterosexual, I’ve never had my love used as a pretext for others’ hatred. I would never deny these or any other unmerited benefits (class, ability, etc.) that have helped me along my way.

Yet of all the advantages I did not earn, my mother’s care is the one I feel most deeply. Her devotion is a debt that I can never repay. When asked to express my gratitude, language falters, looks shyly at its feet, and stumbles off the stage. What else can it do? Its words are inadequate, clumsy.

I can only say: Thank you. And: I love you, mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Gloria and Phil, Oct. 2014


Photos: 1. Mom and me (age 2) reading Richard Scarry. 2. Mom and me (age 19), just before I went to the “Last Hurrah,” a.k.a. senior prom. 3. Mom and me a couple of years ago.


Notes:

  1. For Mother’s Day in 2015, I sent mom a version of the above. I had told her these things several times, but never chronicled them in such detail. She told me that she was “very moved” by what I had written. I mention this because we should tell the important people in our lives how important they are to us!  Incidentally, I didn’t post it then because I was contemplating trying to publish the essay beyond this blog. Doubting that it would find a wider audience, I’ve since decided to publish it here.
  2. To address what may seem an omission in the second paragraph, I’m keeping my promise never to mention on this blog the person whom I’ve omitted.

Selected autobiographical writing (on this blog, unless otherwise indicated):

Comments (5)

Charleston, Family History, & White Responsibility

In response to concerns expressed by some members of my family, I have removed this blog post. This marks the first time that I’ve removed or changed something for reasons other than finding an error or a typo.

This post will not reappear here.  But nor will it completely disappear.  I plan to revise and expand it, with the aim of publishing it somewhere else in the future. If I can initiate a dialogue with family members, I want also to incorporate their critique into a new and better essay.  As I said in the original piece, I refuse to deny the truths about racism’s legacy.  But I also want to do a better job at expressing those truths.

As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time (1963), white people “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (8).

[The links that accompanied the original post remain.]

Activism

Essays on the 2015 Charleston Massacre

Resources

Related posts (on this blog)

Comments (1)

Regarding the Pain of Racism

When people ask me about the steps to empathize with someone who’s been incarcerated, as if — and in some ways, there is a grand liberal tradition of wanting to imagine that you can feel black pain, which is itself almost always an exercise in violence and privilege. Not just something that can’t be done. It is actually an exercise in violence. And so I actually think the challenge is to turn back upon yourself, and rather say: What would it feel like to feel that — to actually turn to yourself and say — what does it feel like to be in this moment, in this country that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation in the world, and that has built an elaborate system of cages that actually does cage black people, and that’s how it came to be? What does it feel like to be on the side of that where I pay taxes for that, and the defense happens mostly in my name? And see if you can get yourself there, rather than imagining [that you can feel black pain]. And I think if you can feel that, yourself as someone who is inflicting massive pain, then that can become your barometer for where we are.  My barometer for where I am is not how I imagine black criminality.  My barometer for where we are is: How complicitous am I for this massive amount of systemized, enforced extraction of pain and death?

— Naomi Murakawa, from “Naomi Murakawa and Eddie Glaude in Conversation — The First Civil Right,” Princeton Community Television. Recorded at Labyrinth Books, 12 Mar. 2015.  (The above statement begins near minute 54.)

No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.

— Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003), p. 7

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

— Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated on this day in 1968 and quoted in Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 203

Naomi Murakawa’s remark resonates deeply because I have been reading and thinking and writing about racism — a form of social violence that I have never had directed at me. I’m writing a book, currently titled Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature. To reiterate, I’ve never been on the receiving end of racism. Yet, as a white male, I have — every day of my life — benefitted from institutional racism and sexism.

But writing about privilege has a tendency to shift the focus too much to the oppressor. While addressing the oppressor’s role is important and necessary work, it can have the unfortunate, even immoral, consequence of shifting attention away from those in pain. Beneficiaries of racism and sexism do have a much greater moral responsibility to fight these structures of oppression, but narratives about white men (such as myself) voicing this awareness have a tendency to become self-congratulatory. And, frankly, you don’t get a cookie for doing the right thing.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessMurakawa’s comment nicely illuminates the ways in which affect can mobilize oppressors to challenge their complicity in that oppression. Since my taxes underwrite the nation’s prison industrial complex, I’m responsible for the pain and death inflicted. That’s a helpful — and, of course, profoundly soul-crushing —  way of shifting the emphasis away from the facile, ersatz empathy of merely imagining someone else’s pain, and towards acknowledging one’s role in perpetuating this systemic violence.

As Murakawa says, empathy is not only impossible but is itself a form of violence against the oppressed. And, as Susan Sontag says, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” Sympathy, however, is possible — so long as it’s cognizant of its limits. Certainly, sympathy is insufficient on its own, but it can motivate people to take the next step that Murakawa describes.

Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American LifeIf the second paragraph’s concluding sentence implies that I’m “doing the right thing” in undertaking this book on structural racism in children’s literature, I hereby redact that implication. Yes, I would like to be doing the right thing; I hope my work makes some sort of positive difference. But it’s presumptions, even arrogant, to suggest that. The profound limitations of my raced subject position enhances the likelihood that I will come up short. Obviously, I’m doing the research, reading works by Michelle Alexander, Karen Fields and Barbara Fields, Nell Irvin Painter, Randall Kennedy, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Michelle Martin, Kate Capshaw, Rudine Sims Bishop, Robin Bernstein, Claire Bradford, Zetta Elliott, and many others. (I have not yet read Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, but it’s now on my list.)

Yet, somehow, in this project more than any other I’ve undertaken (including the biography of Johnson and Krauss), the research feels insufficient.

I think it comes down to this. I aspire to be an ally, but I would never call myself an ally. If and when a member of an oppressed group calls me an ally, I feel grateful and humbled. But a member of a dominant group cannot confer allyhood on himself or herself. Nor, of course, does the power to designate allyhood reside in one member of a group facing institutional oppression. However, that one individual has a better ability to evaluate allyhood than I do. Straight, white men do not get to call ourselves allies. But we can and should try to be allies.

In other words, it all comes down to the work itself. And, on that note, I should get back to work.

A tip of the hat to Brian Herrera for sharing the Murakawa video, via Facebook.

Comments (5)

25 Years After; or, 10 Things I Learned at My High School Reunion

Philip Nel, fall 1987.I am not nostalgic for my high school years.  As a teen, I was acutely self-conscious, chronically insecure, often depressed.  Yes, I also experienced a wider range of emotions (including joy and laughter) during those years, but my dominant impression of teen-age-hood is gratitude at having survived it.

But I returned for my 25th reunion last week. After all, I did have a few close friends, and (via Facebook) have connected with a few others. How many more opportunities will I have to see them? So, I returned. Here are ten observations.

1. As adolescents, lots of people were insecure, full of doubt, consumed by self-loathing. This is not news, but it is affirming to hear others admit this. “I was so angry then,” one classmate told me.  Adolescence can be a confusing, volatile time.

2. Memory inheres in places. Many glimpses of the past. At the edge of an athletic field, I vividly remembered a conversation, one evening during the spring of my senior year. I know who I was talking to, can remember what we both were wearing, but have no idea what we were discussing. Walking past the Arts Center’s cement cavern, I remember its echo chamber where, we — the male a cappella group — sang earlier that same year, also in an evening. Standing almost anywhere on campus revived memories.

3. I can’t believe I once attended school here. Choate is an extraordinary place. It has an Arts Center, a Science Center, a Humanities Center, athletic buildings, classrooms, and dorms — all of which rival or surpass those in the best universities. I was a student here because my mother taught here, and children of faculty can attend for free. My parents otherwise could never have afforded such an education for my sister and me.

4. That most children lack access to such high quality education is morally wrong.  In addition to the school’s extraordinary facilities, the ratio of faculty to students at Choate is 6:1.  Most public high schools are at least 12:1, and some are as high as 22:1. In the past few decades, Choate made the decision to admit fewer students, in part (so I understand) so that it could achieve such favorable ratios. In contrast, at the national and state levels, government has been cutting funds to public schools, resulting in larger class sizes and worse ratios.

5. The Reunion Industrial Complex.  I suspect this is a phenomenon of elite private schools (and universities), but the reunion was a very swanky, very professional affair. There were huge tents on the Great Lawn (I’d no idea that lawn even had a name), catered meals beneath those tents, bartenders serving (free) drinks at all events, live music, and lots of waitstaff on hand. OK, it lacked ice sculptures, but the reunion otherwise had all the trimmings of a fancy wedding. It must have been very expensive. As one classmate remarked, “If they get a big donation, the reunion will pay for itself.”

6. Teachers made a big difference outside of class. This is a reminder to me, as a professor: often we help our students more as mentors than we do in the classroom. In another blog post, I talked about how the late Terry Ortwein’s decision to cast me in a minor role in Our Town allowed me to glimpse a different self: acting showed me how to shed my shyness and become more outgoing, confident, competent.

Of all my Choate teachers, my mother had the greatest influence on me. I had been languishing in public school until she began teaching in private schools (thus enabling me to attend gratis). Having arrived in kindergarten able to read and write, I found public school boring, never learned to study, and just coasted along — daydreaming, paying scant attention. This strategy worked well, … until it stopped working well, and my grades slipped. Public school culture emphasized getting by; private school culture emphasized not only doing the work but striving for excellence. Had my mother’s job not enabled me to attend private school, I doubt I’d have gone to college, much less graduate school.

The lessons of private school did not take immediately. Fortunately, John Ford, then a dean, allowed me to repeat my junior year at Choate. Doing so granted me the time to get my act together. (1) I was unlikely to pass three years of Russian, which I’d chosen as my foreign language. So, I switched to Spanish, completing three years’ worth in two years’ time — thanks to a semester in Spain. (2) I also started paying attention consistently, worked harder, and improved my grades to the point that I was able to get into a good college.

I’d forgotten that my Choate classmates sometimes wondered whether my sister and I were twins. We’re in the same graduating class because she started school a year early and I repeated a year. For many years, when people would ask me if Linda (who speaks five languages and runs marathons competitively) were older, I would reply: “Only in terms of accomplishments. In terms of age, I’m actually two years older.”

7. Professionally, many people have found their niche in life. It may not have been the job they imagined themselves doing, but they find it’s a good fit for who they are. Lobbyist, teacher, IT professional, intellectual-property lawyer, stay-at-home mom, personal trainer, actor, director of community relations for Google, Oscar-winning screenwriter, executive producer of The Life of Pi. Yes, those last few are more exceptional than typical. But a number of my classmates are quite high-powered people. It’s very impressive!

8. No one works 9-to-5 anymore. I often think that my 60-hour weeks, in which I work during evenings & weekends, are typical for an academic, but unusual in the rest of the working world. However, such a “flexible” work schedule (in which work expands to fill any available time) is normal in most careers. This is one reason that it’s hard for us to describe what we do. We are all of us multi-tasking, juggling life and work, constantly in motion.

9. Only connect. . . (yes, I’m quoting E.M. Forster). I of course enjoyed catching up with people who I knew, but I also enjoyed catching up with those I did not know. During the weekend, I actually made a few new friends — which, as we grow older, is too rare an occurrence.

10. As the song says, “The years go by, as quickly as a wink. / Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself (it’s later than you think).” I don’t mean embrace hedonism, but rather we are here now, and then we are gone. Several times during the weekend, I found myself thinking: It is good to be here, right now, in this moment.

I hope all of you fare well over the years to come, though I know not all of you will. I hope to see everyone in the future, though I know some of us will not cross paths again. I hope that you find meaning and purpose in your life, that you nurture your friendships and relationships, that you love and are loved.

*  *  *  *  *

The day after the reunion, I visited a friend whose job prevented her from attending. She was on call that weekend — she’s an M.D. who specializes in geriatrics. Or, as her spouse (an M.D. in pediatrics) puts it, “She has a 100% mortality rate.” Though that can be hard, it’s also very fulfilling. She (and sometimes her children) get to meet people in their 80s, 90s, 100s — people who’ve lived long lives and have stories to tell.

Except for one. She told me of a man, very accomplished in his field. I forget the precise job, and (for reasons of confidentiality) should alter the specifics anyway. But he was the president of a major insurance company or corporation, a very wealthy man. In devoting time to his career, he neglected his friendships and relationships. At the end, he lay there dying, not surrounded by friends and family — but quite alone. He turned to my friend, and asked “Is that it?” Then he died.

My wish for everyone is this. Live well so that, before you face that final curtain, you have something more to say.


Choate Rosemary Hall Facebook 1987-1988Image source: Choate Rosemary Hall Facebook 1987-1988.  Yes, back before the social media phenomenon of Facebook, the school each fall published a Facebook — for each student, a photo, name, address (both on and off-campus), and class year (or academic speciality, in the case of faculty).  The photo above comes from the Facebook of my final year at Choate.

Comments (3)

If I Were a Middle-Class White Kid

Gene Marks’ instantly infamous “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” column (Forbes, 12 Dec. 2011) is a classic example of how privilege remains invisible to the privileged.  Though he acknowledges that he is “a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background” and so “life was easier for” him, the rest of his column betrays too little of the awareness expressed by those early sentences. For instance, “If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study” assumes that the kid in question would have access to this technology.  Even a claim as benign as “If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have” overlooks the fact that it takes an unusual student to rise above the limitations of a “lousy school.” Sure, there are students who do this, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

Mr. Marks assumes that opportunity is equally distributed. While we might admire the personal optimism conveyed by a claim like “I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed,” the article does not sufficiently acknowledge that some people — those with access to better schools, those who do not go to bed hungry, those with health care — have a much, much better chance of success.

I owe my own success to precisely that sort of privilege. Don’t misunderstand: I have worked hard, and I continue to work hard. But my success in life derives not just from my work ethic. It also comes from unearned privilege.

If I had stayed in public school, I’m not sure that I would have gone to college at all. On my first day of first grade, the teacher asked which of us could read. I was among those few who raised my hand — I’d been reading since I was 3 years old.  She gave us literate students a book to read. I finished it first, and raised my hand. “I’ve finished,” I said.  Her response: “Read it again.” I began to read it again. On my first day of school and subsequent ones, I learned that school was boring.

The author, at about age 11, reading The Hobbit

The result was that, though I still read for pleasure, I became a terrible student. I’d finish the worksheet first, and then devote my free time to amusing my classmates. I paid attention only when it suited me, trusting that I’d be able to master the material on my own. For a few years, this approach worked well. However, by the time I reached sixth and seventh grade, it was no longer working. My grades were slipping, and I began to slip behind.

And here’s where that unearned privilege saved me.

Just before I entered eighth grade, my mother got a job teaching at private schools —  first, Shore Country Day School (in Beverly, Mass.), and second, Choate Rosemary Hall (in Wallingford, Conn.). Her employment allowed my sister and me to attend both schools for free.  That’s right: in addition to receiving a salary (and on-campus housing in the case of Choate), her labor enabled her offspring to attend gratis. Had she lacked a college degree, had she lacked experience teaching and working with computers, I would not have had that opportunity.

She’s also a great example of how privilege — or its lack — gets compounded over time. She worked hard, overcoming both the diminished expectations accorded her gender, and discrimination from male bosses. But she also benefited from privilege.  As a white South African, she had access to educational opportunities that black South Africans did not.  I can say with certainty that if my mother were from the same country but of a different race, I would not be where I am today.  That’s unearned privilege.

Attending private schools made all the difference for me. Although I had peers in public school (a perfectly adequate public school) who did well and went on to college, I too easily succumbed to the prevailing attitude (among the students) that one should do as little as possible.  In private school, however, the prevailing attitude was that we all needed to work hard.  The work was challenging, and we had to rise to our teachers’ expectations.

That was just the nudge I needed. I didn’t become an “A” student overnight. Indeed, I had to do an extra year at Choate to pass the language requirement (there was no way I was going to make it through third-year Russian), and to get my grades up enough to get into college.  Aided by a semester abroad (in Valladolid, Spain), I did three years of Spanish in two years, improved my grades, and got accepted at a couple of good colleges.

At the University of Rochester, I became a model student, and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in both English and Psychology. But, here, too, privilege came to my aid. Having that excellent private-school education meant that I knew how to study. During my freshman year, many of my public-school friends were shocked by the amount of work. I wasn’t. The work may have been harder, but I knew what I had to do.

In calling attention to the role privilege has played in my own success, I do not mean to dismiss the role of a solid work ethic. Mr. Marks is correct to emphasize the importance of hard work. For most of college, I worked two jobs — one via Work/Study, and one as a Resident Advisor (which paid for room and half of board).  I say “most” because I became an R.A. my second year; indeed, I was one of two sophomore R.A.s that year.  (The others were all juniors and seniors.)  In addition to those jobs, I studied hard, spending long hours in the library.  I carried those work habits on to graduate school and into my career as an English professor.

However, I must point out that I was not working, say, 30-hour weeks in addition to doing schoolwork. The hours of the R.A. job varied, and the Work/Study job was, to the best of my recollection, about 8 hours a week, give or take. I have students now who work full-time, are the sole caregiver for their children, and are pursuing a B.A. That’s a much steeper hill to climb.

The problem in this country is not laziness. The problem is unacknowledged, unearned privilege.  It’s not that people lack industry; they lack opportunity. But the privileged — unconscious of the degree to which their own advantage has aided them — fail to see this, and so write well-intentioned, naïve articles like “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” Mr. Marks means well, but his prescription for success would not have helped me.  And I was a middle-class white kid.

The photo is of me, at about age 11, reading The Hobbit.

Comments (12)