Income vs. Wealth: How Privilege Is Passed Down from Generation to Generation

Not too long ago, I got an angry e-mail from someone in the town where I grew up.

The author of the e-mail is someone who knows my parents pretty well, and he had somehow stumbled across something I had written about privilege.

“How disrespectful can you be!? It’s like your spitting in the face of everything your parents have worked for,” he wrote. “Writing about this White privilege makes it look like your father, one of the harder working men I know, just had everything handed to him. You know that’s not the case!”

I did my best to respond by explaining that privilege doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve had everything handed to you, and I know that my father has worked hard. To say that we have privilege doesn’t discredit any of his hard work. It simply puts that hard work in context.

I recently heard privilege described as a tailwind,” taking your effort and energy and propelling you further forward than those who must fly against the winds of our society’s constructs of power and privilege.

My father didn’t grow up with incredible wealth privilege. He is the son of a truck driver and stay-at-home mom who also worked at a local school cafeteria to earn extra cash. My grandfather grew up in the “holler” in West Virginia in an area well familiar with intergenerational poverty.

Part of what set our family apart, though, was our ownership of land.

Similarly, on my mom’s side of the family, go back a few generations and you’ll find some poor, hardworking farmers from Ireland and Belgium who settled on stolen indigenous land in South Dakota. Again, they were able to buy a plot of land upon which they could start to build their familial wealth legacy.

Fast forward a few generations, and I am the son of a doctor and a nurse.

Wealth and the Context of History

There are really a few ways to look at my family’s history.

Some might say that it’s the perfect example of “The American Dream,” as defined by the ability of a people to build something (read: wealth) for themselves that is passed down to ensure the next generation’s life is a little better than the last.

Others might note that my family’s story perfectly illustrates the trappings of privilege.

Sure, my family gave up most of our cultural identity to become White in the United States, but doing so gave us access to a system that privileged us in countless ways.

Simply put, we traded culture for a tailwind.

After all, one of the key markers of access to wealth in the United States for much of its history has been the ability to own land. There’s a reason that for a good, long while in this country, a man couldn’t vote unless he owned land, and you couldn’t own land unless you were White and Christian.

And land-ownership has been systematically denied to those not considered “White” (through the ever-changing construction of Whiteness) for most if not all of this country’s history.

From the Land Grant Acts to the Homesteading Acts to redlining policies toWhite flight, we see how owning land, but particularly land considered “desirable” or worthy (whether because of access to resources or proximity to jobs or simply status) allows for wealth mobility.

And this access to wealth mobility is relates directly to intersectional identity politics.

This does not mean that all White people are wealthy or that poor White folks somehow are failures for not better working the system that privileges us.

It simply means that the limited access to wealth that has always been a staple in this country has just been more limited for people of Color and women and disabled/differently-abled people and non-Christians and really anyone who isn’t part of the smaller, privileged few that are most granted access to wealth in this country.

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

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Cut Through the Defensiveness: 6 Suggestions for Conversations About Privilege

I once published a piece about White privilege, and my White friend’s dad lost it.  He read it and immediately called his son at work and asked him, “What are you doing right now?”

My friend replied, “Working, why?”  My friend worked as a carpet cleaner, backbreaking labor for sure.

“Well, Jamie says you’re privileged.  Do you feel privileged right now as you bust your ass to feed your family?”

“Are you kidding me?!?  Screw him! I’ve never had anything handed to me!”

And so the story goes.  How many times have you tried to discuss privilege with someone who is well-meaning but who has no sense of their own privilege and gotten a similar result?

What is “identity privilege?”
Any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. Examples of aspects of identity that can afford privilege: Race, Religion, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Class/Wealth, Ability, or Citizenship Status

After a while, my friend brought up the conversation he had with his dad, and we discussed it.  It didn’t go well.  He immediately got defensive, so did I, and the conversation ended in anger.  As I reflected upon our talk, I took stock of some of the tools I have been given over the years to make this conversation more accessible and less hostile.  I decided to try again, so I reached out to my friend.  The second conversation was tense at times, as any conversation about privilege can be, but this time it went really well, and I think it did because I worked hard to change the tone of the conversation.  Afterward, I couldn’t help but think, “I need to share these tools!!!”

Thus, whether you’re trying to talk Male privilege with your dad, White privilege with someone on the bus, or right-handed privilege with your golfing buddy, here are a few things to consider before jumping into the conversation:

1.  Start by appealing to the ways in which they don’t have privilege.  One of the fastest ways to disarm a person’s defensiveness about their own privilege is to take some time to listen to the ways in which they legitimately do not have privilege and validate those frustrations.

I once attended a workshop with Peggy McIntosh, the original author of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  The goal of the workshop was to give people tools for leading workshops of their own on privilege and oppression that get past the defensiveness.  One of her suggestions was to have people divide a paper in half.  Have every person start on the left side of the paper and write down all of the ways in which they do not have identity privilege.  They can include everything from being left handed and having to drag your hand through the ink to being a woman and having to deal with the gender wage gap.  Then folks would write on the opposite side all of the ways in which their identity does afford them privilege that they did not earn.

From there, folks pair up and do a listening exercise where they listen intently to the other person talk about both sides of their list.  Doing so allows people to air their frustrations at being denied privilege while also acknowledging that they do, indeed, have privilege.  From that place, it is a lot easier to help folks understand the power of privilege in creating a system of oppression and how eliminating that system is liberatory and transformative for everyone.

Now, to do this, you don’t need to turn it into a workshop.  Just try asking the other person to talk about the ways in which they don’t have identity privilege, and validate those hurts and frustrations.  Simply listening can go a long way!  Plus, it’s a starting point for helping them build empathy for those who do not have their same privileges.

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Budget Cutting or Class Warfare?

Usually I try to stay away from overtly political posts (ones that take a stance on pieces of legislation or on political candidates) unless the issues or people discussed are highlighting a particular issue of race, religion, gender, weight, sexual orientation, class, or ability that needs discussed.  This week, though, I figure my criticism is bipartisan, so I suppose it’s alright.

I have been pretty concerned as I have watched closely the negotiations in the U.S. Congress over budget cutting in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years.  Now in all of this, I definitely understand the need for budget cuts and austerity measures (though I am not convinced of the economic wisdom of budget cutting when the economy is only first starting to emerge from recession).  What is concerning to me, though, is the nature of the budget cutting being proposed.  To understand this reality, let’s first take a look at what Americans would prefer to see cut if cuts need to be made:

Results of a Wall Street Journal Poll regarding the ways Americans do and don’t want to see the budget balanced.

According to the Wall Street Journal poll, of the 26 ways listed to cut the deficit, the most popular were: “placing a surtax on federal income taxes for those who make more than $1 million per year (81 percent said that was acceptable), eliminating spending on earmarks (78 percent), eliminating funding for weapons systems the Defense Department says aren’t necessary (76 percent), and eliminating tax credits for the oil and gas industries (74 percent).”

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