Privilege is a hot topic right now. Everyone should be aware of the specific privileges they have – being white, male, rich, educated, able-bodied, etc. – and work towards understanding what it’s like to not have those privileges. I want to discuss social mobility, and the privileges that come with having money.
I come from a traditional working class family. This means that my parents worked semi-skilled jobs and had little spare cash, but did own assets, such as a house. My dad left school without qualifications and seemed to have every job under the sun, but when I was growing up, he became a courier for a delivery company, then later, a self-employed courier. My mum was a housewife, but when my dad died, she became a care worker, and now works in a pharmacy. My family speak with a Cockney accent, can be loud and uncouth, and blow up like an EastEnders Christmas special.
My mum’s family are relatively well-off. Her dad started his own business, which became successful, and resulted in a large amount of wealth, which helped my family to a degree, but wasn’t distributed evenly throughout the generations. My dad’s family, on the other hand, were all chronically working class, with little to their names, and some were even in black collar, or criminal, positions. While violence is by no means constrained by class, we did experience the almost stereotypical domestic violence, drugs, and hatred of police, that you might expect from families of the lower classes.
Up And Away
University saved me from being like the rest of my family. That sounds snobbish, I know, but I don’t mean the lack of money. I mean the disregard for the law, the ‘fuck education’ attitude, the just-get-by way of life. After a particularly distasteful experience, which resulting in me spending some time in a cell, the interviewing officer told me to be better, to do better. To not let my past dictate my future. So I indulged my love of learning by returning to education, and got into university. I suppose my family has always thought I believed myself better than the rest of them, which isn’t entirely true; I just always had ambition, the need for more.
My siblings have gone the way of our parents – low-paid, manual jobs, basic education. Both of them live at home, and probably won’t be able to move out for a long time – the state of the housing market will make sure of that. Becoming a university student gave me the opportunity to move out – and away, to Plymouth, 250+ miles away – and build my own life, an opportunity I was lucky to have. If it weren’t for the student loans, I would never have been able to get a degree – even if I am in £30,000 worth of debt.
Two years after graduation, as a salaried professional in an administrative position, I’m classed as white collar. My partner is the same, though his job is more skilled than mine. We live fairly comfortably but, unsurprisingly, we don’t own assets, such as a home. We’re both educated to degree level, and are both politically and socially engaged. We care about recycling, voting, equality, poverty, education, racism. We’re switched on to issues all over the world, and in my case, speak out about certain injustices. We enjoy cooking, reading, going to gigs and to the theatre. We read or watch the news, and snub tabloid papers. We’re atheist. We might consider paying for private education, if we wanted children. The fact that we don’t want children also points toward our class. We live in a fairly affluent area (one we can’t afford to buy a house in, mind). I’ve been told my accent is posh; BBC English, or Received Pronunciation.
We are middle middle-class
Why am I talking about all of this? Am I just trying to rub my social mobility in people’s faces? Not at all. In fact, this social mobility makes me somewhat uncomfortable, largely due to the fact that it means I’m able to do things I would never have considered in the past. But I’m also glad that social mobility is possible, despite the state of the economy and the country as a whole at the moment.
I’ve been poor – student-poor, yes, but also really poor. My siblings had a particularly difficult time while I was away at university, and my mum, the remaining parent, wasn’t working. As a kid, I didn’t receive pocket money from my parents, and in fact went without a lot of things, especially once my siblings came along. We had crap food, not all the time, but I was accustomed to things like chicken nuggets and chips as a dinner. “There’s always someone worse off than you” was the motto in our house, and it’s true, of course, but it never quite feels that way when you’re living hand-to-mouth. And so now I’m adjusting to my new privilege.
Today, after some Googling, I discovered that you can pay for a man to come to your house (or wherever, really, in the local area) and clean your car, inside and out. The way my house is positioned, it’s nigh on impossible to get a hoover round to the parking space out the back, thanks to a lack of rear access. Add that to my disability, and cleaning my car would not be an easy job for me. But, look! I can pay this gentleman to come and clean it while I get ready for work in the morning. And he can come next week!
The very idea of paying someone to come and clean my car boggles the mind of someone who, a few years ago, would have taken a job such as cleaning cars to make ends meet. Past-me would have sneered at present-me. Past-me would have been scrubbing the coffee-stained stairs of some dingy office block for a measly £6 an hour, glaring at present-me in her clean clothes and cushy desk job. Fibromyalgia what? My health was no better back then, but I didn’t have much of a choice – I had to work, and there were an abundance of cleaning jobs available, at unsociable hours, to fit around my education. Now I’ve joined the 9-5 rat race, sitting in traffic in my 13-year-old car that runs pretty well, rather than crossing my fingers every time I got into the old banger that was only a few years younger than me (RIP Meera). I have a pension plan. I’ve used private healthcare. I have dreams of being a home-owner. We go on long weekend trips to Dublin and a “minimoon” in Cornwall. Past-me barely made it across the Tamar, despite living in Plymouth, for trips that didn’t involve scrubbing grubby holiday chalets I could never afford to stay in.
What Price For Privilege?
I work full-time, which can be a struggle with Fibromyalgia. My partner also works full-time, with a commute into and out of London on top. He’s out of the house 12 hours a day. I work locally, so my commute isn’t too bad, but I also spend time writing, whether it’s writing for the blog or fiction, and I take on more household chores since I’m home earlier. We live for the weekend, when we can snooze the morning away or lounge around on the sofa. We don’t have a lot to do with other people, preferring our own company to that of others. That’s not snobbery at play – at least, not always – but more a need to rest, relax, and in my case, recuperate, after a week of hard work.
The fact that we do both work is what makes a lot of this possible – neither of us could support the other on our wages, and neither of us could live as we do by ourselves – and my partner has good prospects. My job is pretty dead-end, in the sense that there’s no real opportunity for progression, but my writing could, maybe, someday, bring in a good wage.
I guess a part of this newfound privilege is how tentative it is. One slip – an expensive bill, a broken leg, unemployment – and we could be back to beans on toast for dinner. It terrifies me. My family isn’t particularly good with money, despite not having much of it – they like to spend rather than save. I’d rather tuck it away, create a security fund, in case the worst happens. A part of me cannot comprehend the idea of not being able to pay for something you knew was coming up, like rent or car insurance. Some of my soon-to-be in-laws seem to be incapable of planning and paying for such things, and it frustrates me. You could say that’s my privilege talking, but even when I had less money, I was still conscious of my responsibilities.
Why Is Privilege Important?
Privileges are usually things we take for granted. Privilege theory considers each individual privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. I, for example, benefit from being white, middle-class, in a heteronormative relationship (I’m not heterosexual, but you wouldn’t know that without speaking to me about it), university educated, a citizen of the UK, and so on. But I’m disadvantaged because I’m a woman, and disabled. The concept of acknowledging your privilege is a relatively new one, but having privilege is not new.
Privileged people see themselves reflected throughout society both in mass media and face-to-face in their encounters with teachers, workplace managers and other authorities, which researchers argue leads to a sense of entitlement and the assumption that the privileged person will succeed in life, as well as protecting the privileged person from worry that they may face discrimination from people in positions of authority.
Sorrells, Kathryn (2012). Intercultural Communication: Globalization and Social Justice. SAGE Publications
I’m still learning about this and other important subjects every day, but as far as I understand it, I feel it’s important to be aware of your privileges in life, and accept others’ explanations as to why they are not similarly privileged. I will never know what it’s like to be a black woman, just as an able-bodied person wouldn’t know what it’s like to live with a disability. It’s important to create these conversations, and, as our situations improve, we should not only acknowledge how our lives have changed for the better, but also try to help others in situations worse than our own.
How are you privileged or disadvantaged? Do you understand what it means to check your privilege? Let me know below!