Tuesday, January 01, 2008


I think a lot of these questions reveal that the devil is in the details, but it sounded like fun.

Based on an exercise developed by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. If you participate in this blog game, PLEASE acknowledge their copyright. BOLD WHICH APPLY TO YOU:

Father went to college  

Father finished college  
Earned a degree in a foreign country that only partly 'counted.'

Mother went to college

Mother finished college  
Earned a degree in a foreign country that only partly 'counted.'

Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor

Were the same or higher socio-economic class than your high school teachers  
For most, but not all of my life.

Had more than 50 books in your childhood home  Later on.  Not for a long time.

Had more than 500 books in your childhood home (Detail--my parents left their native country with me and a suitcase.  The country they landed in didn't have any books in their native language.  Hence, we had what they'd packed in children's books, what relatives sent to us, and a few books in English.)

Were read children's books by a parent  Here's a question that puzzles me.  Yes, it's a privilege to have good parents, but from the culture it has little to do with socio-economic standing.  It was expected, whether you were raised by dirt-poor farmers or someone very wealthy.  Then came the schism, where the 'noble' or old families had nannies do that, though that was still considered bad parenting and a sign of being spoiled (the parents, not the kids.)  The whole image of under-privileged children living in squalor hadn't permeated Czech home life.  No matter how bad things got, you kept the house clean and the children washed.  If the kids had no shoes, you made them some.  Penniless households had art on the walls and flowers on the table.  I'm sure this is more utopian than reality in some ways, but I have to say that when I visited the home country it was clean, and the only things that were gray and grim and squalid were what the Soviets had built.  Even there, inside the cinderblock apartments, people might have few possessions but they were kept in a loving fashion.  Maybe being Czech should be listed as a privilege?

Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18

Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18 (gymnastics, swimming, sports, music--usually through community recreational programs, school or at home)

The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively  With the caveat that almost no one was Czech in media, but as I'm white and during school became English speaking, this one ends up bolded.

Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18

Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs

Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs

Went to a private high school

Went to summer camp

Had a private tutor before you turned 18  (My parents tutored me.  I knew how to read and write to a certain extent before I ever went into kindergarten, though not in English.)

Family vacations involved staying at hotels (big time campers.  Sometimes we'd rent a house with my great aunt and great uncle or with friends of the family, split costs.)

Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18 (eldest child, no nearby relatives except great aunt and great uncle)

Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them

There was original art in your house when you were a child.  My parents painted the vast majority of art in our home.

You and your family lived in a single family house

Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home

You had your own room as a child (for a short time my sister and I shared a room in my great aunt's townhouse.)

You had a phone in your room before you turned 18

Participated in an SAT/ACT prep course

Had your own TV in your room in High School

Owned a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College

Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16  To get to the U.S. we flew.  I'm not sure how that was paid for.

Went on a cruise with your family

Went on more than one cruise with your family

Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up  Of course!  My father was an artist as well as an engineer.  Even when we could afford very little we budgeted for this.  Another devil in the details, much like being read to by a parent.  It points at privilege of good parenting, which at least in the Eastern European culture I was raised in knows no class.  Didn't matter if your house had a dirt floor and you ate little more than potatoes.  You went to the museum at least once.

You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family  Never the amount, but sometimes the grinding of teeth could be heard from a good distance.  Does that count?

Maybe growing up in privilege blinds me to some of the stuff this is pointing at, and I'm sure I have a skewed perspective on my childhood.  It definitely measures a society more American than I am, despite the fact that I am an American--raised and educated in America in a primarily English-speaking household.

We started with nothing.  My father worked for a Chinese newspaper when we moved in with my great aunt and great uncle in their townhouse in Pacifica (Bay Area)--he spoke neither English nor Chinese.  We grew from that to owning our own home, my father making a handsome living as an engineer, but even then he saved up to buy things, including things that would only take maybe a half day of work of his wages.  What privilege is being measured?  Being born into a good, hard-working family which can be found even among the generationally poor, or being born into a financially independent circumstance?  It's apples and oranges in my mind.  You can be born to both and neither, either, or.

For the record, I have a much nicer house than most of my relatives, and my husband earns almost as much as my father did when he worked in San Jose (adjusted dollars.)  I think my kids are less privileged familially than I was, because I'm not as attentive to them and the house as my mother was.  Does that mean that despite my upbringing and family ideals, I fit in with whatever this quiz is trying to measure somehow?  If we made more money, had more savings, would I read more to my kids, take them to more lessons, have more books in the house (although the idea of more books in this house is rather frightening and yet intriguing)?  If I'd completed college would it be more likely that we would have planned to support the kids through college?  I'd like to see what this exercise shows and teaches us.  I do very much like that it makes me think about these things. 


Kai Jones said...

It's obvious that this exercise was constructed by college kids for same-cohort college kids, to alert them to privilege they might take for granted.

I have seen a couple of versions of this by now, including a really good update at Naomi Kritzer's journal. On the original, I can only bold 5 of the statements. And as I point out in comments to the referenced journal, there is an assumption of continuity in the exercise along with sloppy definitions, both of which make it hard for anyone who didn't have stable parents in an intact marriage to answer it in the first place.

Kami said...

One of the things I dislike about this exercise is exactly what you're talking about--there's an underlying message that if you have stuff/money/means, that aside from being read to you probably have good family life that doesn't need to be mentioned because it's supposedly a given.

Something I found that made me feel a little impoverished in my youth was the size of my family. I had a very, very good family but we amounted to six people in the entire western U.S. until 1980, at which point my grandmother came to live with us and then we had seven close relatives living within driving distance. Communicating with family in the home country during the Cold War was extremely difficult and expensive enough that a phone call was a big event.

But family isn't really a privilege in my mind. Well, in one very real sense it is. Being loved and cared for is a huge privilege, and some could argue that it ought to be a human right. When most people talk about privilege, though, it is more about the stuff and means and money. Family is a whole other beast. It should either be much more thoroughly investigated in this exercise, or it should be eliminated altogether and examined in a separate exercise.

An exercise that examines a person's upbringing and family relationships could be very interesting, but on the other hand it's very painful ground for many and I'm not sure it could be handled with sufficient sensitivity and remain as something people should and would kick around as an open topic for blogging. What value and instruction would result when someone publicly displayed an exercise on family upbringing if the first question was "Did you feel safe at home?" and they had to answer no?

Kami said...

I just finished reading Naomi Kritzer's entry and revisions and I have to say that her exercise makes much, much more sense than the one I posted and answered. It's tightly focused on what home life was like rather than what goodies someone had access to.

I wouldn't call it a revision of the original at all. It addresses quality of life and is a separate intellectual property.

I think a possible revision of the original could address worldly means without the inclusion of family life. I'm not sure how instructive it would be, though. I think that the people who have access to a lot of means already have a very good idea that they are privileged, and those who have modest means are also aware of what others have access to that they do not. Gone are the days when people 'can't even imagine.' Wealth and power are displayed in myriad ways on television, magazines, books, radio, gossip, and in movies. It may be that the very privileged have difficulty understanding destitution, but that seems unlikely. Still, I think a revision of the original with things like neighborhood, crime, savings, available utilities, educational access and expectations, employment opportunities and expectations, mobility, travel, chores, maid and/or nanny services, source of income and so forth could be interesting. Not sure that I have the time or intelligence to put it together.

Kai Jones said...

When most people talk about privilege, though, it is more about the stuff and means and money.

We must not be talking to the same people, because the ones I talk to think privilege is about having more opportunity due partly to things you had/have no control over. The classic example is "Dress for success: wear a white p*n*s." And the value in examining it is not to feel guilty, but to recognize the difference between personal achievement and advantages of birth/family--and not blame other people's failures or incomplete success entirely on their own lack of effort. (Also, I think, not to be too proud of yourself for, as they say, being born on third base instead of hitting a home run.)

I think that the people who have access to a lot of means already have a very good idea that they are privileged

My experience and the evidence demonstrated by friends who are far more concerned with privilege than I am points to no on this question, largely because they are using a focused definition of privilege that in no way guarantees a particular outcome. So people think "how can I have privilege when I didn't finish college, aren't as rich as Bill Gates, didn't get a Ph.D.?" But they still had it, because it's not that kind of privilege.

It is, rather, a privilege of opportunity: more doors are open to you if you know the social graces and how to dress for success; you are more likely (but not guaranteed) to succeed in school if your parents gave you a rich cultural and literary environment *in addition to* a stable home where food, shelter, and so forth were never in question. Not having those things doesn't guarantee failure, but it makes success much more difficult.

In this sense, then, privilege isn't supposed to be a brick to beat people over the head with, or the tool that takes away their lives, but the filter through which the world might be improved for those who don't automatically have it.

Note that I'm just explaining here; much of this is contrary to my preferred solutions to the problems.

Kai Jones said...

What value and instruction would result when someone publicly displayed an exercise on family upbringing if the first question was "Did you feel safe at home?" and they had to answer no?

I am in that category (answering no), and what I hope the value and instruction would be for others is that people all around you have dealt with things you may not even imagine, so when you compare yourself (or judge others) keep in mind what you had and what they didn't, and what you didn't have to deal with and they did.

Some people think I'm an underachiever (I think I've told you about the attorneys at work asking me why I didn't go to law school) but usually if I bother to tell them what my childhood was really like they're amazed at how far I've come, and how well I hide it.

Kami said...

Good point re: things you have no control over, like the color of your skin. That's definitely something I overlooked in my thought process. I definitely see the idea of opportunity vs. lack thereof--I thought means was inclusive of opportunity but I really hadn't been thinking about race when I wrote that.

Maybe belief should be included because I know a lot of people honestly believe they will never succeed in any way that matters to them because they've been told they won't by society and/or by their upbringing. Mindset certainly affects outcome and environment affects mindset.

I'm definitely not smart enough to write a better exercise. :-)