I come from a place of such incredible privilege that it’s embarrassing and yet I’m still having a hard time making ends meet. This is a confusing truth.
I am a white able-bodied woman, by most measures attractive-ish and reasonably thin. I grew up in an upper middle class family. My father had the super duper extended healthcare plan which enabled me to take expensive psychiatric medication and see fancy psychologists, sometimes as often as three times a week. As a child and young adult I got to travel to Mexico, Japan, Hawaii (I’ve been 17 times-jaw drop), France, London, Spain. I even went to fancy places that you only hear about in rap songs and Travel and Leisure, like private villas in Saint Barts and picturesque New England summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard with slamming screen doors and wrap around porches. I have an undergraduate degree and two graduate degrees. My parents paid for two of these three degrees. I studied abroad twice and went to graduate school in the United States. As a young adult I often shopped at Anthropologie and Aritzia, and other similarly overpriced stores. I didn’t balk at paying $180 for a tank top. I’m 36 and my Dad still pays my rent. If the bottom falls out and I default on my credit card payment or fall into a deep depression and can’t change my clothes for four weeks, my mom, or dad, or sister will swoop in and save me. They always have and I believe they always will.
And yet, for the past ten years I’ve struggled to support myself. One of the consequences of struggling financially is the unbecoming habit of plucking furniture out of alleys and off curbs, even when it is unneeded. This habit has resulted in our porched being stacked with desks, and chairs with wobbly legs and unstable seats, and broken fans. The multiple IKEA shelving units whose shelf liners are wobbly from sitting out in the rain are a testament to the anxiety of ten years of never knowing how I will pay my cell phone bill or buy cat food.
When I stay at hotels, I steal tiny bottles of moisturizer and shampoo and conditioner from hotel carts and use them until they are almost empty, then I cut them in half and keep them in a zip lock baggy so I can scrape every last glop out. I wash my face with bars of hotel soap and moisturize with olive oil. Sometimes I mummify my hand with toilet paper to take home with me while using public bathrooms.
I get that familiar knot in the pit of my stomach when I flip the foil blister pack containing my anti-depressants and see that each individual slot has been punched out and pillaged, because my credit card is maxed out and I don’t know how I will pay for more medication, which has to be refilled immediately, and antidepressants aren’t something you can steal off a hotel cart or from a public restroom.
And yet, I will go from wondering how I will pay for my medication, to ordering 100$ worth of books off Amazon Prime. I do this because I love books and because I feel entitled to them. I don’t feel I should have to choose between books and toiletries or books and medication or books and food. Maybe this is exactly what privilege looks like: the belief that I deserve something, that I am entitled to something. I can’t accept that I have to budget better or choose between something I love and something I need.
And yet my privilege has been about so much more than the economic advantages I was given growing up. It has to do with the way I look-white, conventionally attractive, able-bodied-a combination that has allowed me to move smoothly through the world, a body that has allowed me unearned access into almost any social or economic circle.
In her essay Peculiar Benefits Roxanne Gay deftly points out that discussions about privilege need not devolve into the Olympics of Privilege and Oppression. She also suggests that the particular need to balance an acknowledgement of privilege with an exposition of even the slightest marginalization is a side effect of privilege.
I might have been to Hawaii 17 times but I was depressed growing up and sometimes I run out of shampoo. What am I really try to say here?
Still, I can’t help but try to understand my particular balance of privilege and oppression. There is a certain amount of shame in having been given almost every advantage, and still not being able to meet life’s basic requirements, and it’s hard for me not weigh all the variables. I know that I have been privileged in almost every way possible and I also know that chronic mental illness disrupted my educational and career trajectory at its most critical moments and is at least partially responsible for my current financial struggles. Perhaps this sounds like the justifications of a privileged person.
I like how gentle Roxanne Gay is as she encourages each of us to own our particular brand of privilege. She points out that most people in the developed world enjoy some type of privilege and that the work is to recognize this in ourselves. She says you don’t have to do anything with this awareness (although ideally you would), except to say “this is my truth”. And to recognize that the truths of others run in a million different directions with a million different burdens and advantages, of which you know nothing and understand not at all.