This is a tale of two young men.
The best of friends, they attended the same public charter school from kindergarten through eighth grade.
As a mother volunteering in their kindergarten classroom, I can remember my attention being drawn to the child who would become my son’s best friend. He was bigger than the other kids—already noticeably overweight, poor thing—with a great smile and a penchant for mischief. Of indeterminate mixed race, he had cocoa-colored skin and beautiful, curly hair. I didn’t know this at the time, but would come to learn that both boys were undeniably intelligent, had adoring parents, and big, goofy hearts—they just “got” each other.
Fast-forward nine years. In the fall of his eighth-grade year, my son began the “application” process for the boarding school he would eventually attend. I put “application” in quotes because, as the child of a faculty member (his father), there was virtually zero chance my son would not be accepted, nor was cost an issue (the tuition discount for faculty was 90 percent).
Not wanting high school to mean the end of their time together, my son’s friend began his application process as well.
Simplifying matters greatly, I’ll tell you that tuition was the least of this boy’s concerns. The school in question has a ginormous endowment and a strong commitment to financial aid; fully half of the student body receives an average tuition grant of 75 percent. All else being equal (which it most certainly wasn’t; this boy’s single mother did not attend college—I’m not even sure she graduated from high school—and his childhood was rife with transportation and job insecurity, family services interventions, and a father in prison), it was not inconceivable to imagine this young man attending a prestigious boarding school.
It is the way with unearned privilege, however, that seemingly minor occurrences can often mean the difference between success and failure. While those with privilege enjoy layers upon layers of safety nets (e.g., familiarity with “the system,” financial security, folks from whom to seek advice), those with less privilege must take absolute and perfect advantage of every opportunity, or risk losing it.
The SSAT, or Secondary School Admission Test, costs $139 (a sum of money about which I didn’t have to think twice). My son’s friend, on the other hand, needed a fee waiver, and his mother struggled to navigate the process. She had to first request a waiver from the school itself, along with the necessary financial documentation to demonstrate her need. The school then reviewed her documentation and eventually approved the request, but by the time everything was settled, he had missed both the testing and the admissions deadlines.
And so, despite having lottery-ed into the same charter school and been exposed to the exact same educational opportunities through middle school, by high school the two boys’ worlds would begin to diverge in significant ways.
It’s inconceivable to me that there are still people in this world—and particularly in this country—who do not understand or believe in the concept of unearned privilege.
Perhaps the term “unearned” triggers people? Maybe they feel as though we’re accusing them of not earning whatever wealth or status they’ve managed to accumulate? This, to me, is a deliberately obtuse reading of “unearned privilege” (akin to NRA supporters interpreting sensible gun laws as folks wanting to completely do away with the Second Amendment).
Why on earth can’t it be true that you both worked hard and benefitted from unearned privilege?
Now, I adore my son and consider him to be an exceptional young man. I can honestly say that I admire him. I would describe him as self-motivated and (in most instances) a hard worker. He was born with a solid intellect and strives to live up to it on a daily basis. He’s kind, loving, and perseveres through most challenges. Will these qualities and efforts contribute to his eventual success? Absolutely.
But privilege is all about the starting line.
It’s all about how far you have to travel from point A to point B (and the support you receive along the way). And so the question for the non-believers becomes: Would a person with similar traits (intelligence, drive, kindness) but a different starting line get as far in this life as I expect my son to get?
What does my son’s starting line look like, and how does it serve as an advantage over others? Well, for one thing, my son was born to two parents with advanced degrees. And another generation back, he has grandparents with advanced degrees—one of whom was a college president for more than a decade. This gives my son automatic, unearned exposure to the benefits of higher education, knowledge of admissions requirements and procedures, support for the pursuit of a college degree and beyond, and alumni connections at some of the most selective schools in the country.
My son was born into financial security. Along with always having had a warm, safe, attractive home in which to live, my son has enjoyed the unearned privilege of costly extracurricular activities such as ice hockey and soccer, ski vacations, trips abroad, and summer camp (I wish like hell that I could add music lessons to that list, but I never could get him interested).
In addition to his immediate family, my son is part of an expansive, loving, extended tribe—all of whom similarly benefited from their own accidents of birth, and all of whom could and would provide the unearned privileges of financial, legal, or emotional support if either of my children were ever in need of such. It’s literally inconceivable that our electricity would ever be turned off for non-payment, or that my son or his brother could end up in foster care because there was no one else to look after them. That kind of security will enable my son to take risks and know there is always a safety net (more like 20 safety nets) and always many, many hands extended to help him get back up from wherever he may fall.
My son was born white, male, healthy, and able-bodied. He enjoys the unearned privilege of never drawing a critical eye or comment based on the color of his skin, the way his body performs, or the state of his wardrobe. He’s never lived in a home without health insurance or money to pay for out-of-pocket expenses such as eyeglasses or braces. His teeth have been straightened, and any injuries are quickly evaluated and treated to ensure ongoing fitness and functionality. My son’s entire family has these same benefits, which means he also enjoys the unearned privilege of being free from worry and concern regarding the well-being of his loved ones.
And even returning to some of my son’s “inherent” qualities such as drive, intellect, and charm, how many of those have been able to shine precisely because my son enjoys the unearned privileges of safety, financial security, health, excellent educational opportunities, and never-ending emotional and social support from all sides?
Rather than taking away from my son’s accomplishments, I believe that acknowledging and confronting unearned privilege enables him to experience gratitude for what he’s received and develop a sense of responsibility to transform a system that is likely to serve him well while leaving his friend in the dust.
This is a tale of two young men but one society in which the myth that “all men are created equal” belies a darker reality.
We must all—especially those of us who benefit from it, and whose children stand to benefit from it—acknowledge and confront white privilege (and other forms of privilege) if we are to move beyond the “what a pity” stage and on to real, systemic change.