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We're Checking the Wrong "Privilege"

Paul Marotta / Getty Images

In a New York Times article on Sunday, “First-Generation Students Unite,” Laura Pappano describes efforts to make life easier for the handful of Harvard who can’t afford “$1,000 Moncler puffer jackets.” We hear about a dean who, as an “icebreaker,” used to ask students what their parents did for a living, but stopped because it upset a first-gen student. Another dean matches roommates on the basis of shared financial-aid status. And a history professor asks students to self-assign “privilege points,” ostensibly to check the privileged students’ privilege, but ultimately leaves a first-gen student “embarrassed.”

While there’s a correlation between first-gen and low-income, the biggest problems Pappano cites—students’ inability to afford textbooks and extracurricular activities, for instance—would also apply to any low-income students whose parents had gone to college. The challenges are primarily financial, not cultural. So why, then, are we reading about which students had access to “daily doses of NPR”? Does repeated exposure to Terry Gross cover tuition and living expenses?

This is only the latest example of a long-running campus conversation about the subtle, cultural ways in which class asserts—a conversation that all too often ignores the realities of economic inequality. Privilege workshops and introspections abound in higher education, yet there’s scant evidence that increased awareness will reduce the underlying financial obstacles.

In other words, checking everyone's privilege at Harvard won't somehow increase the economic diversity of its students. Only real policies, not hand-wringing workshops, can accomplish that. It's time the conversation about privilege shifted accordingly.

Cultural capital—what “privilege” often, but not always, refers to these days—is a seductive concept. It tells us that the rich stay rich through the discreet perpetuation of cultural preferences. Privilege isn’t just money or luxury goods; it’s also about the foods you eat, the shows you watch. When you first learn about it, likely in Sociology 101, cultural capital can seem like a way to explain everything.

The problem, however, is that landlords, health providers, and universities don't accept cultural capital in lieu of monetary payment. Moreover, the tastes that some people associate with wealth no longer do. Connor Kilpatrick argues as much in a recent Jacobin essay, “Let Them Eat Privilege.” Responding to a Vox privilege checklist of sorts, Kilpatrick spells out why cultural signifiers fail as a proxy for economic wealth:

A quick perusal of Whole Foods’s site shows a location in every major metropolitan area in the United States — and as of 2010, 80.7% of Americans live in urban areas. More than a third of Americans hold a college degree. And although 57% of those under fifty have an immediate family member who’s served in the military, only a third of those under thirty do. That’s a far cry from 99%. But the one-percent concept isn’t about a lifestyle or individual consumption habits — a graduate degree and a kale smoothie do not a one-percenter make.

Privilege has come to encompass not just straightforward divides (rich-poor, black-white) but also (or perhaps especially) cultural capital—a Bachelor's degree (whether or not it’s led to well-paid work), plus the proverbial ability to mingle with humanities professors over soft French cheeses. But then privilege was extended to supposed signifiers—things like patronizing Starbucks—that hardly signify anything.

Some of the cultural obstacles cited in Pappano’s article (and an accompanying video by Natalia V. Osipova) aren’t unique to low-income students. Most students are clueless about how to approach professors, and how many freshmen arrive having “a favorite Renaissance painter”? What is unique to low-income students is that they’re at a disadvantage within a system that assumes everyone has full parental financial support through at least 22.

Fortunately, though privilege checklists haven’t exactly disappeared, a backlash is underway, with some writers on the left (me included) expressing skepticism about that strategy.

The response to another recent New York Times article signals that a broader backlash is imminent. Kyle Spencer’s story about New York City private school students and teachers “starting white affinity groups, where they tackle issues of white privilege, often in all-white settings” elicited a collective eye-roll on the left, and even a questioning of “privilege” altogether. In Salon, Corey Robin argued that “private school leaders … want a conversation, not a confrontation, about privilege.” At his blog, Fredrik deBoer wrote, "Perhaps no form of subtle social control better exemplifies privilege’s ability to dominate through soft power than the way in which privilege theory itself becomes a commodity, monetized and peddled to the privileged as easily as consumer electronics or expensive clothes."

After a few years of hearing that privilege explains it all, maybe we'll now start seeing a renewed focus on economic inequality. Which is not to say that many of the cultural obstacles Pappano highlights aren't real concerns. They're just not the make-or-break issues. If you have to deal with financial-aid bureaucracy that your classmates don't, and if you’re in danger of dropping out for financial reasons, you’re at a huge tangible disadvantage. But it's easier for schools to address cultural obliviousness than financial affordability. It's easier for everyone—university administrators, journalists, and students themselves—to talk about “first-gen” students than low-income ones. 

The problem isn’t that rich kids are insufficiently discreet about their lavish vacations. It’s that being so rich still—even with tuition reform—helps get students into elite colleges. Bigger still, what about kids from poor and middle-class families who don’t land a Harvard scholarship, and ending up trying to pay their way through community college? Having a “privilege” conversation that focuses heavily on upward mobility—that is, on the indignities temporarily faced by the highest-performing poor students before they, in turn, become successful and send their kids to Harvard—gives the impression that class struggle in America consists of the stress of moving into the upper class. For most Americans, the stress comes from knowing they never will.