An Honest Conversation about Privilege and Entitlement

I recognize that I’m a privileged person, but how can I make sure I don’t take my privilege to a despicable place?

Illustration by Julia Yellow

We like to get incensed about the terrible things other people do. Especially when they manipulate the system. Unfairness—in the form of privileged people who buy their way into opportunities harder to come by for the rest of us—really revs up our indignation.

Take the scandal involving dozens of parents accused of collectively paying millions of dollars in bribes to secure entrance into prestigious colleges. When the scandal broke, we positively hated on the parents involved and were especially disappointed in actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. How dare they play endearing parts on TV and then behave in such a way! The celebrity involvement was mostly an intriguing footnote, though. What we were truly disgusted at was the overall display of privilege and power.

I get the disgust. After all, I lived at home, worked three jobs, and paid my way through Northern Kentucky University in order to graduate with a degree in English. I grew up the youngest of seven kids in a decent, ordinary, salt-of-the-earth family. The thing about salt, though, is that while it certainly changes the flavor of something, in just the right amounts you don’t even notice it. Privilege is a little like that, too. Overdone, it’s gross; sprinkled just right, it provides a hidden boost. It’s so subtle as to seem nonexistent.

At this point, I’ve probably taken the salt metaphor as far as I can go—and I don’t even cook!—so let me just spell it out. I recognize that I’m a privileged person, but how can I make sure I don’t take my privilege to a despicable place? How do I make sure I’m not already there?

On the one hand, I’m in no danger of bribing a college official. For one, I don’t have $500,000 to hand over. I also feel strongly that if NKU was good enough for mama, it’s good enough for her offspring.

On the other hand, you know what I’m really terrific at? Advocating for myself and for my kids. And when I advocate, I expect people will listen to me. As a white, middle-class, educated woman, I know the world I live in gives me the benefit of the doubt, and it’s unfair that others don’t get the same benefit. Is it as unfair as buying your kid’s way into college?

Privilege and entitlement exist on a continuum, and if I truly look at my share of the world’s resources, I’m already starting a far stretch above most people on the privilege spectrum. I’m closer to bribing a college official than many are to the daily entitlement I rely on to simply get things done.

When I find myself judging other people, I try to channel curiosity instead. Curiosity has the ability to open up the conversations that anger closes off. Regarding the college admissions scandal, then, my curiosity makes me wonder: What is going on that parents—who most assuredly love their children as much as I love my own—would act illegally and potentially make fools out of their children? I’m no economist, but I don’t think any kind of traditional cost-benefit analysis would have come down on the side of paying a shady guy to do a shady thing for your kid—especially in an age when it’s hard to keep anything hidden.

That’s because it’s not actually rational. But it is about rationalizing. I just wrote a book about honesty, due out later this year, whose premise is that it’s easier to call out others’ dishonest behavior than it is to focus on our own. In the book, I dissect my own relationship with honesty as I talk with a variety of experts to try to understand the overall human approach to honesty.

Having interviewed several dozen researchers who study lying—as well as philosophers, etiquette experts, memoirists, and everyday people with stories about honesty and deception—I now have a fairly comprehensive understanding of why people lie. Most lies begin as rationalizations: This is OK because of that. You rationalize that it’s OK to not claim every single penny of freelance income because self-employment taxes are so high. Or it’s OK to use your husband’s pool pass to get your friend into the pool for free because you paid for a membership and no one is really looking anyway. Or it’s OK to give a hefty donation to an organization, right before that organization is set to make a decision about something you’re invested in, because that’s the way the world works.

You see how this could go, a little slipperier each time, until outright manipulation is your intention but you’ve justified a reason why that’s OK. You have no idea what it’s like to face the pressures I face in the world I live in. This is just what people like us do.

The word that my kids’ teachers all say now when they talk about requirements for assignments is “rubric.” I don’t think I heard this word until I was an adult, but now it’s part of the vocabulary for young school-age kids. Turns out it’s a handy word. So, to pay better attention to where I am on that continuum of privilege, I’ve been working on creating a rubric.

Mine begins with the question: Are my actions transparent? Or, put another way, can I publish the paper trail of my actions? For example, I went to graduate school at Miami University for free. Because I’d maintained a 4.0 at NKU and had excellent faculty recommendation letters and writing samples, Miami gave me a full scholarship to its master’s program and a teaching assistantship stipend that paid my living expenses. While not everyone would qualify for this privilege, the standards aren’t hidden and the way I earned it is clear.

The next question: If this privilege is afforded to me and not others, am I being a good steward of it? In her memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama writes about her family’s time living in the White House. She talks about the bubble they lived in and the inconvenience of having a large security detail, both for herself and for her girls. She writes about her frustration that spontaneity was sucked out of everything—random ice cream runs with friends were a thing of the past—and how she felt like her children weren’t having normal childhoods. But she also never forgot the privilege it was to be an occupant of that house, to be part of history—and that it made clear her own obligation, as First Lady, to create more opportunities, particularly for girls. She wanted to be a good steward of a privilege very few ever have.

We can be good stewards of scholarships, memberships, prestigious jobs, unexpected windfalls, or hard-won victories. Good stewardship is the opposite of abusing a privilege, and it’s helpful to think about channeling it as a safeguard against the slide into entitlement. I like to think I’m a good steward of the education I received because I use it to support my family and causes I care about, but also to write pieces that challenge perceptions, force people to think, and maybe make little corners of the world slightly better.

There is one more part of my rubric that breaks the surface and dives headlong into a place most of us don’t really want to go. It deals with the little lies and self-narratives we spin for ourselves that help our privilege and entitlement become invisible. For me, the gut check question is: What story am I telling myself to try to erase my privilege?

The story I tell myself if I don’t claim every penny I make as a freelance writer is that self-employment tax is high and I don’t deserve to have to pay more than other regular working people. Any time “deserve” is the key verb in a statement, it’s a red flag that something is being glossed over. I worked hard in college, and I deserved to go to graduate school for free. I live in Madeira and pay high property taxes, and I deserve to be listened to when I advocate for my kid inside the public school system.

Seemingly transparent situations—my kids go to a great public school and I expect them to get a great education—are often full of unacknowledged privilege. I had the money to move into this district because I grew up middle class…because the bank didn’t question giving me a loan…because I’m educated and articulate…because I had a solid support system to be able to go to college…because I’m white and no one eyed me with suspicion or made assumptions about my intelligence or integrity (which likely wasn’t true for Obama when she was just “Michelle from the South Side”)…because I’m the youngest in my family and certainly got more resources than my older siblings…because, because, because.

The stories we tell ourselves let us move along the continuum of privilege without necessarily noticing where we’re going. It’s not that I think e-mailing my kids’ teachers about an issue and expecting a resolution has any natural link to bribing my kids’ way into places they couldn’t get on their own. That’s preposterous. But being blind to my privilege is something worse: It’s dangerous, socially and politically. It’s also dangerous morally, because it’s how we rationalize doing terrible things. The same terrible things that incense us about others.

When we order up the truth, we should really think about holding the salt of privilege. It’s less palatable, but far healthier.

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