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Why Are You an Ally, Anyway?

No, really. What’s your motivation to call yourself one, and maybe even to act like one?

This is the part where I talk about myself in an attempt to make it less about me (and you, if you’re also an ally rather than part of a marginalized group when it comes to one or more forms of oppression).

I have class privilege and was utterly blind to it for a long time. Oppression of every kind’s favorite mask (especially in America), the myth of the meritocracy, fit my class privilege pretty well. After all, had my father not come to the United States as refugee and worked his way up? Well after being granted entry into affluent North American countries, had my parents (and, later, my siblings and I) not lived frugally? I grew up watching families with much lower income than mine participating in activities my father dubbed “too expensive” and concluded that we must not be as well-off as others.

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Much later, as a young adult, I discovered that such was not the case at all. My family was and is actually quite comfortable. We always lived in nice houses and my parents drove brand-new cars. My father earned enough to make such large purchases; his assessment of priciness with regards to smaller things like karate lessons or sodas at fast-food joints was a reflection of his personal preferences rather than our financial situation. My mother had both the desire and the financial freedom, thanks to my father, to be a homemaker.

I suddenly knew that I’d grown up in pretty cushy surroundings — and, privileged asshole that I was, I felt bad for myself. I couldn’t complain about my childhood anymore! Hell, who knew if the classism police would ever let me complain about anything anymore? Though that initially deep discomfort soon faded, it left behind a sticky residue of defensiveness, one that saw “you have class privilege” as an “I’m going to assume that your childhood was awesome and you got to have and do lots of stuff, you spoiled brat.” I didn’t even realize it until I had a relatively benign and silly Twitter exchange with someone whose upbringing couldn’t be more different from mine. She joked that we were “the princess and the pauper.”

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Princess?! How dare she assume that my life had been charmed and that I’d gotten all that I’d wanted?! I started firing off Tweets about how much my childhood sucked. The more I typed, the more I realized that I was whining — acting like the spoiled brat that I was trying to prove that I was not. I was derailing by being the worst kind of so-called “ally:” self-centered and self-absorbed instead of open to listening to the people I was allegedly trying to back up.

Oops.

I deleted some things and ended the exchange with a simple acknowledgment: “I have all the class privilege.”

I’m still working on it. This is a process, not an instant, magical transformation. If someone ribs — or even derides, is dismissive towards, or is mean to — me for my relatively cushy upbringing, I consciously work to quell the urge to go “but but but–“. I shut up and feel grateful that I only have to feel such a little bit of discomfort. On top of that, that tiny smidgen of discomfort, unlike the actual suffering of class oppression, is helpful to me: it reminds me of my position and keeps me on my classism toes.

It’s really easy to forget that “ally” is not a title that earns you free brownie points; it is, in theory, a state of being. The real me me me problem isn’t characteristic of a particular generation, it’s among those allies who really don’t help much and care more for their status as allies than about actually acting like allies. To appropriate an internet-famous quote, allyship doesn’t mean putting coins into oppressed groups in the hopes that friendship, forgiveness, or status falls out.

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To quote a writer who will problematize the word “ally” for you in the most brilliant way:

Falling back on words and phrases that are intended to convey some sort of ideological purity won’t ever trump the transformation you’ll experience within yourself (and others) if you truly put yourself out there, be vulnerable, admit wrongs, take responsibility for your blind spots, hold your damn self accountable, not for show, but for real.

— Spectra on Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Politically Correct Labels That Mean Nothing to Me)

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Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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130 Comments

  1. I am an ally because it is reasonable, and for lack of a better term, good to be one. I am an ally because I have the capacity to try and empathize with others, and think that if I were in a similar position, I would want an ally.

  2. *sigh* I really want to answer this, but I think writing frankly about what motivates me to try to be an ally would reveal more than I’m comfortable with about the dynamics of the household in which I was raised. Suffice it to say that I have pretty high levels of empathy and I get upset when I see someone being treated like less than a person.

  3. I try to do the work of an ally because I have faced some discrimination and prejudice in my own life, so I know how it feels to be marginalized and oppressed in some ways. This makes it easier for me to empathize with people who are marginalized in ways I am not. And so I actively try to use my privilege to subvert marginalization and oppression as much as I possibly can.

    I think it’s important to do as you’ve done here and acknowledge that no one is perfect and it is a continuous process of critical reflexivity and listening with an open mind and heart to people who are marginalized.

    I also try not to get attached to the label “ally.” It’s not something I get to decide whether I am or not. Instead, I try to think of “ally” as a process. It’s irrelevant whether or not I think I’m an ally, and if people do not think I am an ally to them, that’s okay too. I will still try to do the work of an ally regardless (always, of course, listening to those I am seeking to ally with. If people tell me to go away and that I’m not helping, I will absolutely listen and defer to their wishes and try to find other ways to be helpful).

  4. I’m an older white WASPy male, from a family that used to be rich (in my grandfather’s day), so I understand a little about resenting not having the nice things I though we could’ve had, etc. Growing up, I paid too much attention to what we didn’t have and didn’t think much at all about the benefits of our situation. One illustration of this is when my older brother, then about 9 or so, came home one day from playing at a friend’s place one street over. His friend lived in a duplex, and my brother exclaimed to our mom, “We must be rich, ’cause we live in a whole house!” We weren’t, really, but it was a perspective I hadn’t had.

    I consider myself an ally (to feminism, to progressive causes, etc.), but I’ve come to realize it’s not so much a state of being (and certainly not some magic transformation or some all-access pass to humanist enlightenment) as it is a very gradual and often “two steps forward, one step back” process of becoming. Thus, being an “ally” is hardly boast-worthy.

    Just deciding one day that yes, you’re right (about the oppression that you, as member of group X, have endured, and for which my group, and me in particular to the degree that I lack sufficient introspection, lack sufficient privilege-checking and the self-restraint that must follow from it, is responsible) isn’t anything more than a tiny first step. The casual blindness to one’s own privilege, to the many manifestations of it that ease one’s way without one’s ever noticing it, takes sustained effort to overcome.

    A typical and dismaying example for me is discovering when I’ve been mansplaining something. My tendency to that comes partly from having been a nerdy, bookish, bright and intuitive kid who did often get the gist of things before others did, but it also flows from reaping one of the benefits of being a white male: one’s every utterance is presumed to be worth paying attention to, by mainstream society. It would be easy for me, in that flush of shame and embarrassment that accompanies discovering I’ve been an ass, to draw the wrong conclusion and think, oh, well, I shouldn’t speak up at all, then!, but the more difficult and more fruitful lesson to be learned is to figure out another avenue of expression for my intelligence, one that doesn’t step on others’ toes, that doesn’t crowd the space for expression that they have a much harder time achieving for their voices.

    One way I’ve done this lately is writing, and posting others’ writings, about the appalling wrongheadedness of the Men’s Rights movement. It was precipitated last year by discovering that a new friend was involved in it, due to his having been beaten up by his ex-wife and having gotten a raw deal in family court. He blamed feminism (surprise, surprise), and my initial response was, hey, no, feminism is your ally in this, not the cause of your troubles, but he wouldn’t hear any of it. (I’ve determined that he really did get a raw deal, he’s a gentle if angry soul, but it doesn’t excuse his having drawn the wrong conclusions from it.) I began writing facebook posts about it, not entirely directed at him, but with him in mind, and posted more links to feminist writings than I had before, and lo and behold, then began his “what about the menz!” interruptions on *anything* feminist I posted, even and especially when the posts had nothing to do with men’s issues. Further attempts on my part to point out that this was rude and inappropriate, that this was not the arena for his gripes, that it was an example of male privilege and presumption, just inflamed him further, and soon I was being accused of not having any sympathy for the real suffering that some men endure, of being a traitor to my gender, etc., even though I had painstakingly expressed my sympathy right off in my posts. I ended up having to block him, just to keep him from shitting all over everything I posted.

    But what I’ve realized from this is that the unpleasantness I’ve endured in this is quite mild compared to what so many women continue to face. I haven’t had death or rape threats as they have, for instance. What I experienced was only a small taste of what women endure all the time, and while it does help me empathize more with them, it’s still too easy for me to forget, to sustain an awareness of what they’re constantly going through.

    That takes going out of my way to refrain from the impulse to always chime in (I’m aware of the irony of commenting here, but, hey, the title asked…) and just listen instead, to read, to seek out further education about it – and without doing it in a “Hey, ladies, come here and educate me!”, presumptuous, obnoxious way. They don’t owe me any remedial tutorials; I’m a big boy.

  5. Pauper here. The reason I said that was two-fold. I felt myself starting to get defensive in the same way, and I was trying to shut it down without hurting feelings or getting hurt feelings in return. But I also felt that the story of the Princess and the Pauper was incredibly relevant in that instance. Both suffer equally from their lives, one of class oppression, the other of social oppression. And unlike in the story, this being capitalist America, both Pauper and Princess have as much opportunity as each other to do and be who they want outside the bounds of their upbringing.

    As any person who gets to claim marginalization, it’s easy to get caught up in what I missed out on, and it’s also easy to get caught up in the weird one-upmanship that can occur when comparing circumstances between individuals or groups. Before long, I’m arguing over what’s worse: having limited choices due to religious constraint, or having limited choices due to financial constraint. Both are bad. The infinite nature of cultural and circumstantial intersectionality means that any one person will have layers of privilege and disenfranchisement at the same time.

    It’s nice to acknowledge another person’s suffering, but I personally already have a big enough chip on my shoulder about my struggles. To be honest, it drags me down more than it helps me overcome. I feel like my status (past, present and future) is something to be acknowledged, but not to dwell on. It’s a good idea for all of us to think more critically about our own bounty. In my own life I have far more privilege than marginalization and I rarely acknowledge it.

  6. Not to derail, but — what is “the story of the Princess and the Pauper”? I looked on Wikipedia and found mention of a Barbie film with that title and some film by Chevrolet (the car maker) from 1939, neither of which I’d ever heard of. And there’s Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.” Is it one of these? Or something else?

  7. As for why I’m an ally (to the extent I am — I’ll let others judge, I’m too busy trying to live my life):

    I know I’ve had it pretty good: white, male, financially well-off, USA-an, well-educated, and what passes for “smart.” By comparison with a lot of people, I haven’t endured all that much crap in my life.

    But I’ve endured enough to know that oppression stinks and to know that I don’t want anyone else to have to go through even the little I’ve gone through, let alone the ear-deep crap that lots of people endure every day. And I’ve heard enough of the BS that the people who made me miserable used to try to convince me I had no right to feel upset by what they did to recognize it when they use the same BS against people I don’t even know.

    I won’t claim to be altruistic. I don’t actually expect the world to change because of anything I do. Maybe I’m just getting mad at racists and misogynists and the like as a way of getting back at the people who did crap to me when I couldn’t fight back. Call it being an ally, call it working out my complexes on other people. Wev. If any of it makes anyone feel better (besides me), well, that’s another glass of lemonade from those lemons.

  8. I’m an ally because, when I was young and impressionable, I was made to beleive that there were feminazis who thought all sex was rape, who would yell at you for holding a door open, who hated men etc. etc.
    Then I met some actual women and found out all of this was wrong and I was horrified at what I had beleived.
    I have the same attitude about Christianity, amusingly enough.
    Also, I was told I would receive a cookie. Do I have to fill out a form for that, or do they just know somehow? Because I haven’t received my cookie yet.

  9. Your premise – in my opinion – is completely off. I know very little about your family’s situation, just what you have presented here. But what you’ve written proves that a meritocracy of sorts exists in the US – in fact it wouldn’t be the most prosperous country in the world were that not the case.

    You can’t participate in the meritocracy as a kid – but it sure sounds like your father did. For a new immigrant, in America, to provide a life for his family like the one you’ve described isn’t easy – in fact it’s damn hard work coupled with sound, rational decisions (with perhaps a little luck thrown in, but people tend to make their own luck). The fact that your family was comfortable wasn’t an accident – at least based on what youve written here – it was by your parent’s design.

    I wonder if you’ve spoken with parents about this, and whether or not they agree with your diagnosis – that you had ‘class privilege’ which somehow fell out of the sky, not because of anything they did.

    I can understand you feeling sorry for someone who’s has some bad luck, made some decisions which turned out badly, grew up in a horrific environment, or other things outside of their control. But I would never feel sorry for the situation you grew up in – you were blessed with a family who made sound decisions and, apparently, never had any really bad luck.

    Throughout the course of my professional life I have had the pleasure of watching men and women from the lowest classes of society do great things and make a comfortable life for themselves and their families. I don’t care where they came from, I care about the decisions they make right now.

    I don’t know where your family emigrated from, but I have traveled to some very poor countries – and there is an argument to be made that they are not poor by accident. Take a look at North and South Korea – 60 years ago both countries were at roughly the same level economically. S Korea is now a land of property and opportunity while N Korea is a land of repression and hunger. That didn’t happen by accident.

    Again, based on what you’ve written here, you didn’t grow up with “class privilege” accidentally. You grew up that way as a direct result of the decisions your parents made. I think the best thing you can do to honor them is to figure out what they did and copy it in your own way, not feel guilty because of their hard work/good decisions. And the best thing you can do for those who were not blessed with a similar adolescence is to help them get on a path to making sound decisions. That probably sounds hard and unfeeling, but in my opinion doing anything else not only patronizes them, but it diminishes the struggle your parents (presumably) went through to provide you with a desirable childhood.

    1. I beg to differ, it is your premise that is off. That one or even many people are able to experience some upward mobility does not, in fact, mean we live in a meritocracy (even “of sorts”). Prosperity has little to do with meritocracy and everything to do with the military industrial complex. I do not know how you can make the argument that we live in a meritocracy when many people in the US are experiencing some of its worst rates of wealth disparity in its history and poverty since the early 1990s.

      People always love to point to those who do work their way out of poverty or low income, or who immigrate to the US and succeed, and say, “Hey, look, the system works! The American Dream is real and meritocracy is in action!” The problem is that this is confirmation bias, and it ignores are the millions of people in this country who have no social mobility and no way of working out of poverty. For example, many low-income people work multiple jobs (I don’t know how much harder you can work than that!), but they are stuck in a system that tells them to JUST KEEP WORKING HARDER, YOU’RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT. YOU, TOO, CAN HAVE THE AMERICAN DREAM. It’s all a fucking sham that works to maintain the status quo.

      Also, that people do work their way out of poverty or low income does not mean they then have no socioeconomic privilege because they did so. The vast majority of people in this country will always have higher socioeconomic privilege than most of the rest of the world. And by the way, when a person gains advantages based on the work of their parents and not their own work, that is the definition of privilege–unearned advantages bestowed upon members of a group because of their membership in the group. And all of the advantages that their parents gained through social mobility were not necessarily earned, either; as they became part of the middle class, they also begin to benefit from being a member of that class in ways that had nothing to do with their actual work (for example, media targeting middle class consumers and seeing representations of the middle class in media, normalizing your way of life as opposed to stigmatizing it).

      1. Will – I understand your argument but respectfully disagree. You blame an amorphous ‘military industrial complex’ which you do not define – what exactly is that? Did they have anything to do with killing Kennedy? Obviously the last part is a joke, but you can’t argue that ‘prosperty’ is entirely the product of an entity for which there is no common definition. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, if the ‘military industrial complex’ is indeed responsible for prosperity in the US I imagine you should have copious evidence of this.

        In point of fact, wealth disparity has little to do with your argument: see this for example, http://www.econtalk.org/archives/income_inequali/

        Additionally – if the US was not a meritocracy capable of significantly elevating the standard of living of immigrants then why do an extraordinary number of families, including Heina’s, go to great lengths (to include illegal lengths) to come here?

        The bottom line is – based on what Heina wrote in this post – her parents came here with very little, yet she experienced what she considers to be a ‘privileged’ adolescence. This doesn’t happen because of the ‘military industrial complex’ (even if her father was, for example, a linguist working for the government your argument doesn’t carry much weight). This happens because of the decisions her parents made.

        Finally – even if I grant your point that she experienced a privileged adolescence based on the work of her parents (which is what you define as the definition of privilege) you’re still making my point that a meritocracy exists in the US. I stated in my comment that she, as a child, wasn’t involved in that process – but it’s also irrelevant. Her parents gave her the childhood she described not through blind luck or inheritance, but through hard work and good decision making. My point to her was not to be ashamed of that, but to figure out what they did and copy it, then advise others to do something similar.

        Your point about her parents not earning their social mobility is nonsensical – aren’t Muslim immigrants, in the popular narrative, supposed to be the lowest rung of US society? Who, exactly, is simply handing them this upward mobility? The military industrial complex?

        I’ll note once again that we’re both speculating here and we do not know the details of Heina’s family’s social mobility, except for what she’s written here. My point is, in the US, success is defined – save for exceptional cases – by the decisions people make. Yes, there are people, like Teresa Heinz Kerry or the Kennedy clan, who have inherited the bulk of their money. But there are many more people, like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, who succeeded solely on the strength of their ideas.

        The burden of proof is on you to show that the ‘military industrial complex’ is responsible for the US being the world’s sole superpower. The history of the 20th century, in my opinion, clearly shows that capitalism and free enterprise is far superior to communism or socialism. If you’d like to argue otherwise you’re going to have to explain the disparity between North and South Korea I highlighted in my original post.

        1. I’m so sick of your shit. For all your complaining about the importance of skeptic sites not getting involved with politics, you sure as shit seem to think that you’re above your own advice.

          I’m not even going to take the time to fisk your post because at this point I think you’re just here to troll. Suffice it to say, you come across as an ignorant shit who understands nothing about the history of the United States and how it came to be a super power. You’re setting up straw arguments and arguing against shit I haven’t even brought up (e.g., “capitalism is better than communism”). You’re intentionally misreading what I say (e.g., I never said her parents didn’t earn social mobility, I said some of the privilege that comes along with social mobility is unearned, and I gave an example) to try to make a point, which is that you don’t believe privilege is a thing and that we live in a meritocracy where people can just work their way out of poverty. The fact that there are millions of poor people working their asses off in multiple jobs at a time and are stuck in poverty or lower income brackets means nothing to you because you can point to a few examples of people making their way out of poverty.

          I’ll leave on the note that I find it interesting that the two people you chose to point out were able to succeed “solely on the strength of their ideas” (forget all the workers and public and private funding that supported them!) are white heterosexual cisgender men. Clearly there’s an irony there that’s beyond your comprehension.

          1. You’re sick of me…disagreeing with you? Trying to have a civilized debate? Asking you for the definition of the ‘military industrial complex’?

            My point (in another thread) about skeptic sites not delving into politics remains valid, and your response further validates my point. You make an argument, I ask you for evidence, and you go off the deep end. Not very skeptical.

            And since you’ve shut down debate, I’ll just make one final point. I chose the people I did as examples for one reason – both started from relatively modest means (Jobs moreso than Zuckerberg), neither graduated college, and both went on to found wildly successful companies which have changed how a lot of people live, work, and interact. That they happen to also be white, heterosexual, cisgender men is irrelevant to this topic – unless we’re arguing about something other than the social mobility of a Muslim refugee.

          2. Not to mention one of them (Zuckerberg) went to an elite private high school before dropping out of Harvard. That’s about as old-school (ha! literally) privileged as you can get.

        2. The term “military industrial complex” was coined by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. It’s meaning is pretty clear to most people with a basic education in the recent history of the United States, which is highly relevant to the topic of dicussion here. I suggest you look it up. One could disagree with Will’s analysis, but it’s absurd to accuse him of using an undefined term for an “amorphous” entity.

          Showing up in a discussion thread like this scoffing at someone’s use of a well-defined term reveals a basic ignorance about the topic of discussion. It’s analogous to showing up in an advanced biology classroom and scoffing at the use of the term “chromosome.” Even if, by some chance, you haven’t heard the term before, you should be aware enough of your own limitations to recognize that it’s your problem, not the person using the term, and go educate yourself. That you can’t do so indicates a failure to seriously engage with the discussion, which makes you come across as a troll.

          Use Wikipedia. Read books. Recognize your limitations, educate yourself to overcome them, and develop a little humility.

          1. Exactly. It’s not that he’s “trying to have a civilized debate.” Saying that the military industrial complex is an undefined concept and insisting that I educate him on it and then going on to argue against it despite not knowing what it is is not trying to engage in a good faith discussion.

            This is just hyperskeptic bullshit trolling.

          2. I know what the term means – and as an aside everyone tends to selectively quote Eisenhower’s speech – but here is the context in which Will used the term: “prosperity has little to do with meritocracy and everything to do with the military industrial complex.” So if we use the common definition of that term – the military and it’s surrounding industries – then his argument is nonsensical on many fronts. Instead of ripping into him I was giving him the benefit of the doubt that his use of the term meant something other than what I thought it meant. I was also giving him a chance to clarify his statement, because I’m not sure even someone like Alex Jones thinks prosperity in the US is directly attributable to the military industrial complex.

            He had the chance – still has the chance – to provide supporting evidence for his claim should be wish to do so. Until that happens I remain skeptical.

          3. Bull. “Instead of ripping into him I was giving him the benefit of the doubt”? “Giving him the benefit of the doubt” would have been asking him to clarify how he was using the term, or (since I suspect Will is using the term in the conventional sense) asking him to elaborate the connection between the military industrial complex and prosperity, income inequality, and poverty. What you did was scoff at his very mention of term and insinuate that he’s endorsing conspiracy theories (which you have done once again in your further reply). It was rude, dismissive, and arrogant. I actually am not sure what Will meant by mentioning the military industrial complex, and I’m not sure that I’d agree with his viewpoint on that issue, nor am I sure that I think it’s particularly important to the main topic of discussion. What I am sure about is that your style of discourse is not that of someone who is interested in an open exchange of ideas, but rather that of someone who is interested in appearing to win an argument. Perhaps you should try to approach these interactions not as “civilized” debates but as discussions. You might learn more.

          4. You’re correct – I was a tad dismissive. My sense was that he used the term in a way a conspiracy theorist does – and if he indeed meant it in a serious, non-conspiratorial manner then I am absolutely open to hearing his argument. But I will say – as I did in my original reply to his comment – that it’s an extraordinary claim which in my mind requires extraordinary evidence. Also – to be fair – I did say that I was joking after I made the Kennedy remark.

            Will – if you’d like to explain your ‘military industrial complex’ remark I am more than willing to entertain your evidence that this entity is responsible for all the prosperity in the United States.

          5. Because obviously in the comments section of a skeptical website it makes sense to assume your interlocutor(s) are Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorists, and to assume this rather than ask a question for clarification constitutes benefit of the doubt.

          6. But to be fair, I am also not quite sure what this meant. Will, do you mean that it acts as a massive jobs programme for certain sectors of society (primarily working to middle-class men, often with certain political leanings) and thereby creates a kind of artificial prosperity for these groups (career soldiers, engineers) that obscures major weaknesses in the private sector?

          7. Look, this is what I meant.

            I was responding to a specific point Mark Thomas said, which was: “But what you’ve written proves that a meritocracy of sorts exists in the US – in fact it wouldn’t be the most prosperous country in the world were that not the case.”

            My argument is that the US did not become the most prosperous country in the world because it’s a meritocracy. It became the most prosperous country in the world because of the military industrial complex surrounding WWII. It continues to be powerful because of the military industrial complex–i.e., we dominate the world as an imperial power. That’s not conspiracy theory shit, that’s a straight-up fact. Look at our military spending, look at our military presence around the world, and look at the amount of money private corporations make from government contracts. I’m not saying it’s the only thing that makes the US prosperous today, but I would say it’s one of the most important factors. But, as Mark Thomas has indicated in other threads, he leans to the right politically, so I am sure this argument goes in one ear and out the other because it doesn’t fit into his worldview of the US being a land where all your Dreams come true if you just work hard enough and “create your own luck.”

            To me, the idea that “we live in a meritocracy, which is why the US is the most prosperous country in the world” is conspiracy-level shit. That demonstrates just such a complete detachment from reality that I don’t even know what else to say about it.

          8. I’m familiar with Mark’s positions from other threads, and I do know what you are arguing for here, Will. It’s just that this point (tangential as it was) was kind of vague in context (it appears to be a general statement at first, and then it is hard to tell if you mean it as an ultimate historical source or a continuing process or both–even then I think there are a lot of other factors on both counts, including especially Europe’s and Japan’s diminished industrial capacity until the ’60s and vast domestic natural resources, that contributed just as much to American ‘prosperity’ as the military industrial complex and its contributions to infrastructure and military influence). The whole idea of what constitutes a prosperous society is debatable anyway.

          9. It’s just that this point (tangential as it was) was kind of vague in context

            Fair enough. And I might even have engaged with Mark Thomas on that point had he not been engaging in some pseudo-gaslighting.

            even then I think there are a lot of other factors on both counts, including especially Europe’s and Japan’s diminished industrial capacity until the ’60s and vast domestic natural resources, that contributed just as much to American ‘prosperity’ as the military industrial complex and its contributions to infrastructure and military influence

            Of course, I agree there are a lot of factors. I do think many of those factors can be traced back to the military industrial complex. For example, you bring up Europe and Japan’s diminished industrial capacities until the 1960s as an example of something other than the MIC, but I would argue that their recovery is directly traceable to the MIC. After WWII, the US led the reconstruction efforts. This was accompanied by the construction of new international institutions for the global regulation of finances. But these things didn’t stop with the reconstruction of Europe and Japan’s economies, they led to the production of modernization theory, which is essentially colonialism round 2 (led by the US). This set up a system of dependency of “periphery” countries on “core” countries to begin to meet their basic needs (a problem that was much less prevalent before colonialism & modernization). It also gives a reason for our military presence throughout the world (protecting “interests”).

            Of course you’re correct that the access to natural resources in the US is a major contributing factor to the prosperity of the nation. But that, in my view, would be another argument against Mark Thomas’s assertion that meritocracy is the reason the US is prosperous.

            The whole idea of what constitutes a prosperous society is debatable anyway.

            Sure. We tend to think of that only in economic terms, but there are other ways to define success than financial and material gains. The thing is, as an imperialist power, we tend to project our values on other peoples and places, including the idea that if people are, for example, living on subsistence means that they are not prosperous and therefore they are unhappy. But this is only the case when we center money as the measure of “prosperity”; they may measure the amount of free time they have from only having to work 2-3 hours a day for their food as prosperous.

            I guess this is all to say that I agree that it is debatable, but one thing that I will absolutely reject is that the US is prosperous because it is a meritocracy. That’s some just-world bullshit that has no basis in the reality of people’s lives nor the history of the US.

            And, I’m tired of these people (always men!) who come into threads and start lecturing about how privilege is imaginary or demanding we prove that it exists when they cannot even articulate its definition or demonstrate that they understand the concept. (This has been made especially rich in this thread by Mark Thomas who, after all his nay saying, tried to shoot down another commenter by invoking American privilege.) How can I demonstrate how privilege exists and operates if you don’t even understand what it is?? It’s like trying to explain natural selection to someone who doesn’t understand what evolution is! And every time I engage with them, they turn out to be trolls (for recent example, see metaburbia, whom I tired to engage in good faith discussion of the meaning of privilege, but he was just a troll from the Slymepit). I’m still not convinced that Mark Thomas is not a troll, and so I am not going to spend much time responding to him in any meaningful way until he demonstrates that he’s not trolling us. There’s been tons of Mark Thomases on this site, and I’m just really tired of engaging them.

          10. Mark, I’m glad you can acknowledge that you were being dismissive, and to ask Will what he meant in a more civilized way. But I’m going to press you on this, because I think the ways that we communicate matter. You were more than a “tad” dismissive, you were very dismissive. And saying that the Kennedy remark was only a joke actually doesn’t remove its rhetorical force — you chose to say it for a reason in the first place. Imagine if I said “You’re the stupidest person I’ve ever met. Obviously that’s just a joke.” Now, if I said that to a friend of mine, who knows me and knows that I respect their intelligence, maybe the “joke” would work. But saying it to a stranger on the internet is a different matter — most people would be left wondering why I chose to make that particular joke in the first place.

            Maybe you are trolling. I have the sense that you’re not, but only you know for sure. If you’re not, though, I suggest asking yourself why someone like Will thinks you probably are, and why someone like me thinks it’s hard to tell. Maybe we’re just hypersensitive to disagreement and can’t deal with civilized discourse. (I’m going to go ahead and assert that that’s not it.) Or maybe there’s something in the way that you’re approaching the discussion that makes it difficult to tell that you’re acting in good faith. Getting back to the debate vs. discussion distinction, I noticed that you’ve used both terms interchangeably in this thread. I think that’s significant.

            Will, thanks for clarifying what you meant regarding the military industrial complex. As it turns out, I do agree, and from my understanding of post-WWII U.S. history, it should be pretty uncontroversial. That doesn’t actually prove that the U.S. isn’t a meritocracy (though clearly it’s not), but it does disprove the claim “we live in a meritocracy, which is why the US is the most prosperous country in the world.”

          11. Will – I missed your explanation when I posted an earlier comment. I apologize for writing that you had not responded. Thank you for clarifying.

            And you may be surprised to learn that I agree with you – to an extent.

            First of all, the US isn’t an ’empire’. Were we an empire, then just since WWII we would control North Africa, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, most of the Pacific rim, Korea, Japan, Kuwait, Iraq, and a bunch of other countries I can’t think of off the top of my head. We don’t – all of those are sovereign nations in their own right (save North Africa obviously).

            However I do agree that our military power – our security umbrella as Thomas PM Barnett has termed it – has been responsible for ensuring the security of a good deal of the western world, which coincidentally were the most prosperous of the latter half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st.

            But remember that for 50 years following WWII, communism was a real threat to the west and a large military was necessary in order to help protect not only our allies in Europe, but in the Pacific as well.

            So if you are arguing that military spending alone provided prosperity during this time, then employment numbers, GDP, etc., will prove you wrong, however if you’re arguing that the security our military provided enabled capitalist countries to prosper during this period, then I wholeheartedly agree. And in fact this security umbrella contributed to the N/S Korea disparity I described in an earlier comment. S Korea was secure enough to pursue its economic goals partly due to the presence of our military.

            In short – I agree that the security our military provides enables free enterprise to flourish in parts of the world it otherwise would not. Perhaps we have found some common ground.

          12. I didn’t mean to say that the Marshall Plan etc. weren’t shining examples of the MIC in action, but if you start to include all forms of postwar international trade and investment as part of the MIC it starts to become a bit diluted as a meaningful term.

    2. @ Mark Thomas: Right now I live in poverty. Thanks though for that upbeat chat you gave back there. Maybe my husband and I can have a powwow later about how we can make some better choices. I am going to have a stern talking to with my daughter about going to the hospital a couple of times this last year. I think I will do some serious shaming to my husband about becoming sick and having to quit his job last year. I know it was no “accident”. Tonight seriously, I am going to bless myself and make some shit happen. Thanks Mark for the inspiring words!

      Just some more thoughts to put out there, “Veterans are homeless in America […] representing between one fourth and one-fifth of all homeless people.” These must be some of the people you are referring to too, the un-blessed, the poor choice makers. They really should pick themselves up and make some shit happen AMIRIGHT!

      1. If only you and your husband could have really brilliant ideas like Gates and Zuckerberg that happen completely in a vacuum and wholly independent of society. Then maybe y’all could be billionaires, too! After all, it’s really your choice not to be billionaires! Luck has nothing to do with it because you created your own bad luck!

        It must be nice to live in a fantasy world like that, though I have to wonder if it’s simply a matter of working hard and making good choices, why isn’t Mark Thomas a billionaire?

        1. Will – if you’d like to engage in a rational debate I’m all ears.

          Of course there is an element of luck in what Jobs and Zuckerberg accomplished. But I would argue it played a small role – especially in Jobs’ career. And perhaps using billionaires wasn’t the best way I could have illustrated my point.

          But life is choice. You make a million of them everyday, from what you choose to do to what you choose not to do. That’s not fantasy, that’s the real world. I’ve seen a good deal of the rest of the world, and that kind of choice isn’t universal. I’ve made my choices, based on my values and abilities, and I’m happy with my life. Any ‘privilege’ I have, I earned, nobody gave it to me. I’ve also been lucky (I was very close to death a few years ago) so I understand those who may not have been as lucky as I was.

          1. But life is choice. You make a million of them everyday, from what you choose to do to what you choose not to do. That’s not fantasy, that’s the real world.

            May I suggest you read some Pierre Bourdieu or some other practice theory? Because this idea that it’s 100% agency and 0% structure that affects people’s lives is complete and utter bullshit. Choices are not made in a vacuum, they are constrained and enabled by social structures. Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg made choices within a range of possible choices, choices that other people do not have access to because of the way the social structure is set up.

            Any ‘privilege’ I have, I earned, nobody gave it to me.

            Once again, you demonstrate your complete ignorance on this topic. You do not “earn” privilege–it is by definition unearned advantages. You act as if you exist outside of society and are completely untouched by social relations. Read some sociology and anthropology, for fuck’s sake.

          2. Any ‘privilege’ I have, I earned, nobody gave it to me

            Mark, when people on this site refer to privilege by definition it can’t include the kinds of advantages you ‘earn’. This is a kind of equivocation problem: “privilege” in social justice contexts is distinct from the common definition of the word (which in the negative sense of “privileged” is already an extension of the original meaning of “having the legally sanctioned ability to do or have something”). This is a tripping point for a lot of people entering these kinds of discussions (for me as well, way back when). In fact, in this context, “privilege” only exists in so much as other people give it to you.

            When people here use the word, it usually refers to any kind of (positive) treatment you receive based on people’s perceptions of your place in society, whether or not they are accurate. For example, a person can benefit from class privilege in a given situation regardless of how much money they have, if they exhibit certain behaviours or social signals. An immigrant could benefit from nativist privilege if, say, they speak the local language fluently without an accent. A trans* person could benefit from cis privilege in situations where their trans* status is not perceived. Of course, in any of these cases the privilege is fragile and transient–it would disappear the moment others became aware of the individuals’ minority status and began (consciously or not) treating them differently, and of course not all kinds of minority statuses afford even these kinds of transient experiences (visible ethnic minorities for example).

            The point is, when you actually do belong to a group that benefits from some kind of positive treatment, you can’t quite know what it’s like not to receive that specific kind of positive treatment, even if you might know what it is like not to receive some other kind of positive treatment afforded to another privileged group. That’s what people mean by being blind to one’s own privilege. For example, a white person might not be aware of how often they get the benefit of the doubt just for being white, but they might very well see how they are disadvantaged by not being conventionally attractive.

            To briefly explain how this applies to the situation at hand: Heina’s family benefitted from economic privilege, because her parents actually earned enough money to live a comfortable life. They did not, however, benefit from native-born privilege, which might have led her father to feel more secure in his economic situation (it is common for immigrants to speak, think, and behave as if they are poor even when they are economically comfortable for a variety of reasons). Thus Heina’s perception of her own childhood was influenced, and she became blind to her family’s economic privilege because of their words and actions. It is only by comparison to someone who had fewer economic advantages that she is able to understand her own privilege relative to that person.

            Anyway if you want to participate here and have constructive discussions, this is probably the place to start. Just remember that this definition of “privilege” exists and is in common use regardless of whether or not you decide to buy into it, so it doesn’t do anyone any good to dispute it.

          3. Dan – I appreciate your comments, thank you. Compared to other commenters here you have been the most helpful.

            If ‘privilege’ as you define it is indeed something which is not earned, then I’m not quite sure why I’ve encountered so much disagreement. That was my original point – that Heina’s parents, coming from the lowest strata of society, had earned her ‘privilege’ and that was something for which to be proud, not ashamed.

            Secondly – if the concept refers as you describe to positive treatment based on other people’s perception of you, whether or not their perception is based in reality, then it has little to no explanatory power except in the mind of an observer. If I’m a white male (and I’m not) and I receive some sort of benefit from someone simply because of what they perceive me to be, I bear no responsibility for that benefit. The other party is giving it to me, I’m not asking for it or demanding it, it just shows up based on the other party’s perceptions. Don’t get me wrong, I understand how something like this plays out, but it is incredibly hard to accurately define and can be subjected to endless debate, and competing, simpler, explanations.

            Finally – I’m not arguing that economic privilege does not exist, if anything it would be the easiest kind of ‘privilege’ in my mind to explain. My main argument is that this ‘privilege’, to the extent it exists, is earned in some way (especially in the example of Heina’s family, who came to the US with very little). So if, as you say in the beginning of your comment, privilege can’t be something you earn, then her family did not have the type of privilege you’re talking about.

          4. Mark, you are close to seeing the problem but not quite there. The whole point is that you are not asking people to treat you differently based on their perceptions of you–they just do it, and this is a structural reality in society. You bear responsibility for your privilege because you benefit from it at the expense of others, again not because you ask for it or demand it. That is why it is important to be aware of it and any effects in might have in a given situation.

            You are also still conflating ‘privilege’ in the sense of unearned preferential treatment to ‘privilege’ in the sense of acquired wealth. No one is saying someone cannot be proud of their success, or that Heina’s dad should be ashamed somehow of the fruits of his labour. The point is that Heina benefitted from his economic success by chance (having him as a father). She did not earn it. She could have, like her friend, been born to a less affluent family.

            Most forms of privilege are not earned, they are acquired by chance, either through accident of birth or otherwise. The reason it is important to be aware of one’s privilege is precisely because it is an unearned advantage, and if someone is truly concerned with fairness they have to account for unearned advantages in the social calculus.

          5. Dan – I’m pretty sure I understand, but I’m also not convinced that it matters. If ‘privilege’ is a thing entirely within the control of the people who perceive others as ‘privileged’, then being ‘aware’ of it accomplishes nothing.

            The other day I went into a fast food restaurant for lunch, I was the only non-African-American in the entire restaurant. My food was delayed – I have no idea why – and the manager apologized and gave me an upgrade. Is this privilege? I have no idea, and frankly I didn’t think twice about it until I thought about this discussion.

            I’ve always been taught to treat people the same regardless of who our what they are, and that is how I assume people treat me. I understand that people sometimes treat others differently depending on their appearance – women with big breasts, for example, get bigger tips when working as waitresses (but generally not from me). That big breasted privilege isn’t earned – but it also isn’t their fault. The people giving the tips are at fault because they are conveying ‘privilege’ on a certain group of people due to certain inherent traits they believe are desirable (let’s leave aside, for the sake of argument, that breast size isn’t necessarily inherent).

            So in the privilege argument you lay out – our big breasted waitress should acknowledge her privilege…and then what? I don’t know where that leads. There is nothing the waitress can do about it except maybe not accept tips above a certain amount – but what if the big tip she got was really for her hard work and not because of her breast size? The customers don’t generally realize that they are tipping more, or if they do they rationalize it. So aside from knowing it exits in a general scientific way – one that may or may not apply to a specific circumstance – what is gained from knowing that people tip big breasted waitresses more?

            I’m struggling with this concept for these reasons – not because I believe it doesn’t exist, but because I don’t see the utility in the ‘privileged’ feeling bad or apologizing for an advantage which defined solely by the perceptions of the ‘underprivileged’. A much simpler solution would be to treat everyone equally regardless of who/what they are and dispense with all of this bs.

          6. What the waitress (is this really the first hypothetical that came to mind? really?) needs to do is not dismiss the experiences of the other (less-endowed) wait staff when they say they routinely get stiffed or under-tipped by customers. What she also needs to do is not rationalise her higher tips as a product of her skill as a waitress, and tell others they will get tipped just as well if only they were to work harder and stop being such lazy complainers. She could also, if she was feeling particularly magnanimous, offer to pool tips with the other workers.

          7. Also,

            A much simpler solution would be to treat everyone equally regardless of who/what they are and dispense with all of this bs.

            This would be nice, except it doesn’t happen in real life. It is also basically impossible to actually treat everyone in the world equally. There is plenty of science to back up the fact that we all exhibit bias in our behaviour sometimes even when we are unaware of it. That’s why it is important to strive to become aware of it and correct it so much as possible.

          8. Dan – I’m not convinced but I think we understand each other. Thank you for treating me with respect, which is more than I can say for some others here.

            And when I have the chance, I like to inject a little humor into my writing to keep people interested. Hence the waitress hypothetical (which has he added benefit of being true). That’s what pissed Will off I think – my joke about the military industrial complex. Sometimes I overdo it and sometimes it gets taken the wrong way,

        2. Thanks Will. When I get done drinking my beerr rr, and stealing from my neighbor and using a credit card to buy a pizza, (I know all poor choices, us low class people will choose better tomorrow) I will have that talk with my husband about getting our Mark Zuckerberg plan off the ground and riding that rocket to success. It will be a lot of hard work but I know we can do it! :)

      2. Greenstone – I feel very sorry for you and your family. My earlier comments did not mean to imply that people who struggle with poverty are there by their own design. I fact I explicitly stated that some people are thrust into circumstances like that due to things outside of their control. My mother and father, before I was born, are an example. My comments were explicitly directed at Heina’s circumstance – her father was a Muslim refugee (presumably the least ‘privileged’ of us all) and through his efforts provided Heina with a ‘privileged’ life. Unless he won the lottery I don’t believe that was an accident. I could tell you hundreds of stories of how I’ve seen things like that happen.

        My comments were meant to be uplifting, even for someone living in poverty. Maybe using Zuckerberg and Jobs as examples was not the best way to go – I should have used my neighbor, who grew up in poverty on the streets of Puerto Rico and got into dozens of street fights as a child. Now he’s a respected professional making close to 6 figures. But he’s not a recognizable figure (and you’d have a hard time understanding him because of his accent).

        Yes you may live in poverty now, but in the US (I’m assuming you’re in the US) your opportunities are almost limitless. Chances are slim that you’ll end up being the next Steve Jobs (few people are) but chances are high that you’ll eventually end up like my neighbor (again, not knowing any of the details of your situation). The US is still a land of opportunity. Once it stops being a land of opportunity, people will stop trying to emigrate here by any means necessary.

        If you lived in China, North Korea, Cuba, or any other country where money and power and influence are almost exclusively hereditary, I might agree with your point. And although the US isn’t as free as it could be, and may have the worst system of government (except for all the other ones that have been tried), were I in your shoes I’d much rather be in the US than anywhere else on earth.

        And homeless veterans are a topic near and dear to my heart. But if we start delving into that, metal illness, etc., we’d be completely off topic which is Heina’s – and now that you brought it up your – specific circumstance.

        1. @Mark Thomas: I don’t know why you are sorry for me. I am a drop in the bucket. My Mom is mentally ill. Is she another to feel sorry for? There are all the people in the city where I live in who are poor. http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-Saginaw-Michigan.html Is this the same “land of opportunity” in which you are painting your picture. These people are in fact underprivileged.

          I read what you told Will while you acted with charity toward me, “But life is choice. You make a million of them everyday, from what you choose to do to what you choose not to do. That’s not fantasy, that’s the real world. I’ve seen a good deal of the rest of the world, and that kind of choice isn’t universal.” Not a soul I am aware of chooses poverty. (Just picture me doing laundry in my bathtub the next time you think for a second a person has chosen to be poor.)

          The people I have pointed out here, don’t they have a choice. “And homeless veterans are a topic near and dear to my heart. But if we start delving into that, metal illness, etc.” I think these people are the heart of the issue. These are the underprivileged. Just like the others. They do not have the privileges that others in the world have. Underprivileged is a thing. People living in poverty are generally underprivileged and this goes hand in hand with low income.

          I kindly suggest you read the Factors in Poverty section. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_the_United_States
          It shows pretty clearly that most people living in poverty are disadvantaged in many ways.

          I am privileged among the poverty stricken. I am white; I have received an adequate grade school education and have a university education. I am able bodied and have, I believe, most of my mental capacities. But even I don’t know how I am going to roadmap my way out of this shit hole.

          BTW no one is saying it isn’t great that people make goals and achieve them. That is great! I am glad that these things happen. I find them inspiring and I admire those that overcome obstacles. I personally do what I can in my community to try and lift of those around me, through volunteerism and sharing my talents. I really do wish Mark, that the world was a level playing field. Yes hard work is absolutely a key to success, but there is something else that comes into play to, yes I believe it is also privilege and a bit of luck.

          1. You’re misunderstanding my argument. I don’t believe there is a magic choice button that will transport you – or anyone else – from poverty to comfort. I’m also not arguing that people in higher income brackets don’t have advantages. I’m making several interrelated points. First, Heina’s family’s transformation from the lowest of the underprivileged to ‘privilege’ wasn’t accidental or magical. Second, and more generally, a meritocracy of sorts exists in the US where people can and do improve their quality of life based on their hard work and good choices. Third, if points one and two were untrue, immigrants would not still be flocking to the US (although I understand that rate has dropped recently).

            You say that you see no way out of your current situation, and I believe you. Saginaw is a declining city in a declining state (the only state to lose population in the 2000s), and unemployment, poverty and crime have increased. A few hours away from you, in North and South Dakota, unemployment rates are minuscule. Texas is growing (and there is no income tax there). Maybe you can’t move, I don’t know and frankly that’s too much detail to go into in the comments section of a blog. My point is almost everyone has options.

            Underprivileged is a thing, you’re right. Some people are underprivileged for reasons beyond their control – it sounds like you are one of them. Some people, however, are underprivileged for reasons within their control – drugs, crime, lack of a high school diploma, poor monetary choices, etc.

            Quick story – I drive a car that’s 10 years old, has been paid off for 5, and still runs very well because I maintain it. I own a house that’s worth significantly more than my car, and will hold more of its value over time. I drove past a trailer park recently with a Cadillac Escalade, decked out with aftermarket rims, parked out front one of the homes. Assuming the owners of the trailer also owned the Cadillac, the car was worth probably double what their home was worth when they bought it, yet the car will lose almost all of its value over the next 10 years. If this person considers him/herself to be living in poverty, I could make an argument that it partly by their own design.

            Note – for the record – I am absolutely not saying all people in poverty are there by their own design. I am saying some people are there by their own design, and even though would they say they didn’t choose to be there, their choices tell a different story.

            I didn’t intend this to be a treatise on poverty in the US, and I truly hope that you and your family are able to find a way out of the ‘shit hole’ you’re in. And based on what you’ve written here I’m confident that you will eventually do just that.

    3. Mark, you seem to be arguing that because you have seen people claw their way up the socioeconomic ladder, class privilege isn’t much of a thing and neither is luck. That doesn’t make sense, and it also portrays your meritocracy as rather fragile: we can only believe in it as long as we believe in Horatio Alger, and if we look too hard at how class privilege operates and how bad luck hits people harder when they have fewer resources to compensate for it, then we have to question meritocracy.

    4. Wow, what a discussion this had led to!

      I am just going to clarify one thing. By saying that I am privileged, I am not saying that anything “fell out of the sky” or that my dad didn’t do anything to contribute towards my upbringing. All I am saying is that I had everything I needed and more in my childhood. That *is* class privilege — we were and are upper middle class as a family. We had/have nice things, savings, equity, and so on. For a good explanation of what I mean when I say “class privilege,” see http://egrollman.com/2013/02/25/class-privilege/

      Also by way of clarification, your calling my dad a “Muslim refugee” is wholly inaccurate. Religion had nothing to do with his refugee status, ethnicity and fascism did.

      As for the alleged meritocracy, my father did work hard, but so did many others who immigrated when he did. Not all of them ended up successful despite how hard they worked. That’s the luck part of it.

      1. I think we’re in agreement Heina – I used ‘Muslim refugee’ not to insinuate that religion played any part in his refugee status, and I apologize if I spoke out of turn. I also never insinuated that luck played no role in your families’ ‘privilege’, in fact I think I stated that people tend to make their own luck.

        My main point is that this ‘privilege’, to the extent it exists, was earned, and it is, therefore, nothing to be ashamed about.

  10. Americans have less social mobility than most of Europe and Canada.
    The upper classes aren’t any smarter or wiser or harder working than the lower classes.
    You’re kinda shit, you know that?
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/us/harder-for-americans-to-rise-from-lower-rungs.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/howard-steven-friedman/class-mobility_b_1676931.html
    http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/usa-usa-america-now-has-less-class-mobility-most-europe

    1. You’re missing the point. Economists can, and will, continue to argue about social mobility, income quintiles (the highest quintile in the US is significantly higher than Europe/Canada) and how large a role education plays in all of that (and the cost of a college degree has been skyrocketing for years). But for the purposes of this specific blog post we don’t need to go into it.

      Heina tells the story of her father who came to the US as a ‘refugee’ – that’s the starting point. The ending point for the purposes of this blog post is her realizing her ‘privilege’. My point is, if she has ‘privilege’, nobody waved a magic wand and bestowed it upon her. It was deliberate, and the result of the hard work and good decisions of her parents.

      That’s nothing to feel guilty about. As a matter of fact, that’s something to be very proud of.

      1. Your point is irrelevant. Whether her class privilege came from her parents’ actions or the Privilege Fairy, it’s something she received through no merit or effort of her own. (That’s why it’s called ‘privilege’.) And it’s something that made her oblivious to others who were not granted that privilege.

        I do hope you’re not making the argument that Heina’s “pauper” friends should blame their parents for having made less-sensible choices than hers.

        1. Correct – it’s something she received through no merit of her own. But she did receive it through merit – her parents’ merit – the privilege fairy didn’t give it to them.

          Her pauper friends’ parents may well indeed have made less sensible choices than her parents, we have no evidence either for or against that. But sensible choices and hard work do matter – and I would argue that they are the primary things that matter.

          To answer another commenter here, I’m putting ‘privilege’ in quotes because I do not use it in the same way I believe most of the others here do. It is a real thing, yes, but in this context it’s origins do not have to be hereditary like race, sex, etc.. Social mobility – both up and down the ladder – is a common phenomenon. People rise – like Steve Jobs – and fall – like Jeffrey Skilling or the Skakel family.

          Do the children of billionaires have advantages those in the middle to lower class don’t? Of course they do. But those advantages – at some point – were earned, by the work of their parents, or grandparents, or whomever. That is what the US, and capitalism in general, allows people to do: succeed. Unless it is unearned, I would argue that you should never be ashamed of success. And based on what Heina wrote here, her parents earned her ‘privilege’, and as a result, it is not something she should feel the need to apologize for, in my opinion.

          1. Nobody here has said she should feel guilty or apologize.

            Furthermore…
            Why are you still arguing? We understand what you’re saying. We think you’re wrong.
            You’re insulting our intelligence by assuming that we’re just not getting it. We get it.

            You. Are. Wrong. Your wrong, insulting, bullshit opinion does serious harm and is deeply immoral.
            I think you’re the one missing the point.

          2. But those advantages – at some point – were earned, by the work of their parents, or grandparents, or whomever.

            First, this is a baseless assumption. You have no idea if the money-making ancestor in question actually “earned” riches, much less did so through hard work, prudence and moral virtue. If the riches came from Grandma winning the lottery, or Great-Grandpa investing in slave transport ships, or a great-uncle who embezzled from employee pensions and got away with it on a legal technicality, the child in question is just as rich as if the money came from Mom working her way up from secretary to CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You’re projecting backwards and assuming a kind of secular Calvinism; if somebody is rich, it’s because that money was earned through morally virtuous action. Conversely, the implication is that those without privilege ought to blame their imprudent ancestors in a kind of skeptic version of the caste system.

            (Taken to its logical conclusion, by the way, your argument could indeed apply to hereditary characteristics. I have white privilege because my mother was prudent enough to have children with a white guy.)

            Second, you’re conflating the source of privilege with its effects. As you admit, it’s not through anything the child did; that’s why it’s privilege. You’re carrying that merit forward through however many generations it takes to excuse the privilege.

          3. Neverjaunty, it’s the secular version of the prosperity gospel. The Invisible Hand rewards if you’re righteous and punishes you if you’re unworthy.

  11. You’re arguing that America is the land of opportunity where if you work hard and aren’t (disabled?especially unlucky?stupid?lazy?foolish?), you can pull yourself out of poverty fairly easily. That’s not true.
    What more is there to be said?

    1. You’ve offered me no evidence that it isn’t true, whereas I’ve offered evidence that I see it happen regularly. And I never said it was ‘easy’ in fact I’m pretty sure I said the opposite.

      You quoted articles not really relevant to the discussion. The Huff Po piece in particular stated that income mobility from the lowest quintile to the highest quintile in the US is less than Canada or Europe (which is why I made the comment about quintiles). But that’s not what we’re talking about here – Heina told a story about her father coming here as a refugee (presumably in the lowest quintile) and somehow magically she gained ‘privilege’ as an adolescent. She didn’t state her family had millions of dollars, just that they were comfortable which I assume to be middle class (quintile).

      So in other words, the very premise of Heina’s blog post refutes your argument. And the links you provided don’t refute my argument. All that appears to be left is your assertion: “that’s not true” and I respectfully disagree.

      1. I understand that you believe that me, my friends, my family, and my neighbors are deficient. I understand that you think middle and upper class people are better people.
        I don’t understand why you want to keep restating that at me.

      2. Why are you putting “privilege” in quotes? You seem to be suggesting that if somebody’s hard work was involved somewhere along the way, it isn’t really privilege. Presumably then, the rich heirs of a railroad baron are not really privileged, even though the last person in their ancestry whose good choices and frugal ways led to their current wealth died in the 19th century.

      3. “Heina told a story about her father coming here as a refugee (presumably in the lowest quintile)”

        Quite an interesting presumption. Why do you assume Heina’s father was in the “lowest quintile” in terms not only of income, but of resources? Refugees range from dirt-poor, uneducated people who flee with the clothes on their back (and sometimes not even that) to educated, wealthy people who have friends or family waiting to catch them when they arrive in their adopted country. We don’t know what Heina’s father “worked his way up” from, and how high he had to climb. And, interestingly, you completely ignore what role Heina’s mother played in her family’s wealth.
        You are very invested in protecting the idea that privilege doesn’t exist and merit is all that matters, and you’re doing so to an absurd degree.

  12. But never mind, I can follow all this. What I was going to add: Mark’s point about the highest income quintile being higher in the US, actually argues against him because it shows that the rich are getting richer in the US.

    In fact (from multiple sources) my impression is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer – it is the same throughout the West but particularly so in the US.

    1. Even if I grant your points, it is still irrelevant to this debate. Heina never said her family was in the highest quintile. She simply said she had ‘privilege’.

      As for the poor getting poorer – definitions are relative. Try being poor in Afghanistan. It’s a completely different experience. .

      1. And not to let the point slip by, what you’re saying is that poor people in the United States are better off, have more privilege than poor people in Afghanistan. They have more advantages simply from being in the United States. In this example which you proffered. About how privilege isn’t really a thing except for what you earn.

      2. Try being poor in Afghanistan. It’s a completely different experience.

        This is a fallacy. The appeal to worse problems is not an argument.

        Heina’s family does not have to be rich to have economic privilege relative to someone who is poor. See my explanation above.

      3. As for the poor getting poorer – definitions are relative.

        You are making exactly the same error Heina describes in her previous post. Because others were better off, she felt that her family was not all that well off at all.

  13. When you are poor in Afghanistan then when you are hungry you are SUPER hungry. When you are cold/hot whatever, you are SUPER cold/hot whatever. When you can’t get healthcare you are SUPER DUPER unhealthy. There is nothing like poor with a side of violence of war and oppression. Hey, I am not saying that people in a war zone are not suffering, but we are talking about well poor and now poor with a side of horror? What are you doing here Mark? What is your point? Also from another vet that has been in a war zone, I want better in my home country. I don’t want to lower the bar to war zone bad.

    1. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2011/09/how_rich_are_poor_people.html

      This was my point about poverty being relative. Where the government officially draws that line, what it means in terms of real purchasing power, amenities, etc.

      Will is correct that people can’t choose where they’re born, but they can choose where they live. And many people, like Heina’s father, emigrate to the US for a reason – a point I’ve made continually on this thread that none of you appear to want to challenge.

      I used Afghanistan as an example because I’ve seen it first hand, but there are dozens of other examples which make the same general point – poverty is relative and defined differently around the world.

      1. a point I’ve made continually on this thread that none of you appear to want to challenge

        What is the point you believe you are making here? That Horatio Alger was a documentary and not a work of fiction?

      2. Will is correct that people can’t choose where they’re born, but they can choose where they live.

        Oh just shut the fuck up already. You have an obvious complete lack of detachment from the reality of the lives of poor people. How, exactly do you propose that people who are living paycheck to paycheck and barely making it by decide to go live in Beverly Hills? Or even in the suburbs? Even middle-class people have been fucked by the rigged system as they’ve been kicked out of their homes through predatory lending practices. Not everyone can just choose where they want to live and then go live there. That’s an absolutely absurd statement.

      3. Wow, really? I didn’t mention it when I made my comments because I thought that was such an obviously worthless tack, but there you go.
        Let’s continue with the poor person in Afghanistan whom you have presented as figuratively fucked. How is this destitute poor Afghani supposed to afford the cost of traveling to a place that will offer better opportunities? If you’re losing money trying to eat, where are you going to find the money to fucking move?

      4. My father’s family came here because there was nowhere else to go. On top of that, they came here in the 1970s. It was a lot easier to get a job without a college degree back then as was it to move up the corporate ladder.

  14. Meta-comment:

    Is it time to start banning certain commenters?

    I’m seeing a small group of commenters showing up in comment threads for multiple articles with arrogantly clueless comments and responses to other commenters’ reactions, and they are basically derailing and taking over comments on these articles. I’m sure it’s fun for some of the regulars here to demolish these commenters’ so-called arguments, but it means that the actual content of the articles or of the more serious and thoughtful comments gets ignored in favor of WWF-style arguments. Do we really need to waste our time and on-line storage arguing with cranks?

    1. Yup, I’m going out on a limb here and reckon you may mean Mark Thomas… He appeared at Butterflies and Wheels to be all condescending about Ophelias harassment.
      http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2013/05/meet-skeptixx/#comment-557649

      Apparently he has been at the Slymepit “experimenting” on “disagreement” and they are sooo much nicer over to him over there. For some reason his pearls of wisdom are better received there, and when he “criticised” Vacula no one piled on him! For a start at least half the Slymepit see Vacula for the self-promoting shitweasel that he is, not even the pitters are that daft. Secondly “criticising” Vacula on some minor point is not quite the same as minimising years worth of harassment… Mark doesn’t get this… Mark is a waste of time IMO.

      1. I think that may be a complement – thank you oolon.

        I see that it doesn’t matter what the topic is, dissection from the ‘approved wisdom’ is grounds for suggesting a banhammer.

        For the record – if Heina or anyone else would like to ban me that is of course their prerogative, I am a guest here, I do not believe I have been uncivilized, irrational, or trolling – I’ve offered another viewpoint, one that is evidence based, and people are free to engage, disagree, argue, or ignore.

        If you’d prefer not to defend your beliefs and exist within an echo chamber, and I gather from your comments that you do, that is of course also your prerogative. I prefer to remain skeptical – I will defend my positions but if I see compelling evidence that I am wrong or others have a point, I will admit it, as I have already in this thread.

        I’ll continue to show up here from time to time to debate in a civilized manner until I’m asked to stop. There is nothing preventing you engaging, debating, or ignoring – or attempting to silence my views – it’s up to you.

        1. How can you think you’re not being insulting?
          In what universe is telling people, loudly and at length, that their class struggle is because of their shortcomings not an insult?
          You obviously think it’s okay to keep insulting, demeaning, and degrading certain classes of people, because you keep doing it.
          If you don’t think that’s what you’re doing, you’re blinded by that ‘P’ word you hate so much.

          1. Mark doesn’t think he’s doing that. He has a strong emotional belief that hard work and prudence pay off, and that anyone who works hard can succeed in America; note his comment about how small a part luck plays, and his non-sequitur about how privilege doesn’t count if somebody in your ancestry “earned” it.

        2. I see that it doesn’t matter what the topic is, dissection from the ‘approved wisdom’ is grounds for suggesting a banhammer.

          But…you haven’t been banned (yet). Still, I find it so laughable that you think disagreement is why people are upset with you in this thread. That clearly demonstrates your cluelessness.

          So let me explain to you why your view on your reception here is skewed. You claim that you have not been uncivilized, and yet you attempted to gaslight me. You claimed you have not been irrational, yet you are espousing just-world, bootstrapper bullshit which, contrary to your statement, is not supported by any credible evidence (you are in serious need of some social science education). You claim that you have not been trolling, and yet you return to thread after thread to argue about politics after you lectured us on the demerits of arguing about politics on skeptic blogs. You show up to stir shit up, not to have a conversation (as was made crystal clear by your attempted gaslighting).

          You claim that we do not want to defend our beliefs and we want to exist in an echo chamber, and yet I explained what I meant by the MIC and Dan and I agreed and disagreed about it. That’s not an echo chamber. How can you then “gather from the comments” that we want to exist in an echo chamber? I have pointed discussions and disagreements with regular commenters and other Skepchicks here all the time. Confirmation bias much??

          You say you prefer to remain skeptical, and yet I have not seen any evidence that you are willing to turn that skepticism towards your own assumptions and positions. We’ve explained that you do not understand what privilege is, and yet you continue to argue from your incorrect understanding of the concept. How is that skepticism or critical thinking?

          I’ll continue to show up here from time to time to debate in a civilized manner until I’m asked to stop.

          You HAVE been asked (and told) to stop. Repeatedly. And you’ve also been told that you’re not acting in a civilized manner. Avoiding mean language or cursing does not automatically make your comments civilized. You have not been civilized in this thread. You’ve been quite condescending and patronizing. The way you talked to and about greenstone was pretty atrocious.

          I mean, even your final sentence here is not civilized. It’s patronizing bullshit. We do not need your permission or confirmation that we have the ability to engage, debate, ignore, or ban you. We already know that. It’s also up to you to stop being such a shitface and live up to your espoused ideals and actually engage people in good faith. You haven’t demonstrated that you can do that, though, so I’m just going to keep assuming (supported by evidence provided by oolon now) that you’re a troll.

          1. Will – with all due respect, unless I’ve missed it you have not provided any evidence for why you believe prosperity in the United States is because of the military industrial complex.

            I have provided evidence for my assertions – much of which comes from Heina herself.

            I barely comment here – just in threads I find particularly interesting.

            If I ‘stir shit up’ its only because you disagree with me, and choose not to engage with me in a critical manner. The closest anyone here has come to explaining your definition of ‘privilege’ to me is Dan’s comment, and I’m thinking seriously about what he wrote.

            I’m not thinking too seriously about anything you’ve written because you’ve given me no cause to do so. I joke with you about the “military industrial complex” – then tell you that it’s a joke – and you subsequently refuse to engage me in anything resembling a debate.

            I don’t believe I have to examine myself or my beliefs – but I seriously believe that you do. If my comments/arguments/assertions drive you into this kind of reaction, then I think that’s something you should examine. I am not here to argue simply for the thrill of pissing people off. I have an opinion – which differs from yours – and I’m willing to defend it.

            But I’m also willing to change my mind when provided with better, more compelling evidence. Pro tip for arguing with me: evidence and reason do the trick, profanity or snark or emotion don’t. I think if you look back on this thread with a clear head you’ll see that’s true.

          2. This is laughable. Mark, I still am not sure if you’re trolling, but I am now sure that you’re not seriously trying to have a discussion, or even a debate, since you’re clearly so happy to engage in selective reading of others’ comments, while hypocritically accusing them of not responding to your oh-so-insightful “arguments.” I feel silly for having tried to engage with you now.

            Everyone else, I’m sorry for my role in helping Mark threadjack.

          3. And here you are, trying to gaslight me again. You’re so civilized!!

            Re: explaining privilege, you’re full of shit. You were involved in this thread where I repeatedly defined privilege. This means that you either jumped into that thread and started commenting without reading (big surprise, considering you’ve missed where I explained my comment about the MIC earlier–and I’ve seen your follow-up further up thread, btw, but you should have checked before making this comment) or that you read it and ignored it.

            I don’t believe I have to examine myself or my beliefs – but I seriously believe that you do.

            Hahahaha. What a True Skeptic™ you are! You’re completely above it all, aren’t you? You don’t have to turn your critical thinking and skepticism on your own positions, but everyone else does!

            FYI, I am a reflexive thinker. I do think critically about the positions I take. But you’ve put yourself in this weird position here: “Oh, I will change if presented with evidence, but I REFUSE TO EXAMINE MY OWN BELIEFS.” This always puts the onus on others to educate and convince you, which gives you the space to be comfortable with your cognitive biases and assumptions. As long as they go unchallenged! And once they’re challenged, you put on this faux civilized facade pretending that curse words are omg so uncivilized and as long as you say “with all due respect” you can then continue on with gaslighting and condescension, because those things are totes civilized!

            OR, you’re just trolling. And I’m seriously still leaning in that direction.

            By the way, pro tip for arguing with me: if you’re not going to make the effort to understand the basic terms used in a discussion, just shut the fuck up.

  15. @Mark Thomas: Mark says, “My point is almost everyone has options.” NO, THEY DON’T MARK. PRIVILEGED PEOPLE DO! Do you hear that Mark! I, my mom, all those people living in poverty are shit out of options. You don’t understand a world in which a person can’t find work that is above minimum wage, not to mention full time. You probably can’t picture a world where you work 50 hours a week, but make VERY little, not even minimum wage. Mark, people living in poverty are taken advantage of ALL of the time. Mark as an adult I have NEVER lived in ‘middle class’. So each time something, anything comes up, that teeny tiny savings that we have is completely gone, and I get to pay INSANE interest.

    What you said about a car that you work on, well image a world where you work just as hard as you do now dare I say it, work harder, but well you can’t get a living wage so you can even afford said used 10 year old car. (And that person that you saw with the fancy car, I get it in a way that you NEVER WILL. When everything in your life gets taken away, again, and again, and again. Maybe that person for one minute, one day, on second just wanted a car that wasn’t the biggest piece of shit to cover the roads.) You were probably secretly thrilled when you found said person with new car. You can feel like a totally better person when working on your used car. And you can go on believing people get what they get.

    “[…]drugs, crime, lack of a high school diploma, poor monetary choices, etc” You probably walk around feeling pretty sanctimonious huh. You have no idea do you. Yeah, privilege never comes into play here. Just more poor choices. Have you ever thought, why these situations permeate the ‘lower classes’. Here Mark I think Hugo says it better than me.

    “If they had had a different neighbor, one less self-absorbed and more concerned for others, a man of normal, charitable instincts, their desperate state would not have gone unnoticed, their distress-signals would have been heard, and perhaps they would have been rescued by now. Certainly they appeared utterly depraved, corrupt, vile and odious; but it is rare for those who have sunk so low not to be degraded in the process, and there comes a point, moreover, where the unfortunate and the infamous are grouped together, merged in a single fateful word. They are les miserables – the outcasts, the underdogs. And who is to blame? Is it not the most fallen who have most need of charity?”, from Les Miserable.

    You are not my ally Mark.

    1. Greenstone – as I said I do not understand your specific circumstances, so I don’t know if you have real options or not, but you’re simply wrong when you say unprivileged people do not have options. Those options aren’t as good or as varied as a richer persons’ options, but options do exist. Anyone in poverty can move to North Dakota or Texas or anywhere where they can start to build a better life. If you believe I’m not an ally for saying this, fine. It happens to be the truth.

      I live and work with underprivileged people – so please do not get on your high horse about me being sanctimonious. I’ve seen people rise out of poverty, and I’ve seen people stay in poverty precisely because of their decisions. Nowhere in this thread or anywhere else have I said that the poor are poor only because they make bad decisions. But you’re living in a fantasy world if you believe that no one who is poor isn’t there because they’ve made bad decisions in life.

      Specific circumstances matter – and I don’t know yours. But in general, it in incontrovertible that people with (a) high school diplomas perform better economically that those without, and since a high school education is free it is almost always a choice (yes there are exceptions) whether or not kids want to graduate high school, (b) people with a criminal record are less likely to perform well economically, and obviously the decision to engage in criminal activity is always a choice.

      People without high school educations and with a criminal record are in that position not because someone with privilege is keeping them down, they are there because of the choices they have made. Period. (No one knows this better than them, by the way).

      You apparently read my comments as saying that poor people live in poverty because they deserve it. And that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that some people live in poverty due to poor choices, and others are there for reasons beyond their control.

      And I do understand the person who wants a Cadillac Escalade in order to feel like something is going well in their life. But when you make a choice like that you don’t simultaneously get to bitch about living in poverty. If you live in poverty, and spend your precious resources on an investment which is guaranteed to lose its value, then you forfeit the moral high ground in my mind.

      We’ve gotten way off the original topic, and I hope you’re able to read through my comments with a clear head because you seem very fatalistic about your situation and it sounds like you need help, and I do wish I could help you in some way.

      1. Mark, where are they getting the money to move?
        Mark, why aren’t they getting a high school diploma? Is it because there’s an institutional, structural problem refusing to adequately help them or outright discourage them? http://www.motherjones.com/media/2012/08/mission-high-false-low-performing-school?page=1
        Mark, why are they engaging in criminal activity? There’s a network of reasons. http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/frd030127.pdf Funny that poverty, familial and neighborhood drug use, abuse are all factors. None of which children can control.

      2. Mark we are at an impasse. I think you want to believe with all your heart that people are where they are simply of their own construct. In the process to set aside groups (from our discussions, vets, mentally ill, health issues) of people that don’t fit in with your construct of poverty=people that choose poorly. You know Mark, I use to think the same way.

        Mark first you said this, “Nowhere in this thread or anywhere else have I said that the poor are poor only because they make bad decisions.” And then Mark, your very next sentence was this, “But you’re living in a fantasy world if you believe that no one who is poor isn’t there because they’ve made bad decisions in life.” I am not exactly sure what your point here is. Huh. I think it is telling though. Sanctimonious in deed. I hope nothing that drains you financially, ever happens to you Mark. You will spend the rest of your days wondering what you did wrong in life.

        “And I do understand the person who wants a Cadillac Escalade in order to feel like something is going well in their life.” It is a car that gets them to work or wherever they need to go. It is a nice car that people won’t make fun of or get told to park it in the street because of the leaking oil. It may get them some respect when their clothes don’t look right and they can’t bring their house with them. It may bring them credibility. I still don’t think you understand about this and again we are at an impasse.

        No one is arguing your point on education opening opportunities. But don’t you think it is telling where groups of kids are not getting their diploma. Also telling where crime seems to congregate. Why would it be like the way it is? I am not going to hold your hand on this journey.

        One thing I think we can absolutely agree on and end on, for me anyways, it is no mistake when someone climbs out of poverty. You have to make choices along the way. I agree with that.

  16. And re: privilege, let me just say this. I’ve done about a year of tutoring with a few Chicago educational charities which are technologically focused. When I tutor kids from poor, mainly African American areas, I find that a very very depressingly high percentage of those in HIGH SCHOOL can’t read, write, or do basic math. When I talk to them, I basically find out that they’ve come from bad home situations, they feel ostracized in society & like there’s no one to turn to for help, and they have to deal with really rough things in their day to day life that would make most people here on Skepchick drop their jaws.

    Per some people’s arguments, if they didn’t want to be this way, then they’d just “get out”, and that, you know, people like Mitt Romney or Mark Zuckerberg got somewhere because they worked harder than them, no other advantages were present. Years of slavery, ongoing racism, and a history of forced segregation had NOTHING to do with it, and these kids born in these situations have no advantages over people who grew up in nice areas with nice schools & parents who provided.

    And if someone thinks that, well then, they need to think a little more. Sadly the status quo is that MANY people do think that.

    1. My husband is this spring semester is teaching entry level math (number concept, addition, subtraction, fractions) at our local community college. Where we are here, it is exactly as you have described there.

    2. I’ve taught in a low-income average area, an hour and a half away from any big city. There were a small percentage of middle class folks (with some upper middle class), and a whole lot of poor. I taught a lot of homeless kids. Many of them only get a rounded meal (and sometimes their only meal) through the free school lunches. It’s heartbreaking how screwed those kids are by things they will never have a chance to change. Worse yet, BECAUSE of the stress of the situation their in (only compounded and compounded intensely by bad family life in some cases), the kids are physiologically incapable of learning as much in school. ( http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080311182434.htm )

      That level of disproportionate opportunity is complete horseshit. That’s privilege slapping you in the face. That’s part of why things need to change. It, like many of the other reasons, is reason enough for things to change.

    3. I agree with your arguments – with minor quibbles over the slavery and forced segregation stuff which ended 160 and 60 years ago respectively. Note that I don’t believe these events have no relevance today, just that their relevance is overblown and diminishing with each passing year.

      The culture you speak of should make the decision to emphasize education and a stable home life in order to help break this cycle. When those things are seen as universal concepts, and not tied to a specific culture, this cycle will hopefully begin to change.

      And of course – if you were referring to me – I’m not suggesting that children are to blame for not “getting out”. But I am saying that their parents – like Heina’s – do bear some responsibility for the environment their children grow up in.

      1. I think the point the Doctor Doctor was making was that these are a relevant part of cultural history both to the oppressed black culture (which had to wait 79 years since the Constitution to be considered citizens, had to wait another 86 years after that to legally get equal access to education (after being denied with Plessy v. Ferguson), had to wait 10 years after THAT to be told that people weren’t allowed to discriminate against them for employment, and are still fighting a bigoted culture in small and large ways daily.

        If your entire culture had a history of being lynched and tortured and denied education after a history of being lynched, tortured, enslaved, and everything else, everything suddenly being equal two years ago (which it’s still not) doesn’t mean your family hasn’t born it’s forms. It doesn’t mean your friends’ families haven’t felt persecuted, called slurs in hate, denied fair chances. If most the people you know have been screwed royally, why wouldn’t you be ready to get screwed royally, too?

        It’s goddamned ridiculous. Don’t even get me started on other oppressed groups in the U.S. There are plenty to choose from,

        In a Star Trek culture where everyone’s equal, there are no barriers to opportunity to education and encouragement, there’s no racism, sexism, sexuality discrimination, etc., and action is solely a matter of choice, fine. Whatever. But we have way, way too far to go before your position as it stands hold enough water to fill a bottlecap.

        The point everyone else has been trying to make is that the very culture you describe as emphasizing education and stability), is the very one everyone else wants to reach. We’re just recognizing that there’s a lot of damn work to do to get to that point, and part of that is recognizing that it’s not all lollipops and rainbows except for our personal choices. There are still bigots and bastards and economic systems and laws and corporations and governments that have some serious inequities in how they treat people. We are trying to acknowledge those inequities so we can fix them.

        Heina’s post was about having a conversation and realizing part way through that her reaction was part of how those inequities stay in place. She was smart enough to catch herself so that she could try to fix it. We should all be so smart.

        1. We have a difference of opinion. As I clearly stated, I don’t believe that the history of African Americans is irrelevant today. But many of the things you described – racial and sexual discrimination – in the workplace are illegal today and would (and have) garner excessive media attention when/where they exist.

          I do believe you’re right that Heina’s post was partly about having a conversation about how those inequalities stay in place. But part of my argument is that inequalities – specifically economic inequalities – are partly the product of choices. We do a disservice to both the privileged and the underprivileged when we suggest otherwise.

          1. I think you’re conflating character with opportunity.

            No one is responsibility-free, but no one here is arguing that anyone is responsibility-free. What we’re arguing is that it’s not the responsibility of the individual to have to overcome a bunch of obstacles that shouldn’t be there in the first place. It seems like you keep starting to say that then stopping. Everyone else is saying that and then also saying, “Let’s get rid of these fucking obstacles.”

  17. The culture you speak of should make the decision to emphasize education and a stable home life in order to help break this cycle. When those things are seen as universal concepts, and not tied to a specific culture, this cycle will hopefully begin to change.

    You simply don’t get it. I suggest two steps to bring you to the point where you do.
    1) Open your ears
    2) Shut your mouth

    1. Lol – the “shut up and listen” argument in an entirely different context. Thanks for that!

      My ears are open for the record – are yours? I have argued that, of all of the ‘privileges’, economic ‘privilege’ is the easiest one to justify in my mind. People in poverty do indeed have a tougher time that people not in poverty.

      But that doesn’t mean these people are off the hook for their own actions. The kids you deal with have ‘bad home lives’ and have to deal with ‘really rough things’. You don’t define what those are but if they include their parents doing drugs and committing crimes, then – as heartless as this may sound – they are at fault for what their kids are experiencing. It is absolutely not fair to the kids, but at the same time it is absolutely not Steve Jobs’ fault.

      1. Who is arguing that?!

        You are right there admitting that the children are in a shitty situation they can’t control which will have a lasting impact on their lives. RIGHT THERE. That’s the point. That point. Right there.

      2. Well it’s just clear when listening to you Mr. Thomas that you’ve spent little time in your life getting to know people in these situations and listening to them, so you don’t understand. Instead you sit on your comfortable lifelong white-upper-middle-class soapbox and try and tell the world why these people are where they are.

        Let me provide brief explanation: If you’re a kid who goes to a shit school, has a not good home situation, has nowhere to really turn to for help, then your chances of effectively learning things critical skills like reading, math, science, etc. are not as good as children with better starting advantages. And when you lack these skills & grow up to be an adult, you have little opportunity to get job opportunities which pay more than minimum wage and when you have your own kids, it’s hard to provide them with a well educated upbringing. You can’t just magically “decide to emphasize education and a stable home life” and give the same advantages as some middle class family can. All the time I get parents bringing their kids in who start crying because they personally don’t know how to teach their children many things & can’t provide very well for them because they themselves don’t have the skills to afford the best life for them. They feel ashamed & sad because they want these things for their kids, but don’t know how to provide them. They’ve made the decision to bring their kids to us, but we’re only one tiny resource on a hard two decade long road.

        And gee what has created this cycle? Hmmm, geee, perhaps the long history of oppression of people of certain racial backgrounds in North & South American society. You think in 3 generations, the legacy of institutionalized discrimination just goes away?

        This is what I mean, you sit atop on your well-fed, well-provided-for background and say “Blacks/Hispanics/[Insert group here] just haven’t made the decision to emphasize the right things, that’s why they’re poor”. That is COMPLETE AND UTTER BULLSHIT. And you know, when you say ignorant shit like that, you really do need to SHUT UP AND LISTEN.

        “Shut up and listen” isn’t an argument. It’s advice.

        Indeed. Your homework is, go find 5 people who grew up in dirt poor inner city neighborhoods and ask them about their upbringing & for their views on why things are the way they are. Then you can come back.

          1. I daresay punchdrunk that the people I work with are far less privileged than the people who post here (even those of us who are poor). But yes, you’e right, he’s doing the old hat argument of “look at me, I’m fine, it’s their fault for not being fine”

        1. Doctor – perhaps you haven’t read all of my comments but I do deal with underprivileged people in the course of my professional life. So a little calmness might be in order. And I started my homework 20 years ago and haven’t stopped.

          Nowhere in these comments have I suggested kids are to blame for the situations their parents thrust them into. That would be nonsensical. I will quite happily blame the parents, however, for their poor decisions when applicable.

          I didn’t disparage any specific ethnic or racial group – you chose to insert Blacks and Hispanics into the debate. I was commenting on your original comment to me, in which you described a certain culture you work with. I don’t know what that culture is.

          I understand the work you do is very hard and heart wrenching. But there are two sides to the solution. Could the system be better? Yes. Could a lot of those living in poverty be making better decisions? Absolutely.

          If you can’t change the former you have to focus on the latter.

      3. Please, I beg you. Go read this ethnography to get a better sense of how structure and agency work. You seem to think it’s all up to individual choice and that the structures within which people are embedded play no role in their abilities to make choices.

  18. “I daresay punchdrunk that the people I work with are far less privileged than the people who post here (even those of us who are poor).”
    I agree, the people that you work with as you described don’t have the reading and writing skills let alone the online access to talk about privilege. That is why it is so important that people in a position of privilege that know some of the issues get involved in the conversation.

    1. I also want to add these things however.
      – Not all children from these areas have bad parents, most genuinely try for their kids
      – Not all children from these areas are screwed, a decent slice of the kids who come for tutoring are kicking ass academically and are able to get into good colleges or local magnet high schools
      – Only 8.8% of children in Chicago public schools are are white compared to 32% of Chicago’s population being white (the other portion being 32% hispanic, 32% black and ~5% Asian or other) with many of the white kids going to the better schools in the area.

      So not all kids who are minorities are hopeless cases in school, many quite the opposite, and frankly even though I am a minority I don’t have the right to speak for the more marginalized minorities in the area. All I am trying to illustrate is that white people have ENORMOUS privilege in the Americas, the numbers back it up. Despite that many many people who are Black are Latino come from underprivileged circumstances beat the odds and go forward, but their battle is a much harder battle than most whites.

      Here is the trouble for more privileged left-wing folk however. Left-wingers feel themselves immune to racism, and often don’t fully understand issues of underprivileged minorities and will go ahead and try to decide policy & action on behalf of minorities without even really knowing their issues. So it’s not just Mark Thomas who must listen, I’d advise everyone here to really go out there and make a real concious effort to listen to many people who have worse starting advantages than you and get their take on it. That way you’ll be ready to be a better ally and not a left-wing person who also doesn’t get it.

      1. You apparently haven’t read all the comments – I’m not a left-winger (I’d call myself a moderate conservative).

        And seeing as how Chicago continues to be a bastion for liberal politicians (you haven’t had a Republican mayor since 1931) perhaps it’s time you reached across the isle and looked at a few conservative ideas.

        1. Many republican dominated states have shit schools as well. Even so, this isn’t the point. Understanding racism & poverty here is the point.

          And if the republican party continues to fail to understand race, it’ll be a while until you win any sweeping victories anytime soon. My hope is that the republican party will die down and be replaced by a libertarian one. It would be nice to have a fiscally conservative party without all of the social conservatism, racist & sexist sentiment, or social nannyism.

  19. Outside of poverty, I know I am ridiculously privileged and I know how hard it is for us. I really don’t know the story on segregation, racism, and the cycle of poverty. I just know it is there and from what I have been told from those trying to make change. I try to be understanding and listen when community leaders say our needs are this or that and do my part because honestly, I don’t know.

      1. In general Heina, I think your sentences can be a bit long and have many points in them. For instance

        If someone ribs — or even derides, is dismissive towards, or is mean to — me for my relatively cushy upbringing, I consciously work to quell the urge to go “but but but–” I shut up and feel grateful that I only have to feel such a little bit of discomfort. On top of that, that tiny smidgen of discomfort, unlike the actual suffering of class oppression, is helpful to me: it reminds me of my position and keeps me on my classism toes.

        I think if possible, the sentences could be a bit shorter and more direct, it would help the readability of your posts a lot.

        1. That looks like 3 sentences to me (thinking she forgot a period after “but but but–“. I don’t find that excerpt at all unreadable. It makes perfect sense to me. *shrug*

          1. I agree with Will. With the missed period, these sentences read fine to me. Too many short sentences can be choppy. Too many long sentences can get difficult to follow. Sentence variety for rhythm along with sentence length that befits the point being made and the desired emphasis are key. I see both in that quotation.

            I love Heina’s style of writing, perhaps in part because I can hear her voice when I read it. I liked the cue that she had in there originally. It was a colloquialism that reminded me of the titles of Friends episodes (“The One with the . . .”). That’s not the reason I liked it, but perhaps that’s why it didn’t trip me up. I don’t disagree with editing it, though, because I can see how it’s unclear if you haven’t heard the structure before.

        2. You’ve given me this feedback before. I’ve been trying.

          Will’s right. Here are the sentences:

          If someone ribs — or even derides, is dismissive towards, or is mean to — me for my relatively cushy upbringing, I consciously work to quell the urge to go “but but but–” (This lacks a period because it’s someone being cut off.)

          I shut up and feel grateful that I only have to feel such a little bit of discomfort.

          On top of that, that tiny smidgen of discomfort, unlike the actual suffering of class oppression, is helpful to me: it reminds me of my position and keeps me on my classism toes.

          On top of that, the colon divides the last sentence.

  20. Wow.. too long comments thread to read all the way. I’d just say I agree that a good way to becoming an “ally” is to remember the instances of bigotry and predjudice one has aimed against oneself in the past, and try to extrapolate from these emotionally. To explain a story:

    I’m a bilingual immigrant in the Czech Republic. When we came here I was 7, and didn’t speak the language. There were instances when I (or my 3 brothers) were derided and laughed at for not speaking Czech correctly. My English grandmother had hateful slurs shouted at her in the street by an especially xenophobic neighbour. I remember once in a school canteen, being called a “gypsy”, because I made a grammatical error asking for a small portion. I know now my childhood was fantastically privileged, because most people thought it something *special* to be a UK immigrant, but noticing these (and other) specific instances of predjudice made me think: what about people who have to deal with this every day? What about my Roma neighbours whose children are constantly scorned in school and on the street, just for their skin colour, what about Ukranian and Vietnamese immigrants who are suffer abuse just for a few errors in speech or a bad accent? For me being an ally means calling out predjudice when I see it, it’s not an identity issue, it’s about not letting privilege-blinded people spout bullshit, as well as shutting up and listening when talking about topics you are interested with people who are directly effected.

    I’ve always been middle to upper-middle class, so probably I’m a “princ”. I still remember wearing home-made clothing and envying my classmate’s pocket money, but the main class privilige I think I’ve had is living in a stable home, where finances were tight, but never problematic. The problems I’ve seen in “lower-class” families have been associated with either domestic abuse or problems between siblings (working parents with no time, lots of stress as well as horrible grandparents and the stress of multiple people living in close quarters). I had none of that so when someone starts talking about their childhood I try to listen and limit talking about myself.
    =/

  21. I think that if you publicly proclaim ANY position because you want friendship, forgiveness or status you are doing it for the wrong reasons. Being an ally, like any other position you arrive at should be done because you’ve evaluated the issue as carefully as you can and arrived at the conclusion that it’s the right thing to do. Simple.

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