I can’t stand the word privilege. I’d rather hear fingernails on a chalkboard. “That’s because privileged people don’t like others pointing out their privilege,” I’m told. That’s probably true, in a way.
I have no problem talking frankly about the many comforts and opportunities in my life — that I can live in San Francisco, that I enjoy my job, that I have the resources to pay a ridiculous amount of money for avocado on toast. Ironically, these things mean very little to me. I’d be just as happy living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, working in a coffeeshop — and paying far less for my avocado on toast. I am where I am, I suppose, because I care too much about what others think and the gravity of societal opinion has pulled me toward “a good job, doing meaningful things.” Those jobs are practically all based in overpriced cities with overpriced toast with colleagues who went to Harvard and Stanford.
You can say I’m privileged by nature but not by nurture. Unlike those who point their fingers, I grew up as a young boy in public housing, on food stamps, with an unstable single mother who didn’t go to high school. My childhood planted many seeds that make up the core of who I am today — among them, anger and resentment at anyone I perceived to be above me, which was the entire world.
Anger and resentment have always been my greatest sources of motivation and empathy. They motivate me to challenge those in power and they help me empathize with others who are angry and resentful — from young people in the hood to wandering hobos along the highway to Trump supporters. I wouldn’t be where or who I am today were it not for the burning embers of anger deep in my gut.
Growing up, I had to learn how to channel my anger and resentment productively. I chose snark and sarcasm. As David Brooks wrote this morning, describing the sociology of Bourdieu:
People at the top, he observed, tend to adopt a reserved and understated personal style that shows they are far above the “assertive, attention-seeking strategies which expose the pretensions of the young pretenders.” People at the bottom of any field, on the other hand, don’t have a lot of accomplishment to wave about, but they can use snark and sarcasm to demonstrate the superior sensibilities.
I spent about 15 years of my life using snark and sarcasm to demonstrate my superior sensibilities. Of course, it was all a charade. In the absence of actual power or status, snark and sarcasm were all I had at my disposal. Even today I’m frequently perceived as cynical, but it’s just a sprinkle of critical thinking enveloped by the afterglow of years of resentment toward the ruling classes.
With my forties fast approaching, I have very little to be angry about. I’m financially secure — something I never imagined — in a happy marriage, and with loving friends. I know my life would be more enjoyable without the anger and resentment, but they are such a strong part of my identity that I don’t know what to do without them.
After I graduated from high school (just barely), my English teacher came up to me and said, “wow, I didn’t think you were gonna make it.” Others might have been offended, but it made me feel good. It was the closest I’ve heard to recognition that it makes no sense for someone like me with my background to have pulled off graduating from high school, or college, or getting a decent job, or being relatively well-adjusted. Some strange force propelled to work obsessively for something, and I’m not even sure what that something is.
But now, to some degree, I’m the one in charge. Now I’m the privileged one. Now it’s time for me to “adopt a reserved and understated personal style that shows I am far above the assertive, attention-seeking strategies which expose the pretensions of the young pretenders.”
I’d rather not.