I, anna winham, an undergraduate student at Dartmouth and current RG Bay Area intern, recently wrote this piece in The Dartmouth Radical, identifying my struggles to reconcile my politics with my background, my identity with my identity. I worry about how to stay out of “false generosity” territory while still leveraging my class privilege.
My pal Paulo tells me (on the second page of Chapter 1 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed no less!):
“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to ‘soften’ the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity,’ which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.”
I have a confession to make: I’m a rich kid (thus, oppressor?), and I know it’s dreadfully unseemly of me to declare myself so. In fact, this social convention is so clever precisely because it keeps so many of us from that crucial first move of beginning to explore the inequality and oppression in which we are complicit. Double-in-fact, it’s likely that many “rich kids” don’t even know we are rich kids – for reference’s sake, U.S. household income at the 95th percentile is around $148,000.
As Catherine Rampell explores in her New York Times piece “Why So Many Rich People Don’t Feel Very Rich,” income inequality in the upper percentiles of the U.S. actually increases. For example, data from the Paris School of Economics shows that the top 1-.5% average income is around $398,000; the top .5-.01% is around $722,000; the top .1% is around $2,296,000. In Rampell’s words, “when evaluating their own incomes, most families are trying to keep up with the Joneses: they envy the wealthier neighbor whose lifestyle they aim to match. And in dollar terms, the rich are falling far shorter of their respective Joneses than the middle-income and lower-income are. So when the 95th-percentilers think of their incomes in the context of what their richer neighbors are earning, this cohort doesn’t feel very rich. …It is perhaps no wonder, then, that so many people who are statistically rich call themselves ‘upper middle’ or even ‘middle class.’”
WARNING: YOU MIGHT BE A RICH KID TOO. In fact, the composition of the readership at Dartmouth College makes it statistically much more likely that you are than in the general population.
It’s tremendously uncomfortable to admit to myself yet another way in which I have benefitted and continue to benefit from the oppression of other people – in the form of, for example, receiving financial wealth from the company my father works for, investors in which are connected to companies funded by some workers who don’t earn a living wage – while still thinking this oppression is wrong and trying to take action to end it. But my personal discomfort isn’t much on wage or de jure slavery.
It has, however, made me uncomfortable to such an extent that I’ve basically ignored it for several years. This obviously isn’t a very practical solution to wealth disparity – to disregard my current place on the unjust spectrum.
There are plenty of people who have been born into or stumbled into or privileged into or even to some extent earned financial privilege who want social change and acknowledge that the system which produced this wealth is bad. These people, we these people, can ignore the fact that their, our, parents hang out with the CEO of Monsanto or sit on the board of General Electric or make a lot of financial donations (… and often these donations reside in the false generosity category, going to the schools of wealthy children, to museums, or to other institutions that primarily benefit the group of people who hold the resources already). Or we can engage with these facts and leverage our privilege as part of the complex, cross-class, solidaritous process to forge a more just society.
This thought gives me pause, and I wonder what Paulo would think of all this. It strikes me that he’d be on board, but only if this leveraging of privilege remains dialectical, dialogical, reflective, and with rather than for the people. Given his discussion of the absolute necessity of engaging critically with the world as Subjects in order to unveil the structures that we otherwise would not identify so as to arrive at an understanding of ourselves as historical Subjects – Subjects in a world always becoming – who, as such, can influence the future of the objective world with which we exist. It seems that the particular limit-situations of critical thinkers who also have financial wealth present their own set of challenges. The Subjects in these situations have multiple possible routes for action, but disengaging from this privilege surely demonstrates an unwillingness to think critically about the limit-situation.
The fact of the matter is, in order to achieve a more equitable distribution of resources, we can hardly ignore the people who have most of those resources currently. And, if we happen to be some of those people who hold more resources than is just, we cannot ignore the fact that we do so; we must instead engage with our financial and/or class privilege, in the process becoming more truly solidary rather than the dispensers of false ‘generosity.’
I have begun the process of reconciling my identity with my identity, of stopping conveniently ignoring specific parts of where I come from, of paying lip-service to “engaging with privilege” while not actually engaging with my privilege at all. I hope you’ll join me, whatever your particular background. I hope we can help each other learn.