An Exploration of Privilege

July 6, 2022 by Kevin Gries

I am driving through the panhandle of Western Oklahoma towards the barren oil fields of West Texas. Fatigued from listening to music and podcasts for the past few hours, I decide to turn off the stereo and let my mind wander.

A few years ago, I invented a road trip game for occasions like this. The rules are basic. All you do is look out the window and observe things. Once you find something that sparks your interest, you try to explain its origins. Some popular subjects for me are public infrastructure, tree species, and settlements. I look across my desolate surroundings and have second thoughts about playing the game. Before giving up, I think: if there is nothing interesting to look at outside, I'm sure I can entertain myself by just thinking about ideas or concepts from the memory bank.

This type of introspection is a little risky by nature for me. There are topics that can send me down negative thought patterns if I'm not careful. For one reason or another, the topic of my own privilege came to my mind. Historically, this has been a prickly subject for me. In my early adulthood, I avoided talking about privilege altogether. I even altered conversations preemptively to steer clear. That became less practical as I left suburbia because it was hard to explain my story without broaching the subject. That's when I learned to use qualifiers. Adding a short caveat like "And I know I've had a privileged upbringing…" before a statement seemed to absolve me of any risks of seeming ignorant. I haven't progressed much beyond that now, but at least I haven't been avoiding the subject like a younger version of myself. So, I give it a go.

I begin by reflecting on my own story. My internal voice instinctively recites, I'm a white, cisgender male raised in an affluent suburb of Chicago… comfortably on top of the privilege totem pole. That's a quip I've used in the past. It works well in moving the conversation along. I linger for a second to wonder, would an Indigenous person approve of my use of the word totem pole? I don't have a clear answer. Maybe I'll start using ‘ladder' instead. That's a safe option…. OK, focus, Kevin. Privilege.

My adult life started with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy. I enjoyed my studies and found that discussing philosophical ideas in young adulthood helped me develop my own identity in an intentional way. After graduating, the grim reality that the job market didn't value philosophers began to sink in. I wasn't too worried. I didn't have any debt from undergrad because my parents sponsored that effort. My family had more than enough money to take care of themselves, so I could just focus on me.

Seeking direction and looking for worldly experiences, I decided to join the Peace Corps. This experience captures nuances of privilege that I struggle to put into words. One word that does emerge is "risk." The decision to spend two years in another country without financial gains was not a big risk for me, but it is for others. It isn't surprising that the majority of the volunteers from my group come from the middle or upper class. The ability to absorb risk enables one to have experiences that benefit their long-term personal and financial well-being. It feels like an investor's take on privilege, but there is a kernel of truth in it for my Peace Corps service.

I begin thinking about my extended family. My uncle is top of mind because he recently coached me through investing strategies. And then there are the medical professionals. My father is a pediatrician. I got free consultations and Dad could call in prescriptions for me. I always felt like I was cheating the system when I showed my ID at Walgreens to pick up my prescription and they noticed that I shared a last name with the prescribing doctor.

I feel the subjects drifting towards things that can be measured and the quantitative side of my brain starts to warm up. As a force of habit, I think, what's the metric? Dollars is always a popular candidate. That feels tenable for investment coaching and medical costs, but what about those risk benefits from the safety net?

With the left brain firmly in command, I move to the next familiar question: What's the baseline? Is there some magic number out there that cleanly classifies someone as privileged or not privileged? Where do I stand? I start to count all the factors and their relative magnitudes — it is quickly getting out of hand. My left brain has switched to high speed, but it struggles to comprehend this type of complexity. How much should I help others because I had an advantage? Well, first I must consider everyone else's privilege and its relation to mine. My brain is on overdrive while grappling with this additional layer. Uh oh! I think I crashed the program. Time to restart.

Feeling tired, I quickly scan for any easy resolutions that can make this whole exploration feel productive. I come up empty. This leaves me with feelings that are difficult to describe. Certainly unresolved. Maybe a tinge of helplessness. A small step on a long road. Instinctively, I ask Google to play Paul Simon's self-titled album. Music fills the car as the oil fields become the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I feel a sense of comfort wash over me almost immediately. It seems I have found a new version of my game, or at least a higher difficulty level.