Coming to Yale, then, meant seeing poverty in a new light. It was through the concept of “checking your privilege” that I finally was able to make sense of it. If you’ve been in a WGSS class, in an activist meeting, or on a social justice Tumblr, you may have heard the phrase “Check your privilege.” It means that before participating in a conversation, you have to think about your own experiences and biases and understand that sometimes you aren’t qualified to comment. It’s a near constant process, and even the least advantaged among us have life experiences that mean we enter a conversation in a position of privilege.
The most obvious manifestation of checking one’s privilege is taking a moment to be self-critical and ask whether your positions or ideas come from a place of privilege.
However, I’ve come to understand a second way of checking your privilege, one which has, I think, led to a more productive understanding of how we as Yalies approach poverty and class. This way of checking your privilege relates to how you treat others, and it means cutting others some slack for holding beliefs or making decisions that upset you. There is a certain amount of privilege required to live a “moral” life. For instance, as the child of a feminist single mother, the ideology of feminism comes easily to me. However, that isn’t the case for everyone, and this other means of checking one’s privilege is about recognizing that it might not be quite so easy for people to raised in different circumstances to make the “correct” choice. It means that we have to slow down, make fewer assumptions, make a few more exceptions, and understand that we can’t win all the time. I’ve learned to do less moralizing, and to understand that even viewpoints I disagree with have some sort of internal logic that’s worth grappling with.
Trying to check my privilege as much as possible has taught me that class affects one’s imaginative horizons in ways that are much more complex than whether or not he or she has money. Decisions made at the individual level certainly contribute to social problems, but if you don’t understand those individual decisions, it’s hard to find solutions. For example, I understand that one reason Ivy League students go into consulting has to do with the fact that some people from low-income backgrounds are looking for jobs that will allow them to live comfortably. Yet plenty more were raised comfortably and are concerned about whether or not they’ll be able to do the same for their children, or keep up with their friends who’ll be supported by their parents in their 20s. Acknowledging this fact makes the phenomenon of Ivy League graduates flocking to consulting seem understandable to me, even if I still think it may be morally problematic.
Of course, Yalies’ class angst is not the same magnitude as the real challenges faced by people in poverty. But I think it becomes a lot easier to understand poverty when you realize that the choices faced by people in different circumstances are interrelated even if they differ in direness and frequency. I know it seems like I’m making the unintentionally problematic argument that poor people are “just like us.” I’m not. We just too often think of class privilege as an absence of an identity, while poverty is defining and almost indelible. Class privilege has rules, and understanding those rules helps us figure out when to cut each other some slack.
The best liberal arts educations are supposed to equip you to comprehend complex situations and see life outside of yourself. It’s important to understand that even though Yale doesn’t seem like the real world sometimes, the value systems that both cause and alleviate problems like poverty are alive and well here. Checking your privilege and learning to treat other Yalies with understanding and compassion takes you closer to living those words in life after college, too.