To have and have not

Feel guilty about what you've got -- or envy over what you don't? Selections from this week in's reader community Table Talk, where members weigh in on the ways privilege is relative.

By Salon Staff
Published December 15, 2006 10:59AM (EST)

Families Who Think

Family Lifestyle and Class Choices

Saffa -- 10:05 am Pacific Time -- Dec 12, 2006 -- #1599 of 1673

When I was 17 and getting ready to go to university in Italy, my dad and I went to visit my grandmother in Montreal (we drove from N.Y.) and stopped at a little roadside cafe somewhere for a coffee. We were talking about my university in Rome when our waitress (a girl about my age) approached me and said, "Are you really going to university in Italy?" I told her that I was. She replied that she could not get over how lucky I was and that that would be her dream. I kind of looked at her in a dopy "well, what's the big deal?" kind of way.

Years later my dad and I went to visit family friends who lived in a huge mansion on Lake Geneva. Over dinner, they talked about how they were going to Brussels that weekend to buy another Ferrari.

On the train, I whined and moaned to my dad about how life wasn't fair and that I wanted to go to Brussels to buy Ferraris. (I was a penniless Ph.D. student, hence the train.)

My dad reminded me of the conversation I'd had with the waitress all those years ago and told me that our friends probably had friends with private jets that they were envious of.

"I Have a Situation ... .": The Advice Thread

Vera Charles -- 08:56 am Pacific Time -- Dec 9, 2006 -- #4208 of 4242

I think realizing there is a gap is the first step, you know? My favorite book on this issue is Ruby Payne's "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," in which she emphasizes that individual achievement is the primary white, middle-class goal and relationship building is the primary goal of poor and non-white people (especially within poverty -- in a capitalist society, people tend to drift towards the achievement goal to some extent). The concept of self-interest is defined very differently in different communities, and I think that in the low-income black and Hispanic communities, what's good for you is what makes the people you care about look and feel good. Getting ahead is fraught because a) you might leave others behind and b) then everybody will ask you for money forever, and you'll have to give it to them.

My kids won't learn from someone they don't think loves and understands them, and no amount of "but it's good for you"- or "I know what I'm talking about"-type speak will get you anywhere. I know what YOU're talking about does work. Humor and narrative are really important in relationship-based societies; you have to be able to tell a story, laugh at yourself, eat with people, take an interest in their kids, and let them do those things for you. My students are extremely savvy about well-off white people taking a year or two off from their real career paths to come help them out, and they don't want to be pitied. If you assume that your life is infinitely better than the life of the person you're talking to, that person isn't going to feel very comfortable.

Don't apologize for yourself; everybody has problems. I think that sometimes the charity-minded approach is "I don't have real problems, but they do," and I don't think that's a meaningful distinction. My family of origin started out (before I was born) as lower working class, and I talk to my kids about my dad's strategies for getting out of poverty all the time. I share more of myself with them than I really want to: my mood that day, what occurred to me while I was grading their papers, whether or not I have a tattoo (no), whether or not I really wish I were a writer instead of a teacher, etc., etc. It's an exchange; I care about what you have to say, you care about what I have to say. It's not about fixing people. Some people will decide to do what you think is best for them because they love you. I had this teacher visit my class from Kincaid, the prep school W. went to, the other day, and he went on and on about how engaged my students in 11th grade Brit Lit are, and I was like, "Yeah, they're doing me a favor. Their last batch of papers were awful, and they knew you'd be here. Nobody in that room would humiliate me in front of a visitor by falling asleep or not asking good questions." And he said, "Wow, a lot of my students would have the opposite impulse," and I think that's true.

I happen, personally, to be a really judgmental, impatient, snobby person in a lot of ways, but I love my students as people and I choose to spend most of my time with them (it's a half-boarding school). You've gotta do the Bill Clinton thing and not be self-conscious about really getting close to people and appealing to them on an emotional level, letting them inside your thought process. When they got their (low, because of vocabulary) PSAT scores back, I talked to my kids about the article about underprivileged students in the Times magazine the other week, and we had a really frank talk about how you can fake an upper-middle-class environment for yourself. And I called it that. I talked about my dad reading the New Yorker to feel like a middle-class guy, and they asked me to bring in back issues. I've gotta tell you, when I'm at our school dinners and there are homemade tamales and forty-seven kids running around, I really question the assumption that, in objective terms, I'm better off than they are.

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