You’re a student with no talents — the one that doesn’t know how to sing, or play the piano, or ice-skate. You can’t debate because your arguments don’t come out the way they sound in your head. The only thing about you that sometimes peaks are your grades. You want to be athletic and confident and perfect — like that one kid in every class.
You question your fate, your incompetence. Everyone has the same twenty-four hour day. What are you doing wrong? Why are you a part-time nerd and a full-time failure?
These are answers you’ll get after many years of living a mediocre, second-best, just-one-of-many life. You aren’t a multi-skilled, extra-curricular wizard because your parents did not have the money or awareness to enroll you in singing, dancing, and art classes at three years old. You didn’t do an internship in rural Africa, not because you don’t feel for people suffering, but because your father didn’t have friends in high places to arrange it for you. You love to write stories, but didn’t publish your first short story collection as a child prodigy because your family wasn’t affluent enough to have acquaintances in publishing houses. You probably didn’t have time to hit the gym or swing away on a golf course after finishing your schoolwork, the chores you didn’t have hired house-help for, and the nightly fights between your parents you had to pacify so you could sleep.
You knew you probably wouldn’t be allowed to take up an extra-curricular activity that required too much commitment, because it would jeopardize your grades. All your life your father has come home to ask about your tests, assignments, whether your percentage was the highest in class. This tubular emphasis on academic excellence, explicitly expressed and implicitly mowing down any other interests you might like to indulge, has been the cornerstone of your childhood. When you’re older, you’ll blame your parents. When you’re older still, you will see that that has been their certain formula for success — that they’re insecure and risk-averse because a life of toil is all that has been known to them. They feel they are not trying their best — that they will not get results — if they are not laboring all the time, punishing themselves. You’re hesitant to argue with anyone outside because inside your home any attempt to debate, to challenge this, is aggressively shut down.
You realize, later, that the blame cannot be deflected to your parents or internalized and sulked over. All our systems, everywhere, are rigged to reward and perpetuate privilege. The best colleges will feel the fact that someone’s father or mother having studied there is good enough reason to admit them. Talk of making private education or healthcare affordable and equitable will be met with immediate resistance from the powerful people that own them, knowing, of course, that legislators all around are friends or family. The outrageously rich will marry the outrageously rich. Smashing CEOs of award-winning companies are more often than not people that inherited the resources to invest in building these companies. They’re bold and risk-taking because they have never lacked, or had to strive towards, the secure future you’ve always longingly thought of as Gatsby’s green light across the ocean.
Class privilege is a launching pad — but one that needs to be gift-wrapped with sequined wrapping paper that spells hard work and a big bow that says “I deserve this”. This is not necessarily true, because many other rungs in the ladder to achievement — education, internships, first jobs — are structured to ensure that most competition is already functionally excluded.
The sustainability of this model, of keeping the privileged suspended above everyone else with a vacuum in between, is often a circular mechanism. That vacuum is sometimes perforated — carefully, deliberately — so someone entitled to brilliance by an accident of birth can exhibit their concern for the under-resourced, and go back an even greater hero. Then the vacuum is sealed and the hierarchy is restored. How many times have you seen an award winning documentary about the plight of the poor? An ivy-educated social worker glowing and glitzy in a designer dress with malnourished, sparsely dressed children as props in the background? How often does this end with an appeal for donations, and how often does a media person point out that the money invested in this film could have been channeled directly to the community that needs help? The prerogative of the privileged relies on the vacuum for preservation.
The status quo wants to keep you the people the generous elite will donate to, the proletariat they will provide jobs and salaries to. The status quo does not want to empower you, does not want to make you the people that will compete with the privileged. The status quo guarantees that privilege will translate into success and comfort, even when not misused.
You’re much older, working 10 hours a day, sometimes overtime. You don’t own an enormous house with glass walls and a three acre garden. You don’t vacation four months a year. Your skin is sagging because you don’t have a best friend at Exorbitant Cosmetics to tell you of collagen rollers. Two years ago you had an idea — a tech start-up. But it didn’t work out — where would the money come from? Your life has always been quid-pro-quo; you cannot afford to put life on standby and start a venture that could fail. So you’re here, a little bit of a nobody, paying your taxes, watching talk-shows deal with thousands of times the numbers needed to have sent you to America for college. But you’re not thinking anymore, why am I so talentless? The person with the Bali vacations and the house five times your own — they’re not more talented. They’re more privileged.
(Featured Artwork: Thomas Slater)