Privilege means never having to explain why it doesn’t work for Others

One of the most annoying privilege memes I’ve ever dealt with is “Anyone can get rich in this great country; if they don’t, it means they’re just not working hard enough.” I encountered this meme almost daily as a kid growing up in a highly conservative “red state” in the US, but I imagine there are variations of it all over the world. The basic idea: “This society is working out great for me; if it’s not for you, that might mean we need to make changes, and that could mean I would lose something, and I don’t want to, so I’m going to blame you. If this society isn’t working for you, it’s your fault.”

If my needs have been easily met my whole life – not just for food and shelter but for things like dignity and fair chances – I may be less likely to notice that you, in my very same society, are not getting yours met. It never occurs to me that you could be making the same efforts in life but getting a different result, right in my backyard.

I don’t realize how privileged I am.

And my privilege to be in the favored group creates another privilege: my philosophy of life need not account for the lives of Others, i.e., people not in my favored group. What about all the people working 2 jobs – more if they can get them – and never getting ahead? Are they not “anyone” and are they not “working hard enough”?

“Well, they’ve made bad choices,” I say, pictuing unattractive middle aged women and people of color slaving away in restuarants or factories or as maids and janitors. I don’t even think of potentially lethal jobs in coal mines and oil rigs because I don’t see those places. I picture these Others getting themselves criminal records or unexpected baby mouths to feed, because they made bad choices. I don’t think about the time Daddy got my arrest record expunged so I wouldn’t get kicked out of college. I don’t think about how my sister handled her unexpected high school pregnancy so it wouldn’t affect her future. No, the choices made by people Like Me are justified by the end result. The choices made by Others are condemned by the end result.

But they’re frequently the same damn choices.

The fact is, some poor people do make bad choices. But some of the most powerful, rich and successful people in my country have made the very same choices – drug abuse, running over pedestrians while driving drunk, gambling, wasting money like crazy, unplanned pregnancies. If these choices don’t have a consistent result in the life of everyone who makes them, they can’t be the cause of the effect that is poverty.

But I don’t have to consider any of that. I can just dismiss you as argumentative and go watch some mainstream news channel which reaffirms my view that all is right in the world. There is no mainstream channel that reaffirms the viewpoint of Others: and that’s their own damn fault because they haven’t created those channels or proven themselves a valuable consumer group to market to. All is right in my little world.


  1. Purtek says

    I just had a conversation on a livejournal community in which I was trying to make this point, but then my head exploded. The topic was the book/film/media scam “The Secret”, and while the original poster noted that saying “positive thinking will get you better” to a cancer patient is troublesome, practically no one was willing to touch on the layers of offensive in that crap based on a privileged position. Everybody was looking at it from an entirely individualistic viewpoint, and how it applied to their lives in overcoming some adversity. The general take was “it’s okay sometimes, but doesn’t always work”. I was essentially patted on the head and misunderstood for (rather vehemently) arguing that this message is socially irresponsible and all about rich people with power delivering “self-help” crap to the powerless and thereby absolving themselves of responsibility for the systemic problems.

    What’s worse is that this was a community called “christianleft”, and “The Secret”, however much various proponents twist it and the gospels to make it fit, is fundamentally opposed to the basics of Christianity. Damn, I was angry. Well, still am.

    Suggestion: you may want to edit where you list, as one of a number of “bad choices”, “drug addiction”. “Abuse of drugs/alcohol” and recovery options may be a matter of personal choice, but the actual addiction is generally considered a physical condition, not a choice.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Good catch on the “addiciton”. Thanks.

    And thanks for helping me put into words why vapid self-help crap drives me up the wall. I firmly believe in helping myself. I take responsibility for what I do about things that have happened to me through no fault of my own.

    But I’ve seen people take, say, schoolyard bullying and point out how well one or to bullied kids have turned out, and turn that into an excuse to let bullying go unchecked. Um, yeah, some bullied kids rally and do fine in life. Most do not. And under no circumstances should the original bullying be tolerated.

  3. ddennis says

    Well, I stumbled upon this blog looking for something to refute and answer something one of my fellow Black blogreader posted:

    “If white neighboorhoods had the same level of poverty, violence, and dysfunction then it would be all over the news and the government would be doing everything it could to alieviate the problems. But because it’s “just” black folks, they don’t give two sh*ts.”

    BetaCandy, you put forth some powerful points which make me question my OWN thoughts on class, race and poverty. Even as one who MADE his own way out of poverty, I realize I am not excluded from the class exclusions about which you write. Powerful stuff . . .

  4. says

    “If these choices don’t have a consistent result in the life of everyone who makes them, they can’t be the cause of the effect that is poverty.”

    Thank you for one of the greatest quotes ever on poverty and privilege. I hope you’ll keep up the good work here.

  5. says

    Very true and very touching!
    I just would like to add that even when poor people make bad choices we shouldn’t forget that bad choices are likely to be a direct consequence of lack of proper education, sometimes unaffordable for most of them.
    I’ve bookmarked you and will come back for more.

  6. uber says

    What people also don’t realize is that the line between privileged and poor is very thin. It can all change in one day. When you fall off your horse, getting back on isn’t always easy.


  7. Dragyn Gray says

    As well meaning as I’m sure BetaCandy probably is, I have a problem with thinking like this: it takes away poor people’s free agency. It moves the locus of control outside of the individual. If the poor people you write about were to believe this, they would believe that no matter what they do with their lives, they could never emerge from their downtrodden state. Thinking like this is what leads to Learned Helplessness, and giving up, something that poor people can’t afford to do. It is thinking like the above essay, (a common line of thought in our country) that keeps poor people oppressed more than CEOs or corporations or gov’t policies ever could, because once everyone truly believes that someone is eternally stuck in lower status, they start to treat that person like he or she *is* his/her status. Think along the lines of the untouchables in India.

    I’ll be the first to admit it is harder to start with nothing and climb the ladder. But I’ve done it. I am from Kentucky, a state which has been falling into a deeper and deeper depression since the 60s. I was boor into a shack with one room, no electricity, and walls made of tarps. I have severe Detention Deficit Disorder, though my family could never afford to medicate me (nor did I want to be medicated.) But I was eventually able to come to the elite Amherst College, where nearly everyone is obscenely rich (and they annoyingly assume you are too).

    My point is, yes it is harder. Certainly the children of well to do families have a path paved in gold that they can walk to success on. But how can you begrudge their parents of trying to make their children’s life easier? I think that one of the main motivations I hear for people trying to enrich their lives is for their offspring’s sake: poor and rich alike. I know that I hope all of my hard work will pay off when I can afford to educate my children.

    It is more difficult to make money from nothing. But it is not impossible. It certainly isn’t right to disregard the idea of “anyone can get rich in this country” or “anyone can do anything they want in this country with enough hard work.” Thats what motivates people and keeps them from being trodden into the ground.

  8. says

    I’ve been working at a homeless shelter for the past 9 years, and I encounter the whole “they choose to be homeless” bigotry from people all the time, who have very little understanding of the great variety of homeless people, and the many extremely difficult issues they face. The vast majority of the homeless are homeless for only a very short period of time, so they are obviously choosing to NOT be homeless. The rest, who stay homeless for a long time, usually have some pretty severe disabilities and need some assistance to get out of that situation.

    They have no choice about whether to have their disabilities or not, any more than a short person has a choice about being a professional basketball player. Yes, they have choices, just as we all do, but we all have a narrow range of choices at any given time. Just as we have choices in a restaurant, but only within what’s on the menu, so do the poor and homeless have choices, but their range of choices is limited beyond their control.

  9. says

    Yes, great post.

    I’d like to know how some people can say that hard work is the only thing that helps people get ahead. Luck has a lot to do with it.
    And, colour, race and social status. Much as we don’t want to admit that.

    I grew up in a mixed race household in England (middle class and working class! might just as well have been different races, for all the intolerance and bigotry and hatred the one showed the other!) and saw how both sets of people are very, very different.
    “Success” as measured by society today looks pretty bad compared with the love and warmth of my working class family, and the coldness and resentments in my middle class family. I think what we measure success as being, needs revision. Generally, working class people have it in bucketloads, just not financially or apparently “culturally”. To my mind, the middle class families suffer the lack of love.

    Rich people never got rich through loving other people.

    I know that’s a very simple view of it, and only based on my own experience, but my life has taught me that kindness will get you a long way in life. Though not necessarily up the corporate ladder.
    I now live in Seattle, and am in a very good situation both financially and otherwise, and did have to work to get there, but mostly my life was blessed with a lot of love, and that was how I got to where I am today.

    Love is a commodity we overlook too much.

  10. Pete Gaeta says

    “Anyone can get rich in America.” Examples are everywhere – rags to riches stories, people overcoming all odds to make it to the top. Okay, now for the rest of the story…

    Even though anyone can get rich, not EVERYONE can get rich. It takes a few thousand “poor” people doing menial jobs for poverty wages to support each “rich” person. Always been this way, always will be. Even if everyone started making the “right” choices on lifestyle, education, career overnight, we would still have this ratio in our society because of the way it’s structured. We live in a giant pyramid scheme. There’s no way one can achieve even “middle-class” prosperity without a supporting cast to produce, serve, and clean up our consumer smorgasboard.

    Used to be we billed our technological achievements as the force that would save us from lives of drudgery and over-work. The balance of our time would be shifted to higher callings in science, medicine, the arts, raising families, community service, spiritual pursuits.

    Time saving devices now exist that do the work of hundreds, even thousands of people – massive machinery, high-speed transportation, computers…on and on. But what became of all the time we saved? Did you get any? Me neither.

    Until we change our worldview to one that values people over profit and recognizes that economic measurements are but a small part of the story that defines us, we will always have this imbalance and the finger-pointing will continue as to whose fault it is.

  11. says

    I understand poverty to essentially be the condition where your life is outside of your control due to economic conditions…so it’s oxymoronic to say that a person’s choices can lift him out of poverty (though choices can land you in poverty — some more easily than others).

    Along these lines, you may appreciate some of the stuff that Kevin Carson has written about “Fish! Philosophy” and “Who moved my cheese?”–it’s basically a corporate self-help scam to convince workers that their own powerlessness is simply the result of their own attitude (nevermind economic and physical reality!).

  12. says

    To believe that your good fortune (or bad) is ENTIRELY of your own making is simply self agrandizing nonsense in most cases.

    The I got mine. Get yours, jacks, are simply rationalizing why they are selfish pricks.

  13. Jennifer Kesler says

    Excellent points everyone.

    Except Dragyn (and btw, everyone’s comments were caught in spam filters, not just yours, but I do disagree with you.) First, I don’t appreciate your condescending remark that I’m “well-meaning” but… what? Stupid? Of course that’s what you mean.

    You’re just the sort of person I’m talking about. You tell this fairly difficult story that you think is the worst anyone ever lived through, and offer it as proof anyone can thrive. Got news for you; I’ve heard much, much worse stories. You think you overcame the worst odds, but that’s only because you have no idea how bad it can get.

  14. says

    Dragyn Gray wrote: “As well meaning as I’m sure BetaCandy probably is, I have a problem with thinking like this: it takes away poor people’s free agency. It moves the locus of control outside of the individual.”

    And what is this “free agency” you are referring to Dragyn?

    When you lack the means of production to be able to earn a living when no one will give you a chance for a job, you are not a “free agent.” when your ability to survive depends on the policies of a corporation or on someone of higher socio-economic status deciding whether or not to give you a chance, you are NOT a free agent by any definition.

    The only thing poor people are free to do is starve, suffer without heat in the winter, and forego medical care that might otherwise help you become employable by restoring your health. Or at the very least, save you from premature death.

    I speak from experience. Since you are able to attend Amherst, I assume you can read. A small window to that experience is discussed here.

    What “locus of control” does someone who is disabled – and consequently so poor that they are a member of a permanent underclass – what control do they truly have here when no one will give them a chance or treat them in a way that is remotely fair?

    Why don’t you tell all of the desperately poor residents of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn how much “control” they really have when no one gave them chances for jobs simply because they live in a ghetto while the jobs created in that particular urban enterprize zone went overwhelmingly to non-poor job seekers who did not live there.

    As an aside, this pehnomenon of “poverty profiling” in the hiring process is not unique and occurs regularly across the nation.

    Victim-blaming and classism is alive and well. Q.E.D.

  15. Dragyn Gray says

    First things first: Chandira and Pete Gaeta, you might be interested in the GPI as opposed to the GDP. It has its problems, but it does get closer to measuring quality of life vs. pure number of dollars in the economy:

    Betacandy: Misguided, perhaps, but if I thought you were just stupid, I wouldn’t have bothered to comment. Obviously your thinking critically about the way the world is set up.

    I wasn’t claiming I had the saddest sob story in the world. Nor was I claiming that it is just as easy for the poor to succeed. Obviously that can be attributed to racism, classism, and several other sentiments that I don’t deny exist in our country. Of course luck may be an element. Although pure chance is just as likely to favor the poor as the rich when a 50/50 chance is presented, less 50/50 opportunities are presented to the poor, overall, so they are disadvantaged even by that. So yes, it is more difficult, but I wouldn’t call the odds insurmountable.

    And I agree with Jacqueline that disabled people and those who can’t read have it hardest of all. To overcome something like that takes great courage and much hard work, and is probably beyond some individuals. But it is possible (Google search “project read adult literacy”). I admit it is very difficult to achieve full literacy as an adult, it is like learning a new language as an adult. The solution is, of course, to teach literacy as soon as possible, which is my career goal: to open private schools in poor communities that will not turn away students because of a family’s inability to pay. I want to start in the US, but eventually want to branch out to countries that don’t have a public education system.

    And as for the disabled, they may not be able to get the first job they apply for, because they are disabled. Which is a sad state of affairs, but a fact of todays world. But it is possible for them to eventually get a job. I mentor with a mentally retarded adult in my community who has a full time job, on top of getting aid from the gov’t. My neighbor, paralyzed from the waist down, has a job. I’ll give you full paralysis. It would be impossible, applying for jobs as a Quadriplegic.

    So I’m admitting that chance is a factor (though I don’t agree that chance favors the rich except for in the increased number of opportunities rich people have to express that chance), Admitting that family connections are a factor, that who you know through school and what school you went to and what clothes you wear to an interview are all factors in how easy or ridiculously difficult it is for a person to rise in our society. As I did in my first post. But you disagreed, strongly with my first post, so I am left to assume that you believe in a stronger sorting factor, something beyond choice and chance.

    If you really believe lower classes can’t achieve success under their own power, I am left to guess that you must believe in determinism. Determinism is essentially the same, whether it be religious (Hinduism, some Christianity), genetic (Eugenisists), physical (Einsteinian physics), economic (Marxism), or based on a variety of factors (Betacandy?); in that it stems from the belief that everyone is on a set track towards success or failure regardless of their choices. Essentially, there is no free will or free agency. And if this is true, you are entitled to your beliefs, as is everyone. If you believe in economic determinism, the solution would indeed be to give money to the poor, rather than education and opportunities. If you believe in determinism based on a variety of factors, then you would give all three, because the downtrodden would never be able to attain them on their own. In that case, your post and everything you said would be correct.

    I, on the other hand, politely disagree with the idea of determinism. Here is why: for my life, I prefer to assume the philosophy that gives me the most responsibility. Because if I assume responsibility for my life, and I am wrong, no harm has been done because I was predetermined to succeed or fail whether or not I assumed that responsibility. But if I assume determinism for my own life and I turn out wrong, I will have wasted my time waiting for my destiny to arrive, when there is no such thing as destiny. That is why I believe in free agency in my own life. And, because I want to give other people the same respect that I give myself, and to retain philosophical consistency, I assume everyone has free agency. If fully admit I could be wrong, but this path is less disastrous to be wrong about.

  16. Jennifer Kesler says

    Actually, Dragyn, I was thinking of “sabotage”. Whether or not you call that determinism, I don’t know.

    Health problems, class problems, race problems… sure, if you only have one of them, it’s far from insurmountable. Even if you have several of them it CAN be done… but it won’t always. Because someone MUST be on the bottom. Period. There is no alternative in the societal structure we’ve set up.

    Now, abuse is a factor you’re completely leaving out. It doesn’t sound like you had a twisted parent who actively tried to keep you from succeeding. If you had, your story would be different. It doesn’t sound like you had teachers who intentionally gave you lesser grades than you’d earned because they didn’t like your skin color or whatever.

    When the gatekeepers are against you, it doesn’t matter that you’ve got the key. It doesn’t matter that you did all the work to get the key and now you’ve brought it to them. That’s the societal structure we’ve set up.

  17. Jacqueline Homan says

    Dragyn, yes there are a FEW disabled people who eventually manage to get jobs. There are also a few people who went from rags to riches by winning the Powerball jackpot. And this, to be precise, is my whole point: the odds are overwhelmingly against you when you have more than just one thing going against you.

    You mention ONE disabled person whom you know that was lucky to get a job. But there’s something missing from the equation. Did he luck out because of someone he knew, or perhaps because of having a casseworker that actually cared and helped with job placement? Does he live in a middle to upper-middle class neighborhood?
    What you fail to realize is that our social networks (who we know), which are defined by our social class, make a huge difference in getting an opportunity. And money determines social class.

    In the meantime, how are the other disabled jobseekers without any income supposed to live? What about disabled job seekers who are also middle-aged with a significant work history gap AND poor credit ( a result of being poor in the first place), AND who live in inner-city ghettos?

    In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it’s fair to say exactly how the privileged classes expect the “have-nots” to live – able bodied or not.

    While your occasional token disabled person lucks out in landing a job, many other people whether they are able-bodied or not, do not because no one wants to hire them and give them a chance. Especially not in a Serengeti job market where job seekers far outnumber jobs and employers can have their pick – for a song.

  18. William says

    Thank you for this. It’s what I’ve been wanting/trying to convey to so many folks who don’t seem to get why welfare, social security, et. al. exist.

  19. Kailey says


    I just got into a fight with my brother over this very same issue.

    He doesn’t seem to get that hyperbole and ad hominem arguments don’t counter the realities of the daily situations that plague many people in our own communities.

    I hear the same old garbage, from him, from the religious right and from people who just don’t get it.

    I was extremely disheartened until I randomly stumbled on this page. It made my day.

    Thank you for showing me there are people in this world who do get it, and that care enough to fight for it.


  1. […] Privilege means never having to explain why it doesn’t work for Others The fact is, some poor people do make bad choices. But some of the most powerful, rich and successful people in my country have made the very same choices – drug abuse, running over pedestrians while driving drunk, gambling, wasting money like crazy, unplanned pregnancies. If these choices don’t have a consistent result in the life of everyone who makes them, they can’t be the cause of the effect that is poverty. (tags: class privilege society glibertarians) […]

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