Tales of Privilege

Stepping Stones” by oatsy40 CC-BY 2.0

Much has been said recently about privilege and, specifically, white male privilege. How it feeds into the success of many people, especially those who benefit from institutions that privilege whiteness, maleness, and more specifically, maleness that falls within the strict bounds of gender and sexuality norms. It has been said that it’s impossible to separate the role of privilege from one’s success. That they are tightly coupled, and to suggest that one can have success without acknowledging the role of social privilege is highly disingenuous and tantamount to thievery. In other words, check your privilege. This is an attempt to put my story in this context and to show how conventional wisdom doesn’t always apply to individual stories.

To demonstrate this. I’ll take you, dear reader, through a tumultuous time in my family’s history. Ours is not a story of privilege. This is a story of traditional American values, rags to — if not riches then something better than rags — pluck, and the ever-present story of pulling oneself up by their own proverbial bootstraps. This is the story of how a family made their own success and triumphed, even if only a little, when the odds were against them. This story covers the period from the late 1970’s through the early 1990’s. During that time, we lost everything and then managed to gain it back, and then some. This is all the more impressive when you consider that we never had much to begin with.

My father was a Southern Baptist minister in southwestern Missouri in the early 80’s. He had worked in the ministry in east Texas and northwest Arkansas for nearly 15 years as a music director, youth minister, and associate pastor before finally reaching the position of head pastor in 1980 at a small church in southwestern Missouri. After 4 years there, he succumbed to burnout and depression. He quit, leaving the family in the lurch with no job prospects or income. We lost our home and were forced to move to less accommodating housing in 1984. That winter, we nearly froze while trying to keep our heads above water financially.

During this time, we had to face a difficult proposition: do we take government benefits? Our family prided itself on not taking handouts, and we were determined not to do so in this case, lest we become hypocrites — we had decried the interference of government into the liberty of individuals our entire lives, bemoaning the idea that several people depended on the government for their livelihood, instead of working hard — like we did. Therefore, it would have been against our personal ethics and morality to take handouts, and we were determined that we would not.

As a matter of necessity, we decided to try to monetize something my mother had been doing as a hobby for some time: take her arts and crafts projects and sell them. For the next year, we slowly built out an arts and crafts business as we added, bit by bit, tools of the trade: a band saw, paints, and wood supplies. We started small, literally, making small handicrafts: handheld mirrors, wooden signs, and other small accessories that were considered part of a traditional southern home, all lovingly hand-painted by my mother with traditional folk art designs. That year, my life became intertwined with the family business, traveling with them to craft fairs, working every day after school, and generally doing whatever was needed at the time. I was the younger child, so I did the things that required nimble, small fingers: taking pieces of sandpaper and applying it to pieces of wood, taking off the rough edges.

It was at this time that we decided to move closer to my mother’s family in northeast Arkansas, where we continued to build the business, taking every ounce of profit and investing it into the business, slowly expanding our repertoire to include larger furniture pieces: smaller cabinets, headboards and bed frames, and eventually even larger pieces, such as an armoire. Our travel schedule expanded as well. We stopped doing the local craft fairs and graduated to the larger gift markets across the country: Dallas, Atlanta, Gatlinburg, Orlando, Boston, Chicago, and New York. My teenage memories of summer vacation are filled with long-distance travel to these locations, often driving overnight. I then learned the fine art of standing in a booth for days at a time selling things to people who weren’t necessarily likable.

We managed to create a viable business that sent me and my brother to college and afforded us some of the privileges that we never had before. We built this without ever taking government handouts. It’s a true American story unique to our nation; a real-life example of how to fashion an existence and even some success out of nothing. We didn’t benefit from privilege. In fact, we succeeded in an absence thereof. We managed to succeed where others with privilege failed.

Or so we thought…

It is a testament to human psychology how capable we are of telling ourselves stories that align with our worldview; how we disregard some facts and focus on others. The narrative above was one I wholeheartedly subscribed to for many years. It’s also the version that my family still subscribes to. I’m now going to tell a different version of the story.

My grandfather grew up and lived his entire life in northeast Arkansas. He worked for 30 years for the local milk company, retiring and drawing a pension afterwards. Having come of age in the great depression and then World War II, he knew a good stable existence when he saw it, and he took advantage of the opportunities that arose. Prior to that, our family had been a long succession of homesteaders and farmers with declining returns — each succeeding generation seemed to have a smaller plot of land on which to farm, until my grandfather’s generation, when the plots of land had dried up and their livelihood as farmers was coming to an end. Much has been written about the post-war period and how many modern families came by their wealth during this time. Excepted from this wealth, were many black communities, descended from slaves and sharecroppers. This exclusion disproportionately favored white families, allowing them to build previously unimaginable amounts of wealth as the newly emergent middle class. That black communities were, by law, excluded from this mass generation of wealth is one of the great untold stories of today. It was this building of wealth by white families that served as the basis from which white baby boomers enjoyed discretionary income unrivaled by previous generations.

That was the environment that my father grew up in; the environment that allowed him to enjoy a relatively stable upbringing and, eventually, become the first college graduate in his family. It was not until I was well into adulthood that I learned why the vast majority of towns in Northeast Arkansas were overwhelmingly white — because of vigilante groups, working in tandem with law enforcement, that practiced ethnic cleansing and terrorized black families into staying away. One cannot honestly tell the story of my family’s successes and failures without including the history of black exclusion, because my family benefited directly from that exclusion.

Upon graduating from college, my father spent several years working in the church ministry for Southern Baptist-affiliated churches in Texas, Arkansas and Missouri. While the previous paragraphs laid the foundation, the next bit shows how privilege compounds.

In the early and mid-1970’s, we landed in Northwest Arkansas. Up until then, the region had been a relatively slow-growing, farming-rich area featuring the natural beauty of the Ozarks. Then, things started to grow, wealth built, and empires created. It was the era when Wal-Mart, JB Hunt, and Tyson Foods began to transform the area into an economic juggernaut. Not only were we in Northwest Arkansas, we were in an area — Bentonville, Rogers, and Springdale — that was just starting to sprout millionaires, and we were leaders of a church that drew from that wealth. Being viewed favorably by people with money gives one the sense that you, too, are one of them.

You didn’t have to be a genius to know that WalMart was rapidly expanding. After we moved to Southwestern Missouri in 1980, we met helpful people who told us about how well their Walmart stock portfolio was performing. My father, eager to start earning money of his own and having lived the previous 5 years surrounded by people familiar with Walmart, decided to invest. In 4 short years, a $4 or $5 thousand investment mushroomed into about $20,000. To the 21st century urbanite, that may sound like a paltry sum, but in the 80’s in Southwestern Missouri, it was a nice haul. I hope it is now clear why retiring without a job later on did not land us on the poor farm, despite the fact that our house was foreclosed on.

After building our business for a year, we assessed our situation and decided we needed to expand in order to make enough money. We had a choice — we could pay for the space that we needed, which would involve dipping into our savings and taking the risk that we might lose everything and never recover. Or, we could take advantage of our extended family and work and live in their neighborhood rent-free, or at least at a significantly reduced price. Remember that stuff earlier about exclusionary practices benefiting white-only areas? Here it was coming to our aid again. My maternal grandfather had built up his auto parts business in another exclusively white area or Northeast Arkansas. Because of the post-World War II era gains made by his family in a region that featured ethnic cleansing, our family was able to get a leg up and have a fighting chance.

This is how privilege works. It compounds across generations. The original basis for our privilege was my father’s upbringing and college education, followed by the providential relocation to the right place at the right time in 1970's-era Northwest Arkansas, and then further expanded when we took advantage of family property and past family gains in Northeast Arkansas.

This is no way detracts from our accomplishments, which were formidable. But it does us no good to claim that we had no help or that we were not beneficiaries of white privilege. Yes, we were (and are) exceptional people, and yes, we were able to use what levers of power we had available to our benefit. There is no shame in that, but to be dishonest is to claim that anyone could do it, that no one has to accept welfare or subsidized housing. That if one merely hoists oneself by their own bootstraps, then they might know the liberty of not being dependent on the government. Except this is a bald-faced lie. Before the post-World War II middle class expansion, many people lost everything, despite working hard their entire lives. And when they lost, it was difficult to rise again, because of a lack of social services designed to mitigate poverty combined with the penalties of being poor. Many experts have noted the perversity of the high cost of being poor — higher interest rates, lack of access to credit, and a lack of time and money to invest in education. This lack of a social safety net didn’t make them better people, it made them destitute and desperate, and their families suffered.

I am grateful for being able to grow up in an educated household, where many of my peers did not. We always had books and were always surrounded by educated people, thanks to my father’s vocation. I am grateful for my father’s education, just as i’m grateful for my grandfather’s role in helping us out when we needed it most. But to hide this from view is a disservice to those who continue to work hard, to struggle, and remain under the burden of poverty, without the means to climb out of it. Don’t fall for the trap of telling yourself how great you are, how much better you are than those less educated, losing sight of your foundations of privilege.

When many people bandy the word “privilege” about, there’s a mental image of a WASP-y Brahman, someone who went to private schools, owns a yacht, and summers on Martha’s Vineyard. There’s a much more common aspect of privilege, accessible to a much larger number of people than we might think. It’s this common, everyday privilege that we often miss, because no one likes to think of themselves as being a beneficiary of societal privilege. Get over yourself. You may be a hard-working genius who got ahead, but you didn’t get there alone.