“What does it feel like to be mistaken for an upperclass Chilean?” asked my next door neighbor Marcy, over Thanksgiving dinner in Wisconsin.
It was a great question. I knew I had some privileges by being able to pass for an upper class Chilean (until I speak of course, my accent gives me away instantly), but I hadn’t really given it much thought. It made me reflect on my privilege both in Chile and in the US, as well as privilege in general.
I am very lucky. I was born in 1985 in the safety of suburban Milwaukee, WI, USA to two loving, hard working parents with advanced degrees, with grandparents who thought I could do no wrong.
My life would have been very different if I were born into a black family in the throes of slavery in the 1820s American south, or in 1985 into a poor family living in the slums in India, South Africa, Brazil or Chile. I got lucky. I won the sperm lottery. But I didn’t always realize this truth.
When I was a kid, we always learned about the American dream. If you work hard, it said, everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Many people even claim everyone has the same opportunity to succeed. As I got older, it was clear that’s it’s just not the case. And its even worse in many countries outside of the US.
While some societies allow for more social mobility than others, the US much more than Chile for example, there’s no doubt that it is much harder for someone with my exact intelligence, drive, entrepreneurial skills and good looks, but born into poverty, to achieve what I have at age 27. It’s a truth that many of us are not willing to admit.
The first time I truly recognized my privilege was in 2006 when I was 20. I was buying and selling tickets outside of a sporting event. I had 20 tickets left and I knew the market was going to drop. I quickly dumped 15 tickets to another broker for $40 each, or about 25% under current market value. A half hour later, those tickets were worth $10 at best. The buyer was furious. He was going to lose ~$400.
He got in my face and demanded his money back. The tickets were fake, he said. I knew he was full of it and called his bluff. Let’s walk into the arena and see how many are fake, I proposed. I’ll give you double, $80 for each fake one we find! He knew they were real. He grabbed me, reared back as if he were going to punch me in the face, swung, but stopped inches short.
He realized I wasn’t getting scared so he tried to grab into my pocket to get the cash. I wriggled away and ran to the front of the line and told the ticket takers that a guy was trying to rob me. Security took one look at me, then at my premium ticket and let me pass. They took one look at my irate attacker and threw him out.
My attacker was a 6’ tall, lower class, furious black man. I was an upper middle class, clean cut, scared looking twenty year old who probably looked sixteen. If it weren’t for my racial and class privilege, security probably wouldn’t have let me in and I would have gotten beaten up and robbed.
Going back to Marcy’s question, it’s a strange feeling. Chile is one of the most classist countries in the world. It’s one of the things I most dislike about being in Chile. But I clearly benefit from implied upperclass or “cuico privilege” even though I am a foreigner.
For example, last week I had an hour between meetings in a nice part of town. I was looking for a place to sit in the shade and read to kill some time. I saw a small garden with a bench that was clearly part of an apartment complex. I walked across the lawn, plunked myself down onto the bench, took out my kindle and started to read. The concierge quickly came running over to see who trespassing in his garden, but stopped short and starred at me through a big window, clearly trying to decide if he should kick me out or not. I pretended not to notice and kept on reading. He watched me for another 45 seconds, then left without saying a word. There’s no doubt in my mind he would have made me leave instantly if I were lower class. Or a foreigner who looked low class.
It also works the other way. When I take the bus or walk around in the centro, some people look at me strangely, like “what is he doing in here?” I’ve even had a few drunken guys at a bar in the center ask me straight up “what are you doing here” and when I answered in my gringo accented Spanish, they changed their tone completely. To answer Marcy’s question, it’s strange, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
I believe we must recognize privilege, but there is no use feeling guilty over something which we do not have any control. At the same time, we must recognize the innate advantages we have based on being born at our specific time, to our specific family, to our specific race, to our specific class, in our specific country. We must act conscientiously of this privilege. We must remember that someone with our exact characteristics with fewer privileges would likely not have the same success as we do. And if they did, their success would have been much more difficult to achieve.
Try one of my favorite thought experiments. Take a step back. If you were born with your exact same qualities, drive, passion, smarts, good looks, work ethic, morals and ethics, but in the body of someone without the advantages you currently have, would you be as successful as you are today as easily as you did today? For me, the answer is clearly no. What about you?