Over the summer, I interned at a health care lobby in Washington, D.C. Or at least, that’s what I tell people. In reality, I worked for the government affairs office of my dad’s company. My mom always says that the door of opportunity is open, I just have to walk through it. This was how I continually justified taking this internship at his office – pretending like walking through this particular door is so difficult.
I sometimes take embarrassment in the fact that I interned at my dad’s company because I know I probably took the position from someone who was actually dedicated to the cause with which I was affiliated but of which I knew so little about. Someone who also had the skills and experiences to do this type of work.
During this experience, I began to think, “Do talent, life skills or merit really matter?” If you’re privileged, no. I am constantly trying to grasp the concept of privilege, especially considering how I am in possession of a disproportionate amount when compared to the rest of the world.
At the University of Michigan, the median yearly of income students’ families is $154,000. The median income of the average American is $50,039 I, like so many others, was and continue to be blithely unaware of such disparities. But as I become more and more aware of how little I’ll have to think or do to gain economic success, I want more and more to understand what it means to have to persevere and gain success.
From a racial standpoint, I understood that being white endowed me with an inordinate amount of opportunity that is simply not relegated to people of color. As a cisgender man, I try to be acutely aware of how much easier it is to carry out tasks and daily excursions that most cisgender women find difficult. It could be the incontrovertible fact that I’ll never feel the need to go to the bathroom with friends, or the understanding that my body doesn’t lie on the desk of some old, white legislator. This may be in the form of gutting Planned Parenthood or prohibiting transgender people from using the bathroom that correlates to their gender identity.
When I came to the University, I believed my outsized wit, intellectual capacity and passion for knowledge undoubtedly unlocked the gates of one of the most selective public institutions in America. I didn't consider the fact that I had an ACT tutor my parents dutifully sent checks to once a week, I came from a Caucasian family with an impressive yearly income, was born as a cisgender man and had grown up with the idea that going to college is a given. These are the elemental components of privilege that, as someone who is progressive attending a University with a diverse student body, I have decided to refuse to ignore.
In college, I have met students who come from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds, ones which have not afforded them these conveniences that existing in the upper echelon of American society provides. Yet these students are undoubtedly smarter, more hardworking and passionate about any assortment of causes than I ever considered myself to be.
I can only be presumptuous about students who grew up in different circumstances than me. However, I can work as little as I want at the University and have an infinitesimal impact on this institution. I can accomplish the bare minimum and still come out being able to find work that allows me to continue existing within the stratosphere I currently inhabit.
Meanwhile, those with life skills far exceeding mine will still traverse a landscape of obstacles that are sometimes insurmountable because systems in place oppress many and give power to few. Those who have exhibited passion in facets and means that I can’t even fathom will still be rungs down a ladder that was built only for people with hands and feet like mine. This indicates that social mobility is a myth in the United States. This is a statement that I have become well-versed in yet have only really seen as an abstraction.
Here, at the University of Michigan, we need to have more open discussions about how privilege and oppression influence our lives. Discussing the advantages those get from privilege as an abstraction will only cause more distance between the issues and prevent us from closing such disparate gaps in livelihoods. Because everyone’s skills should be worth the work they put in for them.
Joel Danilewitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.