‘Crazy Rich’ students: Our own unacknowledged privileges

Illustration of person with empty wallet thinking of going abroad
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As a female Asian student, I have always been taught to recognize and fight against my own disadvantages. At school, I have always been educated about the everlasting history of racism and sexism and the suffering of their victims. But while I came to grasp these disadvantages of myself and others, I was rarely asked to reflect upon my own privileges. 

Once, I posted pictures online of myself traveling in multiple countries throughout the summer. One of my Facebook friends — who I don’t know that well — messaged me, saying that he wished he could travel as much as me. Without thinking, I responded: “Just do it! Summer is a great time for traveling!” Then he replied, “Money is always an issue haha.”

It wasn’t until seeing his response that I became conscious and ashamed of my own naiveté and ignorance. I took my family’s financial condition and my parents’ generosity toward me for granted and rarely recognized being given the money to do the things I want to as a privilege of mine. 

But it is. And it is one widely shared by many of my friends and other college students whose families can afford not only education, but also “luxurious” commodities or experiences. At school, we always talk about the privileges of being white, male, heterosexual or having access to higher education, but we rarely talk about economic advantages. Why is that? 

According to American activist Peggy McIntosh, white and male privileges are considered “unearned advantage and conferred dominance.” The financial divide among students is more difficult to categorize, however. Sometimes, parents work hard and save more for their children. Sometimes, the system isn’t fair to different families. Sometimes, one family has one child, while another has five to raise. Sometimes, the parents simply have different attitudes about giving financial support to their children — I have friends from upper-class families that have to work several jobs because their parents aren’t financially supporting them. Or, it can just be more awkward to talk about, especially among friends whose family backgrounds — and thus, experiences and values — diverge. Financial privileges can be anywhere along the spectrum between earned and unearned, depending on specific family experiences and cultural contexts.

Financial privileges can be anywhere along the spectrum between earned and unearned, depending on specific family experiences and cultural contexts.

My family is far from the “crazy rich” Asians depicted in Kevin Kwan’s novel, but my parents do own a small company in China and provide me with full financial support. As an only child who has very generous and liberal parents, I enjoy the privilege of having access to all the money my parents are able to make. As a student, I can choose to dedicate my time to academics without getting a part-time job. During breaks, I am free to travel to almost anywhere I want. 

Most importantly, I am given the choice by my parents to learn and pursue what I love as a career, regardless of practicality. I can stop taking computer science, or CS, classes — simply because I don’t like coding — then write an open letter to all CS students about how “I will fight with sweat and tears for things that I truly enjoy.”  I can choose to cultivate my passion for writing and filmmaking, which are certainly not the most practical things and have fewer job opportunities compared to other fields.

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But not everyone is given these choices. For students who need to pay for their own rent, tuition and living expenses, studying CS might be the most viable and practical solution — if not sometimes the only solution. For students who need to work several part-time jobs while in school, traveling outside of the country during breaks might simply be unrealistic. Well, you get the idea here: Using McIntosh’s phrase, money can bring people an “invisible knapsack” of financial privileges that many of the people enjoying them take for granted. 

If you’re one of the richer students on campus, you may feel uncomfortable right now reading this article. You may want to get rid of this newly attached label of “financially privileged.” But such negative emotions like guilt and defensiveness are only going to make things worse. The problem is, most of us are somehow influenced by the discourses of white or male privileges and tend to perceive the word “privilege” negatively, often with indignance and strong disapproval. 

But we need to expel this generalizing myth of privilege by understanding that having privilege doesn’t mean one is bad or immune to hardships in life. In fact, all of our identities are nuanced and intersectional. All of us are both privileged and unprivileged in different ways relative to different people. Being right-handed is a privilege and so is being healthy. There is no such thing as a “privileged person.” Privilege can only be used relatively regarding a specific trait or phenomenon, and it doesn’t exclude the lack of privileges in other areas. 

We need to not get trapped in rigid definitions of privilege, but rather we need to understand with flexibility that it means having advantages over others in society. It is when some of the privileges are unearned and used systematically to overpower certain groups that privileges become condemnable. Financial privileges are more intricate as both personal and systematic products. Instead of generalizing, we should examine these privileges — including our own — and acknowledge them in context.

So, after the acknowledgement of our own privileges, how do we restructure the discourse around the notion of privileges, and what can we do about them? First, we should initiate meaningful conversations with others about privilege and help them recognize what has been unacknowledged — silence and denial are the most destructive political tools. But most importantly, we need to do so with empathy — an understanding of different individual experiences. During a conversation about privilege, we need to focus on both relative disadvantages and advantages of individuals, instead of generalizing people into a group of “the privileged.” 

During a conversation about privilege, we need to focus on both relative disadvantages and advantages of individuals, instead of generalizing people into a group of “the privileged.” 

For instance, there was a post on the Confessions from UC Berkeley Facebook page complaining that “Asian people at Berkeley always refuse to admit their privilege” and claiming they all should acknowledge that they are “100x more privileged than underrepresented minoritaria.”

This post caused a backlash in the comment section, with some Asian students sharing their own unprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds. This is an example of unhealthy generalization that discounts individual experiences and forces false labels upon other people. Even for Asian students that do have financial privileges, this aggressive and unempathetic post most likely evokes defensiveness rather than acknowledgment.

We should also think about how to actively use our own earned or unearned assets to share power or resources. We have the responsibility to reconstruct the power systems by consciously reflecting, challenging, acting against and working to change systematic privileges. 

I want to invite everyone who reads this article to reflect upon the privileges that you have and the ones that you don’t have. It is an important conversation that should be extended to everyone. What we can and should do with our knowledge about privileges is still an open question, but it’s a question that requires all of us to solve.

Contact Raina Yang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rainayanglw.