Work Is The Antidote To Privilege

Work Is The Antidote To Privilege

People were having fun on the internet with the hashtag #firstsevenjobs and, predictably, someone came along shouting “privilege” just in time to try to ruin the fun. Slate has a piece this week arguing that the #firstsevenjobs phenomenon is simply a way for middle class people to congratulate themselves for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps while ignoring the enormous privilege that allows them to have those low-paying jobs while in school in the first place.

While there are many problems with the piece (one big one being the assumption that everyone who uses the internet and follows hashtags is necessarily privileged), but the most worrisome one is that the author misses the much more complex way in which our first seven jobs interact with privilege in the first place.

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What Privilege?

Jobs are the antidote to privilege, the way in which we stretch ourselves morally beyond our in-groups and see, touch, and listen to other people as human beings for the first time.My first seven jobs included being a door-to-door canvasser for the Sierra Club, working with AmeriCorps in college, and waitressing in grad school. All fit the mold of “jobs middle class white girls might have” and all would probably be derisively pointed to by the Slate author as further symptoms of my privileged life.

But the story is so much more complicated than that. Working with the Sierra Club at 16 was the first time I ever took a city bus. Two of my co-workers, Carl and Shawn, were inner-city black kids with absolutely no prospects who were charming and funny and kind. They took us to their house on Avenue D in Rochester to show us their pitbull puppies and hosted the end of summer bash in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Rochester.

I was still naïve when I started college and began my work with Americorps, which included scrubbing maggots out of the sink of an infested community center in one of the most impoverished projects in the United States.

We struggled to understand how there was too much lead in the soil for us to build a children’s garden but not for the government to build a playground. We talked with parents who were terrified about their children’s futures and who had no idea how to escape.

As an upper middle class white girl, there’s no way I would have ever run across any of these people in any other context.My eyes were more open when I started waitressing in graduate school. My co-worker Sarah was a single mother who had her daughter at age 15 and whose Puerto Rican boyfriend cleaned out silos as his day job. Neither had high school diplomas. My other co-workers were three Mexican brothers who were in the country illegally. Miguel called me “Maestra” and helped me navigate kitchen politics.

Jorge offensively sexually harassed me at every opportunity. David, the oldest who spoke the least English, was the patient busboy who sent every cent he earned back to his wife and children in Mexico who, Miguel told me, “lived like kings.”

All three of them lived with their wives and children (except patient David’s) in a single two-bedroom house on the outskirts of town. My bosses were a married couple who sold real estate and insurance on the side in order to keep their dream of running a family restaurant in rural Illinois alive.

Authentic Diversity Training

As an upper middle class white girl, there’s no way I would have ever run across any of these people in any other context. But I was given the opportunity, through my #firstsevenjobs, to work next to them for months at a time, talk to them, learn their stories, tell them mine, ask them questions, answer theirs.

Sometimes, our totally foreign upbringings created distance or misunderstandings. But most often, we were cooperating with each other, covering for each other on cigarette breaks, sharing jokes about bosses, and exchanging mundane details about each other’s lives. We were bound together by jobs that were worth doing because they involved honest labor and provided a paycheck, though they were hard and often unpleasant.

Our first seven jobs are much more than symptoms of privilege. Sometimes they are really and truly indicators that someone has, in fact, pulled himself up by his bootstraps by his own sheer force of will. Mike Munger’s #firstsevenjobs were his way to escape from poverty.

But for other people, they are the way in which their moral imaginations grow. They are the way we learn how to communicate with people with totally different values, beliefs, and life experiences. They push us outside of our bubbles and allow us to confront the humanity of other people, all while working side by side with people whose differences would have precluded ever meeting them in the first place.

They are the antidote to privilege, the way in which we stretch ourselves morally beyond our in-groups and see, touch, and listen to other people as human beings for the first time. It’s too bad the Slate author’s first seven jobs didn’t do that for her, which is probably why she misses how rather than being a symptom of privilege, our first seven jobs are often precisely the way in which we begin to understand and confront that privilege.

And society is a much better place because of it.

Lauren K. HallLauren K. Hall

Lauren has is Associate Professor of Political Science at the College of Liberal Arts, Rochester Institute of Technology. She is also a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

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