Interrogating Privilege

From Nick McDonell’s new book “Quiet Street: On American Privilege”:

Such skills arose not from any extraordinary talent or discipline but from the enormous resources invested in each child. And though I have here emphasized traditionally highbrow skills, we were groomed to be comfortable at every level of culture, in every room—to appreciate Taylor Swift as well as Tchaikovsky, to make small talk with the custodian as well as the senator. The deeper lessons were confidence, poise in any context, what sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan calls ease. Old-fashioned exclusionary markers could in fact be a liability, in the same way an all-white classroom was. All the world was ours not because of what we excluded or inherited but because of our open-minded good manners and how hard we worked—which, all agreed, was very hard indeed. This superficial meritocracy masked, especially to ourselves, a profound entitlement.

Reading McDonell’s slim memoir brought to mind one of my all-time favorite works of nonfiction, “Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy”, Ben Sonnenberg’s high-culture self-flaying that begins this way: “I was a Collectors’ Child.”

The authors are very different people (as were their parents, consequentially), but they share an interest in examining what privilege has done to them. I grabbed “Lost Property” from the shelf and found a squiggle next to this passage of homecoming.

For once in my life I liked going to 19 Gramercy Park, going there with my wife and baby daughter. My mother and father loved Alice, and I loved showing Alice where I’d grown up and showing off to the servants. One afternoon, watching Susy, on the needle-point rug, in the paneled library, I rememberd how once at a dealer’s, a decripit old collector came, with his young wife and new baby, to inspect a white-figure wine jug of the fourth century B.C. The baby pulled at something, the lekythos nearly fell, and from the way the collector looked, I knew if he had had to choose between the vase and his baby, the baby would be dead. I’m not like that, thank goodness, I thought, watching Susy on the rug, watching my parents watching me, turning my foot from side to side, catching the light on my shoe.

Stephen Schenkenberg @schenkenberg