Struggling with Privilege

The late historian and professor Tony R. Judt once told Historically Speaking that our task “is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly.”

While Tony Judt certainly was not talking about college life, his message seems to extend to us here at Harvard.

Just listen to the newly minted Dean of the College, Rakesh Khurana, speak about the college experience he hopes each student will get at Harvard. You will hear him talk about “transformation,” and his idea of a “transformative” college experience is deeply rooted in embracing discomfort. Real growth, to Dean Khurana, stems from branching out and exploring this sort of uncomfortable new territory.

Discomfort at Harvard comes in many different forms. But the main source of my own has come from class, privilege, and wealth.

It’s no secret that a good chunk of the Harvard population is unusually wealthy. In fact, according to Walter Benn Michaels, author of the polemic “The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality,” roughly 75 percent of Harvard students’ families have incomes over $100,000 per year, while only 20 percent of American families have incomes that high.


But what’s more troubling than these statistics alone is the fact that, once the most wealthy and privileged come to Harvard, they tend to stick together.

Here’s an example: When I first arrived at Harvard, I ran into someone from back home in New York City. She invited me to dinner with “a few other kids from New York.” Hers was an innocent display of kindness, and yet she was precipitating an insidious phenomenon—the rapid formation of the New York City “clique.”

So why do the New York City (and LA, and Greenwich, and so on) “elite” coalesce into these groups? This is where discomfort comes into the picture.

Yes, people do tend to find friends who have similar backgrounds and beliefs. That’s the easy answer. But in my experience, when it comes to the particularly privileged, there’s something more at play.

Unlike our different cultural or religious backgrounds, privilege is not a source of pride or a difference from our classmates that we choose to celebrate. Instead, privilege—and more importantly what privilege says about each of our characters—makes us uncomfortable. Our privilege forces us to question our worthiness and our merit, two of the things most highly valued at an institution like this one.

I find myself asking: If I got here because of the advantages afforded me by my background (a fact that is almost irrefutably true), then what does that say about my worthiness? What about my classmates who have made it here without any of the opportunities that I had? How do I reconcile my own desire to succeed with the guilt that I can’t help but feel about having had a leg up in the first place? What am I, or where would I be, without my privilege?

These questions are tough to ask and even harder to answer. The natural reaction to these questions, questions that inspire self-doubt, is to insulate ourselves from ever having to confront what it is that makes us so uneasy.

It is possible to avoid them altogether: by surrounding ourselves with friends who grew up the same way. We can avoid situations that bring these questions to the surface and then go about our college lives in bubbles of comfort.  

But while avoidance is certainly possible, it’s far from right. If we experience college with social blinders on, we miss out.

In the words of Harvard’s mission statement, “Education at Harvard should liberate students to explore, to create, [and] to challenge.” It’s the last word that matters most. Forcing ourselves to challenge our beliefs, our upbringing, and the way of life that we may have experienced for our first 18 years is undeniably difficult. But it’s also essential to what Harvard seeks to accomplish with each of its students: a broader understanding of the world, and personal growth.

Failure to confront discomfort now leads to an equal inability to confront it later. If our awareness of our classmates of different socioeconomic backgrounds exists purely in the realm of abstraction, then we have failed not only to undergo Khurana’s “transformative” college experience, but we have also failed in making ourselves socially responsible citizens.


Nick F. Barber ’17, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House.