Who's Afraid of Privilege?

Like Oedipus with Jocasta, or Donald Trump with the GOP, Harvard students have a complicated relationship with privilege.

We rail against privilege as a heinous byproduct of oppressive social structures, bemoan the social stratification it creates, argue (somewhat paradoxically) for its popularization as a universal right, and try to justify it through wise spending on artisan coffee. And of course, while making these perceptive observations, we’re all standing on—dare we say depending on—the pulpit of privilege that comes with a Harvard education.

Less often acknowledged, though, is the uncomfortable feeling that slides through every student’s gut when someone brings up the p-word. It’s some slimy sludge of resentment, dis-ease, insecurity, and guilt—a potion straight from the steaming cauldron of undergraduate discourse.

This queasiness isn’t about the unequal distribution of wealth, the social power of WASPs and other modern deplorables, or even racism, sexism, cissexism, ableism, or any other “ism” coined thirty seconds ago that will send you running for Urban Dictionary. It’s more to do with Harvard students’ disposition toward our own opportunities. It’s about our attitude toward our aptitude (or lack thereof), as demonstrated by our enrollment in this university.

We don’t want to admit it, but we’re scared of privilege.

There are two main reasons why this is the case. First, college admissions are founded on the myth of meritocracy. We like to believe that we’re the chosen 5.2% because we deserve to be here. Because we outmatched 94.8% of the 34,511 other applicants with our intelligence, leadership, diligence, well-roundedness, and A plus (or A minus) level of hard-earned accomplishment. The thought that all our Harvard-worthy merit boils down to circumstances out of our control—who our parents are, where we live, what color skin we have—throws that sense of worth out the window. If we got in simply because of our “privilege,” we don’t just feel cheated. We feel invalidated.

Second, once we start to question if we really are the reason for our success, we start to feel guilty about the opportunities we have. Why should we have been born in the socioeconomic stratum that gets us through Johnston Gate, and not in some shanty a world away from Massachusetts Avenue? Why should we have fast-tracks to Wall Street, Washington, or Silicon Valley when our peers—no less talented, but simply less fortunate—struggle to make ends meet? If we’re really just thrown into the world, what claim do we have to anything? Geworfenheit wrecks our sense of self-worth. So we cringe, guilt-ridden and insecure, at our poisonous privilege.

This attitude isn’t productive for anyone. No one rejected from Harvard feels consoled by our muddled remorse, and no one accepted to Harvard takes best advantage of her opportunities by second-guessing themselves at every step. But the way out isn’t simply telling ourselves that we’re the only reason we’re here. All of us, even the “self-made” individuals who have overcome the odds with extraordinary drive and resilience, are products of circumstances out of our control—the people we’ve met, the situations we’ve encountered, the talents, personalities, and dispositions we were born into. Instead, the solution is to take a different perspective on privilege.

The Parable of the Talents, one of Jesus’ most famous teachings in the Bible’s New Testament, offers some insight. According to the story, a man leaves for a long journey and entrusts his property to three servants: He gives ten talents—the equivalent of about 20 years of a day laborer’s wages—to the first servant, five talents to the second, and one talent to the third. The first and second servants invest the money to earn back twice what their master gave them; the third buries his talent in the ground for safekeeping. When the owner returns, he rewards the “good and faithful” servants who have made the most of their opportunities, and he punishes the third for his failure to do likewise.

The story offers two key insights into the Harvard student’s privileged quandary. First: instead of feeling inadequate or guilty about not completely earning all that we’ve achieved, we should embrace the idea that fundamentally, we’ve been given all that we have. Who, after all, can genuinely take full credit for their talents?

Second, we should think of privilege not as a one-off leg-up to kickstart a life of luxury, but as an opportunity—and one step further, as a responsibility. Like the servant with ten talents, we should view the incredible opportunities afforded by our education not as something to feel guilty about, but as something to combine with discipline, imagination, and perseverance to give back in proportion with what we’ve been given. And since we didn’t earn any of these privileges by ourselves, don’t we have the duty to use them for something greater than ourselves? Seen in this light, talents and gifts are actually burdens—wonderful, but weighty. Privilege is power, and to borrow from Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

We shouldn’t panic or groan under this burden, but neither should we take our privilege lightly. We should see our vast opportunities as a commission for vast achievement—not strictly for ourselves, but for those around us—to reach beyond the limits we would have faced without those opportunities. Privilege isn’t an invitation, but a responsibility to do so.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House.