Privilege in the context of the American Dream
I had a conversation today while at a Grace Hopper networking event with a New York City Entrepreneur who works in the diversity recruiting space. One of our major topics of discussion was around the concept of privilege and specifically how it affects our role as successful individuals in a highly demanding field like technology.
I grew up in a low-income, public housing complex with not a lot of resources financially or otherwise. I was fortunate enough in my case to be able to work my way up the economic ladder through college and eventually landing my current job. The hidden part of this story, and not one that is immediately visible through a resume or otherwise, is that I had to depend on a lot of opportunities that came my way and mostly by luck.
When I received my acceptance letter from the University of Washington, my father told me that I would have to find a way to pay for my education. He couldn’t afford it raising me and my siblings and I’d have to pay for it in whatever way I could. I applied to over twenty different scholarships that summer without a single one accepting me. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to receive a grant from the university for my education.
The American Dream, the dream of upward mobility through hard work, is more than what meets the surface. In order to be successful in today’s world, there are four components that play a part in this: Effort, Privilege, Opportunities, and Luck.
Hard work will always be rewarded (or so we like to think). Often times when I’m asked by people “What did you do to get where you are?” or “How can I do what you’re doing now?” I usually present them with a few tasks they can do to demonstrate their effort and drive. Lots of discussions I sat in on today at the Grace Hopper Celebration were talking about mentoring and the role that mentors can play in the development of people in their early careers.
Alas, mentors can only stretch themselves so far and often I find myself with more people to help than capacity I can help in. Often my criteria for mentoring people boils down to how much effort are they willing to invest in themselves. If you’re willing to invest in yourself, it is easily recognizable and people will see that. Once you demonstrate to others you’re willing to put in the hours to get a website, project, or app done, they’ll be more excited to help you reach your full potential.
Privilege is a complex terminology. Merriam-Webster defines privilege as “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.” Often we hear the term “privilege” as a term around racial relations (e.g. “white privilege”). The nuanced note here is that privilege is not a one-dimensional spectrum. Privilege comes from various qualities that you have as a person that influence your ability to get something done. That can be something you have or something you are.
For example, men get paid 20% more than women in most occupations, that’s a privilege of being male. A fifteen year old in a top 25% economically will have a greater chance of remaining in that wealth tier than the same child in the bottom 25% has of moving up to the same level.
Privilege is not something that is easily changed, it’s a part and parcel of who you are as a person. You can potentially augment it with things you have, but recognizing that you have a special situation because of your privilege makes your situation uniquely different.
Every person has a different set of doors available for them to pursue. This part of the American Dream is loosely coupled with the aforementioned one “privilege”. Opportunities can be anything from scholarships to mentors in your life to job offers you get. In many cases, opportunities are things that you pursue through effort with the occasional one falling in your lap.
If all the other three elements are in place, it’s in the hands of luck/fortune/God/the universe.
One specific note that I discussed tonight was on how we as folks who “made it” to some degree can help those who are at the lower rungs of their society or career. Out of the four components of the American Dream, what can we, as the “successful” people in the eyes of some our our networks do?
While we can’t help with the elements of a mentee’s privilege and luck, we can help with opportunities and effort. Give your time in spaces that don’t often get to hear from people in your position. Show your work and inspire others to take you or someone similar as a role model for what they want to pursue. Make yourself as present and available to inquisitive minds and struggling groups.
And most of all: listen. Listen to those around you and the stories they have to tell. While offering your help and advice where you can is important, hearing and understanding where they are coming from is equally important as well.