A lot of oppression happens because of systems in society that are the core of many social justice issues. People with a lot of privilege like to blame individuals for their failures. Based on their experience, they believe that they worked hard to get what they have and if everyone worked as hard as them they could have the same things. This just isn’t true. Let’s take a look at this theory.
Meet Sam. He comes from an upper-middle class family. His mother has a doctorate and his other mom has a masters degree. He lives in an upper-middle class community that is able to fund school levies each time they are on the ballot.
Meet Paul. He comes from a working class family. Most people in his extended family have graduated from high school. His mother took a couple classes at the local community college, but his dad has no college experience. Paul’s high school struggles to provide text books for all the students and does not have access to sufficient technology.
Sam and Paul are juniors in high school. Sam’s parents know that he should start looking at colleges this year and take him to several different states to visit various colleges. Because he has no one in his family to mentor him through the process, Paul thinks he has another year before he has to start looking at colleges. Sam is involved in several organizations in school and has plenty of time to study each night. Sam and his parents also use their time to search for scholarships. Paul has to help support his family so he goes to work after school each day and gets home around 9pm. By the time he gets home he’s hungry and tired. He eats and then studies until he falls asleep. Paul’s family does not own a computer so even if he knew he should currently be searching for scholarships, he would only have access when he was able to go to the library. He is usually not able to get there because he works or is in school during the hours the library is open.
It’s their senior year. Sam has taken the SAT a couple of times, decided what school he is going to, has already applied to several scholarships, and has his college application ready to submit. Paul sets up an appointment with the school’s guidance counselor who shares time between 2 other schools in the district. By the time Paul meets with her, it’s October. Sam’s application is already in and he’s waiting to hear whether or not he is an early admit. Paul learns that he should currently be applying for schools, but he hasn’t even taken the SAT or gone on any campus tours. After he pays to take the SAT, he and his family aren’t able to afford $4/gallon of gas to travel around the state to look at colleges.
By the end of their senior years, Sam and Paul are both admitted into college. Sam is going to a private school in the neighboring state and has scholarships to pay for a big portion of his education. His parents are able to pay for the rest. Paul is going to a college an hour away from his hometown. He was eligible for a need based grant. He will have to continue to work at least 30 hours a week to pay for his tuition and help support his family at home.
Although Sam and Paul are both going to college, they didn’t have the same experience. Sam had some privileges in his life that made the process easier to navigate. His parents had gone through the process before and were able to guide him. They were able to pay for him to take the SAT until he got a competitive score. They had the resources to take him to serval states to look at many colleges. Paul had to figure out the process on his own. This can be very overwhelming for a 17-year-old boy who doesn’t have anyone to help. He had to pay for the SAT and could only afford to take it once. He nor his parents had the extra funds or a reliable car to travel to campuses.
This won’t be the only differences in their experiences. Sam will never have to worry about not finishing college because he can’t afford to be there. Paul has to find a way to balance 15 credit hours and a 30 hour per week job in order to stay in school. He won’t have time to participate in any student organizations which often lead to better jobs after graduation. People can work hard and achieve great things in life, but not all people have to work equal amounts to achieve equal rewards.
Paul was lucky. His parents were open to the option of college. Many families believe college is unattainable and in the meantime discourage their kids’ dreams. Sometimes it’s much worse. Some families unintentionally teach their children bad habits at early ages (i.e., theft, drugs, alcohol, etc.) and make it virtually impossible for their kids to succeed. Other families are very privileged. They teach their children that through hard work they can accomplish anything. They may or may not have overcome their own challenges, but want their children to be successful. They provide every opportunity for their children to succeed. Even though they teach their children that hard work pays off, their children rarely have to do much work to succeed. But, the children grow up to believe they personally worked hard to become successful. Often they are not able to recognize the opportunities their parents provided to get them where they are.
In each scenario, the kids grow up, have their own kids, and teach their children the same values, habits, beliefs their families taught them. That’s how the cycle works. You’re born into your family. They are the strongest influence in your life. You believe the way your family operates is how life works. You’ve never had a different example. Why would you believe there are other options? And so goes the cycles of privilege and oppression. The cycle never changes until you are able to recognize privilege and oppression in society. Take a look around and decide what you will do with the privilege and oppression you see. What inequities are in your community? What parts of your success or other people’s failures may not be as they seem? What impact will you have in our society that relies on privilege and oppression?