When Financial Privilege is Mistakenly Assumed

At The Rumpus, Narratively deputy editor Lilly Dancyger has an essay I strongly identify with.

In her piece — excerpted from Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, a new anthology edited by Michelle Tea — Dancyger writes about dealing with people’s mistaken assumptions about the economics of her upbringing. A high-school dropout who later worked her way through college and graduate school, Dancyger grew up poor — the daughter of a single mother who was a recovering heroin addict. In New York City media circles, people tend to make comments indicating they assume she comes from financial privilege.

I’ve had similar experiences, growing up adjacent to money while not having much. I was surrounded by cousins and step-family who had much more, giving people around me the impression that I was living a much more comfortable life than I was. I felt I couldn’t speak up about their misconceptions, or the financial and power differentials within my family life. There was never a right moment to say, “No, no — I worked three jobs to put myself through college while she had the benefit of a trust fund.”

Here, Dancyger proudly sets her record straight. After attending a media industry event where people’s comments make her realize she “passes” as privileged, she reflects on her struggle to put herself through school and succeed in publishing.

Now I pass. I’ve made it. So why do I feel so queasy? Why did I have the urge to defend myself at that networking event, to tell the people around me, “I’m not one of you!”

The usual narrative about the scrappy working-class kid who pulls herself up is that she’s supposed to be embarrassed about where she comes from. She’s supposed to work hard to keep up the illusion, to convince her peers that she, too, went to sleepaway summer camps and lived in college dorms. When she passes, she has succeeded.

But I don’t want to blend in. I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never treated waitstaff or security guards or bus drivers like they’re not there, that I relate to them more than I do to most of my peers. I’m proud of the fact that I dropped out of high school, and not just because I still managed to go on to get an Ivy League graduate degree, but because I knew what was best for me at the age of just fourteen, and I had the courage to do it.

I don’t feel ashamed of my history, I feel ashamed of letting it be erased.

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