children of privilege

Written by new CocoaMamas contributor Mikila. Welcome her to CocoaMamas!

I recently read an entry regarding children of privilege.  The writer discussed an issue one of her friends was having with her daughter’s growing attitude toward clothing and items of luxury.  The mother of this entry felt her daughter had an unhealthy reaction to her parent’s ability to buy her things.   I too am concerned about my children but I worry about the opposite effect of mine and my husband’s success.

Both my husband and I grew up in very humble beginnings, and worked extremely hard to have a better life than our mothers.’  I constantly wonder that if I over indulge my children will they become selfish and self-centered individuals, or will they reject their comfortable lives altogether out of guilt like some my college classmates did.

Years ago, there a was a Cosby Show episode where Vanessa (played by actress Tempest Bledsoe) was embarrassed that she was rich, all to be informed by her dad Cliff that she need not worry.  He sternly informed her that she wasn’t rich, but that he and her mother were.  I remember watching that episode and thinking, “Is this a joke, I wish my parents were professionals like Claire and Cliff.”

I grew up in the Hamptons on Long Island, NY and was often embarrassed that my mother was on Section 8, while my friends drove themselves to school (many in BMWs and Land Rovers).  I used to wonder what it would be like to live in house where bills were paid, and I didn’t have to work to make extra money to help my mother buy food. It wasn’t until I went to college that I met people who lived on the other side wishing they were me.  I am sure many of you think this is silly and most wealthy black kids don’t wish they were poor, but I have met many who acted exactly like Vanessa Huxtable for the entire 4 years that I knew them.

When I was in undergrad, I remember a lot of my black classmates trying very hard to act like they were poor kids from the ghetto, when in reality they were the children of wealthy professionals.  They entered school one way and left pretending to be another.  These children of privilege denied their lives in an effort to embrace some fantasy world of black poverty they somehow deified.  As the daughter of a mother who worked 2 sometimes 3 jobs, while trying to get 1 degree I loathed the acts of disgrace my peers displayed for 4 years.  Their parents had studied and worked hard to create this life that they pretended never existed.  I often watched on the sidelines wondering what they saw that was so great.  I wished to be in their shoes, and they were pretending to be in mine.

What is it about pretending we enjoy so much?  Why is it that other ethnic groups strive for success and often “fake it till they make it,” while black children of wealth try to pretend to come from less out of some false guilt that they cannot not save all the black kids from the ghetto.  I’ve spent my whole life creating what I believe is a life of comfort, and now I toil over how to raise well balanced children who contribute to society.  They are not pretending just yet, but in time they will encounter people who will either try to make being poor cool, or make them feel guilty about their parent’s status.  These kids will not even realize they are offending the very people they long to imitate.

Thinking back to my years in undergrad, I realize what may have been missing with some of those kids.  I realize most of them were never exposed to the “poor” children from the projects and felt pretending to be them would connect them to roots they feel were ripped away from them with their parent’s success.  Somehow in an effort to protect them, their parents had completely removed them from a society that lacked money, but many times had wealth of culture.

I now strive to expose my children to many different cultures and ethnic groups, while letting them embrace their Caribbean-American heritage.  I want them to be down to earth individuals who are thankful, yet kind to others no matter where they are from.  I also hope they don’t wish they are someone else, and just try to be the best of themselves that they can be.

Mikila is a 35 year-old mother of 2 beautiful children:  an 8 year old son, and a 4 year old daughter.  She graduated from college in 1998, and will be attending Law School August 2011 to study Child and Education Advocacy. She is very passionate about helping parents of special needs children, as she is learning more about how to help her own daughter navigate this world.  She has a super supportive husband who is a very active participant in their children’s upbringing. Mikila is also a partner in a debt management consulting firm. A born-again Christian, Mikila also enjoys volunteer work, music, and helping her children grow into the people they are destined to become.

4 thoughts on “children of privilege

  1. This was an interesting post; I suspect you’ll get a lot of comments. You sure did pick a provocative topic for your debut! 🙂

    There’s a lot of literature out there about oppositional culture generally, and among subordinated groups in particular. I’ve read scholarship about why several minority groups, including black and latinos, “reject” markers of success (as dictated by their oppressors) in an effort to protest their oppression. The arguments have some validity, although I don’t have detailed analysis of the methodology or conclusions drawn from the research (although I’m sure LaToya will! 🙂 Maybe I’ll chime in again after her response. )

    More anectdotally, I have seen examples of the type of behavior you’re describing, and even seen it in myself. Although I never pretended to be someone I’m not, at times in college I remember feeling more “oppressed” than I really was; I had to remind myself that even as a black female, I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of privilege in my life, and that if I opened my mouth, it should be first to champion the cause of people who had been given less than me). I have a (privileged) relative who got a tattoo on his arm of a deceased family member. When my husband, who actually did grow up in the hood, saw it, he said to me “you know, it’s okay to admit that nothing traumatic has happened to you in your childhood; that’s a blessing. Why does everybody have to act harder than they really are?”

    To the extent that the phenomenon is true–and I’m not sure it’s as widespread as you make it out to be–I think there is something to your suggestion that wealthy black kids are trying to connect to a community that may have lacked economically, but been overflowing with culture. I also think it’s important to raise children who can be comfortable in their suburban surrounding and in poor or working-class neighborhoods; who don’t forget that we’re in this together; and who, most of all, are not ashamed of who they are. You didn’t struggle growing up? Be thankful for that, but don’t forget that other people do. And that you still have something valuable to share with them–and them with you–even if you do sound like a valley girl (drawing, of course, from personal experience, there!).

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  2. I’m not sure that what Mikila is describing is oppositional culture as it is commonly used, where rejection of markers of success lead to poor academic performance. Perhaps that is the case, but I would think that once folks got to college, that is less likely to be true. More likely is the sense that people are gravitating to some sense of what it means to be “authentically” black, which in our generation has strong ties to hip-hop culture, which talks a lot about being down and out, living in the projects, and so forth. Identity is largely performative, and there isn’t a strong narrative about being black and well-off, and so people don’t know how to “do” that. In fact, something like 2/3 of black children are born into poverty. So black people who don’t have that experience really are, while not rare, an exception. And their parents generally are not middle-class by inheritance, so even they cannot always guide their kids in how to navigate this identity.

    I also think that black people who achieve some sort of middle class success do, sometimes unconsciously, reject markers of black poverty or working-class-ness in an effort to separate themselves, to show that they are different from other black people. They have worked hard, and they want to reap all the benefits of their hard work. They want their kids to reject hip-hop culture – which is also largely youth culture – because they are afraid of how white folks will treat their kids. They move away from black neighborhoods, trying to put their kids in “better” schools, but where their kids are socially isolated. The parents don’t realize that kids in “integrated” schools have the most segregated experiences.

    I didn’t grow up in the hood, if that is taken to mean in abject poverty, but I did grow up in a working class black neighborhood, surrounded by black neighbors, most of whom did not have college degrees. Living in a urban city of Philadelphia, I got to see so many ways of being black that I never had an idea that black meant poor. I have always felt secure in my blackness, never felt like I had to prove it. I was raised immersed in blackness.

    There is, I think, I huge value to living in black neighborhoods and having black kids go to schools where there are lots of black kids so they can see multiple ways of being black. I love all the friends I have here in Palo Alto, but I’m trying to get away from this place as fast as I can for the sake of my kids. I want to move to a place where they are surrounded by blackness so they can feel secure in it, never having to question themselves, and never feeling questioned.

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  3. I grew up surrounded by blackness, but I was acutely aware that I was not poor or working class like the kids in elementary school or babysitter’s neighborhood, which still somehow made me feel like I needed to “prove” my blackness. It can be just associally isolating to be the only privileged black kid immersed in poverty, as it is to be the only black kid in a predominantly white classroom – either way, someone is going to say, “you aren’t like the rest.”

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