To an extent, Kate Menendez got something right. In her recent article, Menendez bemoans the fact that she did not choose to be wealthy, and she’s correct: You can’t choose your class status. If you could, I would have chosen to be born on a pile of money instead of growing up in a trailer park to a mother who worked in factories and fast food restaurants to put dinner on the table. I used to date a doctor whose parents lived in the Gold Coast, and when I walked into his house for the first time, I felt like Brittany Murphy in Clueless, overwhelmed by the way he grew up. I muttered to myself, “You guys got Coke here?”
Because that’s the thing: People often learn about privilege in seeing what they lack. It’s why the wealthy have a hard time dealing with class issues in the same way that white people notoriously cannot discuss race. They don’t learn, because they don’t have to. I didn’t realize that I was “poor” until I saw my friends’ European vacation photos or sat with them at the restaurants they could charge to their parents’ card, while I ate bread or prayed that someone would pay for me. Today I make more money than my mother does (which I lie to her about) and when I use my debit card at a restaurant, I still feel like an outsider, the friendly dog who thinks he can eat at the dinner table.
I don’t feel guilt, per se, just a reminder that this isn’t the way things always were and grateful that I’m not still eating a can of pinto beans for dinner or having creamed corn for lunch. I know that the breaks a graduate school education has given me — when others from my hometown are struggling to get by on minimum wage, working at Wendy’s and Taco Bell — aren’t shared by all. I’m privileged, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a gift that I hope can be shared with others, and I hope to use my privilege positively — to educate others when I can and, more importantly, listen when I need to. I find myself doing more of the latter. I hope to always be learning — and be checked when I need it.
All of us privileged in some ways and disprivileged in others, and getting closed off and defensive about that system does not do anyone any good. Kate Menendez’s take on her privilege is to shrug off her guilt as “Sorry I’m Not Sorry,” which I’m sure helps her sleep at night but doesn’t do anything to transform her privilege into a force for good. Menendez feels isolated from those around her for her wealth and thinks that her doorman judges her for having J.Crew shipped to her apartment. If I’ve learned anything from being an adult, it’s that most things aren’t about you. Your doorman doesn’t give a shit about what you do — but you should care what you do.
Her self-centered view of the world is one in which the focus is on her online shopping habits, but privilege is a lot more than what you buy. It’s who you are and how you spend your time, rather than simply what you spend. Do you write an article complaining about how others make you feel about your wealth rather than doing something with it? Do you dodge any ownership of your class status by saying “nah-nah-nah boo-boo?” Do you blame other people for making you recognize there’s a problem? If so, your privilege isn’t the problem. You are the problem.
There’s a great line in Mean Girls, when Gretchen Wieners is confessing her sins to the crowd. Just before her trust fall, Gretchen laments, “I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me, but I can’t help it that I’m so popular.” And does the crowd accept her confession and catch her? No, they let her fall on her rich derriere. It’s not Gretchen’s popularity that they loathe. Like a guy with a ten-inch dick, they don’t hate her for what she was born with. It’s how she uses it that matters. When it comes to power and status, you can be Bill Gates or Paris Hilton. What path do you choose?
My feelings about Kate Menendez have nothing to do with our backgrounds. Some of my best friends are rich, and I don’t begrudge them for it. In fact, their parents use that privilege to give back; they’re charity organizers and philanthropists like Mr. Gates, and some of the kindest people I’ve ever known. My friend’s father gave me 200 fucking dollars for graduation — even though we’d never met. He even treated a group of my friends and our families to dinner. During the meal, I sat next to my mother, who cried into her napkin because she’d never been somewhere that nice before; all she could afford to give me was a hug. At the moment, I knew what privilege was: Making sure everyone has a place at the table.
So I don’t hate Kate Menendez because she chose to be rich. I hate her because she chose to be an asshole.