Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice weekly here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.
I’ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street protests with much interest. (See last week’s Bullish: Occupy Wall Street Will Affect Your Career – How to Succeed Without Being An A**hole)
Who, exactly, are the 1%? Apparently, anyone who makes $350,000 a year, although there’s a pretty huge difference between your average anesthesiologist, who can certainly make that much, and someone who gets a several-million-dollar bonus made up entirely of taxpayers’ bailout money that’s been folded into origami swans by children in a Chinese factory.
It has also kind of occurred to me that maybe complaining about “the 1%” — valid as those concerns might be — makes us look like douchebags to the rest of the world. Because aren’t we … you know … kind of …
Well, actually the U.S. is 4.48% of the world’s population, and as I’m sure we’ve all heard countless times, we’ve got 92% of all the stuff and make 97% of all the garbage and supply 100% of the Real Housewives.
So, I’ve always been interested in the question of what, exactly, to do with privilege. If you’re reading this, you’ve got at least some: living in an industrialized nation and having been taught to read, for one.
Furthermore, if you are white and live in New York, I’m sure you have experienced a store owner suggesting that you jump the line. This has happened to me when I’ve been dressed nicely and when I haven’t. I’m sure about what’s happening. It’s a pattern: it’s usually an Asian store owner, offering to help me in front of the (non-white, non-Asian) person ahead of me. And I say, “I think this lady was here first.” And then someone’s Puerto Rican grandmother picks up her laundry or a rotisserie chicken, and I am sad. And if that’s just what’s obvious to me, then dear god: I’m sure there’s more that I can’t see.
In 2002, I was living in Virginia, my company was failing, and I was being sued by my office landlord. I showed up to landlord-tenant court wearing a suit, and was ushered into the building without being metal-detected, like everyone else, because the cops assumed I was a lawyer.
While waiting for my turn in front of the judge, I was approached by another defendant — a guy who barely spoke English, and who was accompanied by his wife and many children, all in sweatpants. His kid peed on the floor while he plaintively (also thinking I was a lawyer) explained to me his situation: he worked in a fast-food restaurant and had been paying rent on a horrible, mold-infested apartment. When the apartment began to make his pregnant wife sick, he brought in an inspector, who agreed that the apartment was uninhabitable, at which point the man broke his lease and moved someplace else, which is a feat in itself on a fast-food “salary.” Now the landlord was suing him for back rent.
The man hadn’t thought to get any documentation from the mold inspector, so here he was in court with no English skills, no lawyer, no documentation — and a very reasonable case. I told him I wasn’t a lawyer but that he should explain to the judge that he would like to delay the case until he can bring in proof that the apartment had toxic mold. I gave the man a sentence to say and had him memorize it and repeat it back to me twice. Someone came to get him. He went into court and came out literally three minutes later, and was ushered off to the cashier’s office, which is where they try to make you pay damages on the spot.
Later that year, a date I went on with a lawyer ended after I told this story and he laughed. What the fuck is funny about that? (This is why I will never have a rich husband and why, therefore, you have so many Bullish columns about how to make your own damn money.)
I talked in Bullish: How to Use Your Career to Make the World A Better Place about using, and chasing, access to power:
Once upon a time here in the green, liberal-artsy woods, I attended an event about feminist workplaces. There was a bit of a generational disconnect. The panel consisted of Dartmouth grads of a variety of ages; they talked about working in an all-female workplace, forging your way in a male dominated workplace, etc. But it was like they were speaking Klingon; it seemed that most of the attendees wanted to be full-time activists, and had attended in hopes of being assured that they didn’t have to get big, dirty “jobs” after college.
After some talk about how it would feel like a betrayal of women’s causes to leave activism (the kind where you do stuff on a college campus in the middle of the woods) for the working world, I finally just kind of exploded. “You have an Ivy League education and most of you — statistically speaking — have wealthy and powerful dads. Don’t you think you could do more good for more people by, you know, getting a job as an investment banker and giving the money to a battered women’s shelter? And then maybe that job at the shelter that pays $9 an hour could go to … you know … one of the battered women?”
This did not make me popular. So, yes, I am one of those people who thinks that protests are even more effective when you make an attempt to observe some of the cultural norms held by the people you want to convince (so, no djembes, please). I think that, if you have access to power, you should cultivate and use it.
A colleague asked me a question once about what, exactly, he was supposed to do with his trust fund. (Ooh, trust fund! Dirty!) I can’t even reveal his name, because obviously he’s a bad person, right? Because his parents gave him some money?
Of course, for every young college grad struggling to get by on an entry-level job in New York and hating Trust-Fund guy, there’s someone your age delivering takeout on a bicycle who feels exactly the same way about you, because your parents paid for at least some of college, and have your childhood bedroom lovingly preserved in case you should ever need to move back in while plotting your next move.
I did have some answers about the trust fund. Apparently, some of his friends seem to have implied that he should “give it all away.” Which is an option — one that would seem pretty stupid once he or anyone he cared about got cancer. You know that feeling of helplessness you get when an election is going badly or when someone you love is sick and you can’t do much or when something bad is happening halfway around the world? Actually, money is totally awesome for those things. Even people on their deathbeds have money troubles — many are concerned that even their funerals will be a financial burden on their loved ones. Someone I know died recently of a long illness, and her partner expressed on Facebook that someone had sent a gift that had made life so much easier in those last weeks — a giant Freshdirect gift certificate.