My mother’s father was a wealthy lawyer in Manhattan, and he lived in a penthouse on the 20th floor of an Upper East Side apartment building.
According to a story I was told several times as a child, it was during a family visit to the Statue of Liberty, in the shadow of our greatest symbol of American opportunity, that my grandfather took his son-in-law, my father, aside, and magnanimously declared that he would not have to worry about affording college for myself or my brother.
Meanwhile, my grandmother, a long-time employee of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a rainmaker in her own right, was not to be outdone by her ex-husband: when I’d completed the college review process and identified Elite Liberal Arts School A as my top choice, my grandmother informed me that she was friends with the oldest living alumnus of that institution, and she would be able to convince him — even though we had never met — to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf.
Would I have gotten into Elite Liberal Arts School A — much less had the confidence to apply — without these two factors working in my favor? A person can drive themselves crazy wondering.
Still, if you’re picturing a frat boy drinking his way through college, pressuring women to have sex and using his family’s charitable giving as a bludgeon to receive better grades, you couldn’t be further from the truth. I didn’t have sex with anyone in college; I could barely bring myself to hold a girl’s hand. And there was drinking and a sense of rather carefree enjoyment, but great anxieties and confusion surged within me throughout much of the experience. I felt disconnected, overwhelmed. I spent the first semester of college drawing Dungeons and Dragons maps in my dorm room while my roommate was out partying with his soccer friends, and I didn’t once try to use some kind of connection or influence to get a better grade; I wouldn’t have even known how.
And then there’s this: for someone who went to an elite liberal arts college, I sure had a difficult time finding a job after graduation.
Whereas many of my classmates spent their college career complaining about “the man” or “the patriarchy” only to pick up some investment banking job or theater gig through their parents’ network after graduation, my parents were totally useless. The trials and disillusionment I experienced during my post-graduation period could fill a separate essay entirely, and maybe one day I will write it. The bottom line is that, although I was raised within spitting distance of Elite White Male Privilege, for various reasons I was unable or unwilling to fit the mold of what we all imagine it looks like.
Eventually, after teaching at a summer camp, traveling across the country, and working in data entry, I badgered my way into an internship in Washington, DC. I was not really qualified for this opportunity, but it was two months after September 11, 2001, and nobody wanted to live in Washington; as I found out later, the people who were more qualified than me for the job had either turned it down or failed to return the calls of the hiring manager.
Having an interesting white-collar job with decent pay at last, after so many disappointments, felt thrilling. And I could do the job well even though my resume wasn’t the greatest fit.
At the time I got the offer, I was waking up every morning in the cold attic of a D.C. row house owned by a family-friend-of-a-friend. Soon I could afford my own apartment and I was looking for a way to keep working past the expiration of my internship.
This is when my Elite White Male Privilege, expressed in its rawest and most essential form — the pedigree of the college — finally came through for me in old-fashioned style.
Keep this in mind for the below explanation: I didn’t take a single public health class at Elite Liberal Arts College A.
Indeed, the only class I took in the sciences was Geology 101, and I had managed to acceptably squeak by with a B-. I majored in English as an undergraduate. My senior thesis was a screenplay.
Nevertheless, I applied for two salaried jobs with the title “Health Analyst” within my company.
In both cases, I made it to the personal interview stage because my potential future supervisors saw on my resume that I had gone to Elite Liberal Arts College A.
In the case of the first position, in the legislative affairs arm of the company where I was interning, one of my interviewers had taken a semester at my alma mater in the 1960s, and it had apparently been among the greatest experiences of his life. I can only guess at what would have happened then, and I do not recall where he had gone for the rest of his college career. Regardless, the echoes of that long-ago experience were evidentially drifting through his mind as he interviewed me and developed, I suppose, a favorable impression.
With the other job, deep in the policy-analysis bowels of the company, my potential future supervisor — a graduate of my alma mater — led me to understand that the work of a public health analyst in his office was not glamorous, but that he would enjoy having a fellow alum working for him. He was a nice guy named Tim, a hippie in a business suit with piercing blue eyes, and from him I learned a secret about the professional work world — that because many employers may want to hire but do not have the time to go through the selection process, it’s sometimes easiest to find the person that you want to hire and then write the job announcement, and post the job, specifically for them.
I still remember how much I laughed when I looked at the job announcement Tim emailed me with a nod and a wink.
Among the suitable degrees for the “Health Analyst” position were listed Public Health, Epidemiology, Health Administration, Environmental & Occupational Health… and at the end, hastily added to the list with an extra space after the serial comma: English.
I was too embarrassed to save the job announcement, but today I wish that I had so that I could frame it — Elite White Male Privilege, Exhibit A.
Perhaps because of this too-obvious case of nepotism, I ended up politely declining Tim’s job and accepted the other job.
Weirdly, the guy in the legislative affairs office who had waxed so poetically about his semester at my alma mater had already retired by the time I showed up. This was a relief, because I was worried that he would have expected me to know some secret elite handshake that I had never been shown or sing the praises of a college that I in fact felt, and to this day still feel, ambivalent about.
Although my life would not have ended had I failed to get accepted at Elite Liberal Arts College A, I would have certainly led a very different life than I do today.
Would it have been better? Probably not.
Indeed, the evidence suggests that my privilege allowed me to achieve a degree of professional and personal success despite my incomplete imprinting with the Elite White Male Privilege template.
This troubles me.
And it probably will for the rest of my life.
If there are still amends to be made, some penance to be paid, I can only hope that one day I will understand what my atonement looks like.