Pack Up Your Privilege

Last week, as I prepared to leave for Munich, everything seemed to be under control: my bags were packed, my flight was confirmed and all I had left to do was wrestle 50 kilos of luggage onto a train bound for JFK.

In fact, things were so under control that an hour before I was to depart, I decided to download a movie for the flight. And that’s when I realized that I had accidentally sent my personal laptop via FedEx to my company’s IT department in New York.

Sunday stroll. #munich #munichgram #germany #travel #travelgram #sunday #city

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It wasn’t actually that hard of a mistake to make. My work and personal computers are identical. Since I only travel with my work laptop, I’m not used to having check which is which. When my employer asked for theirs back, I picked up a MacBook Air – any MacBook Air – dropped it in a box and sent it along without much thought.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I’ve made this mistake before. In the summer of 2015, I accidentally shipped my handbag to South Carolina. Once again, it was a case of mistaken identity. I bought my aunt an identical bag as a gift, mailed it during a string of lunchtime errands and never realized the mistake until it was much, much too late.

Unlike the handbag situation, I probably had enough time to fix the computer problem. But for the first few minutes I seriously considered not even trying. I wanted nothing more than to shut the laptop lid and board a commuter train none the wiser.

“This can wait until next week,” I told myself. “I just can’t handle this right now… I’ll fix it on Monday.”

But I couldn’t let it be. I felt guilty knowingly mailing the wrong laptop to our IT department, a group of people who have been fantastically patient with me as I broke things in exotic places for the past two years. I had to at least try.

Time was of the essence, so I threw on the only pair of shoes I hadn’t yet packed – which happened to be a pair of platform hightops – and took off running down Germantown Avenue. I knew that my mile-long sprint was probably pointless – the box would either be there or it wouldn’t regardless of how fast I moved – but the run felt productive, so I kept going, trotting right up to the service counter and then jogging in place while I waited my turn.

I can’t imagine that many customers make this mistake, but judging from how calmly the sales clerk found my package and handed it over, I knew I wasn’t the first. Problem sorted.

Of course none of this should have happened in the first place. When IT told me that I needed to return my old computer, they asked me to drop it off in person. That wasn’t the most convenient option for me, so I decided to send it instead.

“It would be better if you came in,” the IT guy said.

“I can’t,” I replied. “I won’t be in the city. But I’ll send it.”

“We can’t reimburse you for the FedEx,” he pointed out.

“My manager said she will,” I said.

I’m not sure when exactly I decided that I could dictate my terms in what should be non-negotiable situations, but I did… And now I do it all the time.

I’m told, “Return your laptop,” and I say, “I’ll FedEx it to you.” They say, “You have to pay for that yourself,” and I find someone else willing to foot the bill. When I mess it all up, my first instinct is to push off fixing it until next week… and make it someone else’s problem too.

Highline stroll. #nyc #newyork #city #cityscape #weekend #travel #travelgram #traffic

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I haven’t always been this way. In the beginning of my career, I never would have blown off directions from my employer. I was raised to be grateful for my job and fearful that I might loose it with one wrong move. I asked for nothing, expected nothing and was pleasantly surprised when I got anything at all. I’ve been told that this is what happens when someone grows up “working class” and doesn’t yet understand how things operate in “a meritocracy.”

Eventually, I found my way with the help of well-meaning managers and mentors who offered unsolicited advice about what’s “fair” and “only right.” I let friends and co-workers test the waters by asking for more. I practiced saying “That’s unacceptable,” to cable providers and landlords and health insurance billing departments until I could do it to my boss without feeling like I was going to be tossed out the back door.

I call that confidence building. Everyone should do it – especially those of us who were taught that employer-employee communication is a one-way street.

Acting with confidence is all well and good – until it’s not.

If, for example, you try to convince yourself to let someone else clean up your mistake and foot the bill because you’re too lazy and self-important to do it yourself, then the pendulum may have swung too far. You’ve rounded the corner from self-confident to privileged. And that’s not a street you want to be on either.

Just me & some mountains. #bestnine #happynewyear #2017

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Privilege is never a word I thought I’d use to describe myself. Whenever the topic comes up in conversation today, I all but put up a wall – which is probably for the best since what I usually want to do when someone hurls the accusation is fly across the room and smack them in the face. I might be decked out in designer clothes and about to start a new job in Munich, but I resent anyone who tells me that I got a shortcut. I worked, I earned, I learned the hard way. “You should try it sometime,” is what I often want to say.

But that was before I mailed my computer to New York City and didn’t feel any real concern. The person I was ten years ago never would have shrugged it off and tried to carry on with her day. She would have tore down the street, not because she felt guilty about the mistake, but because she was completely convinced that this moment was the beginning of the end.

A lot of us think of privilege as a product of the past that’s assigned without any real control. But that’s only part of the equation. Privilege can also be accumulated over time. It’s the result of education, and professional grooming, and life experience, all of which changes the way you look at the world and interact with it. Privilege is the freedom to make mistakes without any real fear of consequences. It’s thinking that your time is more valuable that someone else’s and that your needs outweigh theirs. Privilege is an expense account.

I’d like to think that when I resealed that FexEd box, I left a little bit of my privilege in it. God knows I have plenty to spare these days.

4 Comments
  1. Interesting perspective and I’m glad you managed to catch the parcel in time. This is a tricky one. On the one hand, there’s white privilege. You don’t want to feel like the world revolves around you because you’re white and well-educated and well-paid (and by you, I totally mean me). It’s so easy to fall into doing that – for a small example, I’m a busy manager at work and that means I get to jump the queue for IS help. I have to keep reminding myself that other people have more urgent stuff than I do. Just because I have privilege doesn’t give me the right to use it.

    But on the other hand, there’s male privilege. Young women have to learn to stand up for their rights because otherwise men will trample over them. Often nicely and subconsciously, but still.

    It’s a tricky balancing act and I suspect I don’t always get it right. Something I should ponder more often.

    • That’s the thing… there’s all kinds of privilege and, at some point, we’re probably guilty of abusing it. (I didn’t really get into this in the post, but while writing I realised that while I never identified as privileged in America, I most certainly am in the global sense. Being born a white American is like winning both the geographical and genetic lottery.) Anyway, I think it’s normal for a human to act in a way that preserves one’s self-interest, but there also comes a point where you’re just behaving selfishly. To go back to my example, I don’t think that insisting on sending the laptop was totally out of line… but knowingly messing it up without regard for anyone else would have been. To me privilege is when you know you’re doing something wrong and do it anyway because you know nothing’s really going to happen to you personally. I hate being on the receiving end of that and don’t care to spread it.

      In any case, thanks for reading… and pondering with me :)

  2. A very thoughtful post Nova. Thank you for sharing. I’ve never seen anybody able to coherently put the concept of privilege -vs- selfishness into words. One we can earn (and learn to recognize and use), the other we take (or steal). Thanks for what is now going to be a very philosophical discussion among myself and friends.

    • Hi – thanks for reading. I wish you well in your discussion! It’s a touchy subject, for sure – even with our nearest and dearest. I hope no one in your group walks away secretly wanting to smack someone in the face, as I once did :) But I trust your friends might be more level-headed and mature than I.

      All the best for you – xx

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