Thoughts About Class Privilege (from the McDonald’s Drive Thru)

Puppy preschool class ran late on Tuesday. I was trying to get home in time for the 7:00pm start of the Month six Freedom School call, and I was hungry. Pearl had gone to volunteer at a school event, and Aviva was home.

“Should I just get McDonald’s?” I asked Mani. “Why not?” she answered.

I called V, who picked up after a few rings. “Want McDonald’s?” “Um… sure!”

At the light where Maple Street intersects with Route 9 — a busy four-way intersection — we heard a loud noise. It could’ve been a gun shot or a blown transfomer. The answer came when we looked up and saw that the multiple traffic lights had all gone dark. Suddenly, the importance of paying supreme attention to what all of the other cars were doing became paramount, as it would take a few minutes before the police arrived to direct traffic. We inched our way to a left turn. Were those cars honking at me? I couldn’t tell.

When we drove up to the window at McDonald’s and I started to order, the guy apologized and said there had just been a major power outage. Did we want to wait for five minutes? Mani was hungry, too, ready to get home to make herself dinner, and now I was for sure late for my class. But we were there, so I said yes, I could wait.

I took the time to study the menu board, choosing two Value Meals — a Quarter Pounder with cheese for Aviva and a chicken sandwich with too fancy of a name (was it “Artisan”?) for myself. Both came with medium fries. “What would you like to drink with that?” the disembodied young male-sounding voice asked. “Oh, it comes with a drink?” I asked. Mani looked over at me with affectionate incredulity. How did I not know these things? I ordered one Sprite and one Diet Coke.

Then I did what I thought I should — I pulled up. But it turned out I whipped right past the window where you pay to the one where you get the food.

“Babe!” Mani said. I quickly realized my mistake and looked back over my shoulder to see an arm sticking out from the window behind us, beckoning. I put the car in reverse and backed up slowly. The car behind us had to back up a little, too. I laughed off my embarrassment in a self-deprecating way.

“You should write a book about me,” I joked to Mani. She didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah. I’ll call it ‘Marrying Up’!”

At that point we were both in near hysterics at the absurdity of the whole thing. We’re a team alright.

We really do talk about the possibility of co-writing a book about inter-class marriage; it’s not something there is pre-marital counseling for the way there is, say, for interfaith couples.

It’s something that comes up often, sometimes in hilarity as it did on Tuesday and other times in ways that unsettle our deepest held expectations, assumptions, and ideas about life. The learning curve between us has been steep at times, and the unlearning of certain social “norms,” profound.

Our McDonald’s moment ushered in memories for me that weren’t super fun to have; moments when I unconsciously exercised class privilege to the potential detriment of another human, for example. I told Mani about the time when I was 23 driving cross country, when I asked a vending machine worker for a soda while the machine was open (and thus couldn’t accept any coins). Did I stop to think that this could’ve cost him his job? Did I think I was being charming or cute in the guise of chutzpah?

Chutzpah is one thing. But it’s another altogether to think you are somehow above the rules, that the rules are always pliable, there’s always another way, a workaround, someone you could call, a conversation that could clear things up or open a door.

It’s not pretty to look at the parts of ourselves that exemplify the things we say we’re against — entitlement, white privilege, intellectual snobbery. But to not look at these, to choose to stay cloistered, sheltered, more “successful” in ways society recognizes and values, and what we may have been taught would be “safer,” is inexcusable for anyone who claims to care about justice and humanity.

The playing fields have never, ever been equal. My parents paid for my college tuition. At the age of 21, I had a degree from Barnard and no student loan debt. Mani’s life experiences had led her to a completely different reality. I remember the first time I saw her Facebook profile back around 2009, years before I had any inkling we would come to know each other, much less fall in love. Under education, it said, “Autodidactic School of Hard Knocks.” It stuck with me. Who was this person? I was intrigued.

We find our people. Finding our people across class lines, across race lines, across religions, across the aisle, across the boxes we grew up in, across systems that favor whiteness and wealth and punish poverty, as if poverty isn’t punishing enough — it’s no small miracle. And while the class divides continue to grow with so many people falling into the great chasms of lack and others clinging to bubbles of ease and comfort, class differences have in their way brought me and Mani closer.

Earlier in the week, Pearl brought home a flyer from school announcing free lunches at several apartment complexes around town over the summer. “Can we go?” he asked, his privilege so transparent. I explained to him that no, we would not be going. Why not? Because we have food in the house. We can afford lunch — and breakfast, dinner, snacks, and dessert. We can stand in front of the fridge deciding what to eat rather than wondering whether we’ll eat. I told him that this is for kids and families who don’t necessarily know when their next meal will be, not kids and families who are ordering a new swim shirt from the Land’s End website.

I told him — and continue to talk to my kids often — about these things not to shame him, and not so that he will feel guilty, and especially not so that he will feel sorry for “those people.” God help me if I ever cop an attitude of “those people.” I am desperate for my kids to grow up aware of their privilege in ways I grappled to find the language for until adulthood and continue to try to look at as directly as possible. For them to know that it’s a matter of responsibility, not charity, to care about justice. And to check their privilege as I continue to check my own, when it comes to shopping at Whole Foods but not knowing how to pay for food at the McDonald’s drive-through.

We have a long way to go. And honestly, having a spouse with such a different set of life experiences, while more challenging perhaps in some ways, opens my eyes to some of the blindspots I didn’t even know I had. (I suppose they wouldn’t be blindspots if I did; they would just be choices).

Doing the work to wake up is constant, ongoing, and more critical than ever.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts About Class Privilege (from the McDonald’s Drive Thru)

  1. Angela Meier says:

    Loved this and hope you will write more! It would be so interesting to hear Mani’s perspective — great idea for a book!

    As far as my experience of this with Susan, well, that’s a long and complicated story all on it’s own! She never could quite understand what it was between us that drew us towards each other so relentlessly. During the throes of passion she would often wonder out loud, “What IS this?”. I never questioned the love but always felt her sometimes subtle, sometimes overt judgement. She was east coast Jewish — education and security of home and finances a huge priority. I was midwest born and Arizona raised — eventually a California free spirit who never wanted to buy into the societal definitions of success (not to mention the accident’s effect on what I thought I deserved from life). Where we connected was beyond all of that but it was such a strange experience — what to call it — how to fit together. It was my only experience of unconditional love.

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  2. Dakota Nyght says:

    It would be very interesting to read a book about navigating cross-class relationships!

    In my previous relationship, my partner and I saw eye to eye on most things because we both grew up on the high end of poor (we had privilege even in that). In my current relationship… it’s a vast difference between the privilege my partner had and what I grew up with. It has caused friction in the past and we’re past it, mostly, I think, although there are still times where our points of view differ and it pulls me up short.

    It’s easy for me to assume my view of things is “right” because I’m coming from a slightly less privileged background, but I’ve begun to think that me thinking I’m always right is just as bad as his thoughtless assumptions. It’s an interesting tangle.

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