A new friend of mine seems to have a very different perspective than I do when it comes to money and wealth. As we have gotten to know each other, I've been surprised at the ways this comes to light and how it makes us react differently in situations.
I'll call my friend Bob. Bob and I have very similar jobs and (I assume) incomes. We live in the same neighborhood as well. You would think we would have similar tastes and views. But Bob traveled a very different road than I did to get where we both are now.
Bob grew up in a middle class family in the midwest. His parents were both union workers, and from what he has said they were provided for but there was never much extra to go around. He's worked since he was 13 years old, at least in the summers. He had many negative encounters with the "rich kids" and the "rich schools" which have shaped his perspective. He mentioned one situation where he qualified to play in a golf tournament at a local country club as a kid, but he and his father were turned away when he showed up without a collared shirt on. Other times he witnessed privileged kids head to the woods to smoke pot while he headed to work after school.
He struggled at first in college due to a mediocre public school education, but he out-worked his peers and ended up on the Deans list the last 6 semesters. Later he went on to get a scholarship to a top rate MBA program, though he still took out nearly 6 figures in debt to get that degree. Bob has worked hard all along the way to get everything he has, and he works several hours a day more than I do even though we have similar jobs and responsibilities. I wonder if he'll always feel he has something to prove.
Now Bob lives in Dallas surrounded by - in his view - ridiculously materialistic, entitled, overdressed, evangelical or faux-religious, small minded Southern conservatives who more often than not never had to work that hard and yet expect to be handed everything in life.
Part of his views on the wealthy are, I think, skewed by his overlapping experience with Southern culture. He was exposed to Southerners, wealthy folks, and entitled young MBA students all at once when he moved down here for school, and I pointed out that those three groups are sometimes separate and distinct. It's not just the rich folks down here who dress up for football games and church, are comfortable with what he describes as ongoing segregation, and join sororities and fraternities. Many Southerners are not actually bigots, despite traditions that sometimes exclude women (like the Masters). And as a Private Banker I can assure you that some of the most entitled preppy materialistic people out there actually don't have any wealth at all.
Most of you know my background which, while not overly indulgent, was certainly privileged. My family lived in rural Alabama without cable TV, luxury cars or designer clothes - but my grandparents provided for my private education all the way through college, and I was exposed to foreign travel and the arts as a child. I always knew how to act and was comfortable in the theater, in a country club, just as I was comfortable running around the woods barefoot, hanging out in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Friday nights and eating lunches at the Dairy Queen. In a small town the rich folks and poor folks all talk the same, go the same churches, cheer at the same high school football games. Plus I was "rich" but didn't really know it - my parents were very down to earth and didn't value materialism, as they grew up poor themselves. So I kind of can see "Privilege" from both sides.
Last night Bob and I talked for almost 3 hours about all these issues. I was fascinated, appalled, defensive, and surprised by many of his opinions. He said he "simply doesn't relate" to "those people" - meaning those who wear expensive clothes and grew up with money and go to country clubs and had their educations handed to them. That's fine and understandable except that his tone and emphasis seem to go further - he seems actually bitter and even hateful toward those people, not merely indifferent (at times in conversation - not publicly of course). He seems to take pride in rejecting materialism, in working hours longer than he needs to, in bashing those who simply were born with a bit more than he had.
I challenged him to figure out why he has such an aversion to those with money, things that cost money, and places that require money. He loves golf, for instance, and plays regularly - yet he claims to hate country clubs and everything they represent. He hates those who care about expensive clothes and dress up for innocuous events, though he seems to appreciate my look just fine (not to mention that he regularly looks pretty sharp himself, as I'm sure do most of his MBA buddies and fellow bankers). He resents those who never had to work as hard as he did, but he readily admits that many of his colleagues and classmates who fit that bill are smart and normal and down to earth and deserving.
To sum up the paradox, he seems to truly dislike all the trappings of privilege and those who represent privilege as a group, but he seems to be simultaneously drawn to it and openly respects and pursues individuals who may embody all those same traits. (I mean, he continues to value friendship with me, after all, and I possess pretty much everything he professes to reject!).
Anyway we argued and discussed and pondered and eventually came to the conclusion that one's childhood experiences and a few memorable encounters can really shape strong stereotypes. He wrestles just like I did - and still do - with the fact that where he came from is a very different place, that he has propelled himself into a world of privilege and disposable income and free time to enjoy it all. Perhaps accepting too much of what his parents and childhood friends don't have access to would make him feel like he doesn't value his roots. I certainly relate to that guilt, that occasional feeling that I might be taking it all for granted.
He admits that his aversion to wealth isn't entirely rational, just as I admit that it certainly is appropriate in some ways. I mean there ARE a lot of unbearable entitled yuppies in this town. And wealth - specifically materialism - can change your values if you let it. What's important to both of us is that people can step back and analyze their prejudices and realize that generalizing isn't always advantageous. And as long as we can both do that and keep the dialogue open, I think we'll continue to get along just fine.