952: Failed Essay on Privilege

952: Failed Essay on Privilege

952: Failed Essay on Privilege


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

We are in the midst of an attack on perceived advantages. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ended race conscious admissions in higher education. The decision is sure to have a domino effect in our society. The ruling closed one of the proven means to economic and upward mobility for everyone, but especially talented youth of various backgrounds born into low-income households, or like me, raised in working-class communities. 

Instead of increasing opportunities to remedy structural privilege and very real historical inequities, we’ve kicked the social ladder that America promises away from the building along with other affirming legislation and constitutional rights.

I am one of many whose life trajectory and future was dramatically altered by the gains of higher education, degrees that I could not afford. My cherished network of teachers, mentors, and friends helped me unlock “the hidden curriculum” of academic success but more importantly, of life. And yet, ascending the ladder also came with emotional fallout, which I’ve had to face alone. 

I psychologically battled everything from isolation and racist perceptions of filling a diversity quota to constant othering to outright slurs, like the one on a student evaluation I received years ago. Where another person would have been seen as naturally competent, in the eyes of non-black peers, I came across as overconfident. But that’s par for the course.

No one was more critical of himself than me. I was obsessed with proving my worth and presence, which left me physically and mentally exhausted. I hated that I dialed down my talents to fit in. Maybe this is all generational; maybe all has gotten better. I’m in the habit of suppressing these questions.

No matter who you are, success in America carries its own brand of psychological trauma that goes undiagnosed. For many, to advance up the ladder at times engenders feelings of doubt, maybe even self-loathing. Today’s poem captures the constant and draining negotiations and internal dialogue that potentially disrupt hard-earned comforts and a life of ease.

Failed Essay on Privilege
by Elisa Gonzalez

I came from something popularly known as “nothing”
and in the coming I got a lot.

My parents didn’t speak money, didn’t speak college.
Still—I went to Yale.

For a while I tried to condemn.
I wrote, Let me introduce you to evil.

Still, I was a guest there, I made myself at home.

And I know a fine shoe when I see one.
And I know to be sincerely sorry for those people’s problems.

I know to want nothing more 
than it would be so nice to have

and I confess I’ll never hate what I’ve been given
as much as I wish I could.

Still I thought I of all people understood Aristotle: what is and 
     isn’t the good life . . .
because, I wrote, privilege is an aggressive form of amnesia . . .

I left a house with no heat. I left the habit of hunger. I left a room
I shared with seven brothers and sisters I also left.

Even the good is regrettable, or at least sometimes
should be regretted

yet to hate myself is not to absolve her.

I paid so much
for wisdom, and look at all of this, look at all I have—

“Failed Essay on Privilege” from GRAND TOUR: POEMS by Elisa Gonzalez. Copyright © 2023 by Elisa Gonzalez. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.