Allow me to be the trillionth person to agree that the 21-year-old student and paid intern who recently shared a week of her spending choices with Money Diaries comes across as pretty privileged.
It’s not just that her parents pay all her bills; and that she receives still more money from her extended family; or that she lives in the West Village in New York City, an unrealizable dream for many. It’s that she enthuses, without apparent irony, about avocados, tofu, and the “amenities” of her fancy gym. The mishaps in her week included an Italian restaurant taking too long to seat her party, and not getting enough assignments at her paid internship. While nothing she recounted was massively out-of-the-ordinary for a college student, there are, it’s fair to say, one or two college students who have it way worse. Her tone is less greedy (a word that, to me, connotes some ambition) as it is complacent – the sentiments of someone...comfortable being extremely comfortable (#blessed). Which ultimately made for an uncomfortable read.
But the viral response to the story struck me as disproportionate, or at least just misdirected. Yes, the level of “unchecked privilege” was impressive, but no, it wasn’t particularly unusual for a 21-year-old accustomed to spending time with others with similar advantages. Agreed, the expression “hard-earned money,” in the Money Diary header, didn’t apply as well in this case as it does in some other series installments. But it would be a stretch to say the diary entry itself was misleading about the source of this young woman’s funds. (Readers knew her family paid her way because… that was sort of the point. It wasn’t some kind of secret.)
While conversations about class privilege can be productive, this one, conducted mainly via Twitter and the comments section, failed in all the usual ways, focusing on the personal obliviousness of one privileged but not exactly powerful young woman, rather than on the bigger social injustices her story, in a roundabout way, illustrates.
I found myself drawn to the Money Diary — and its response — because I’ve spent a good amount of time researching just that dynamic. In my 2017 book, The Perils of “Privilege”, I wrote about the privilege conversation in feminist spaces online, from personal essays (with their requisite privilege disclaimers) to online spats. (Most memorably: a feminist blogger became that week’s Marie Antoinette for having admitted to eating takeout soba noodles.)
Where this Money Diarist erred wasn’t so much in her candor as her tone. She acknowledged her privilege, all right, down to minutiae of who’s paying for what. (The entry was one great big privilege acknowledgment!) But she didn’t go through the ritual of preemptively deflecting privilege accusations. She didn’t, that is, spell out how aware she is that not everyone has her advantages. Then again, the absence of disclaimers was precisely what made the entry so compelling...and probably so incensing. In everyday life, it’s precisely that obliviousness that makes privilege such a hornet’s nest of reactions.
Even the language of spending is gendered: Women “splurge” when they spend, while men “provide.”
It’s my sense that the people most candid about their privilege – sometimes thoughtfully, other times less so – are young women, who are privileged to varying degrees, but not all that powerful. Even the language of spending is gendered: Women “splurge” when they spend, while men “provide.” From the reaction, it’s clear that too much of the conversation about class privilege winds up focusing on the trappings of wealth and day-to-day consumption habits, often those associated specifically with young women. The purchases that come across as super-privileged aren’t even the unattainable ones, just the ones that seem the most predictably millennial. It’s meaningful, class-wise, that the diarist doesn’t have student loans. Whereas it’s whatever that she spent $6.99 on what sounds like a more than a day’s worth of iced coffee. A lot of the energy spent decrying the easy life and conventional tastes of the Money Diarist could be better spent looking at what her story says about the system itself.
If the aim is to punch up, why not aim higher? A college student and intern is not the pinnacle of society’s power elite. While it’s valuable to see the details of how anyone’s privilege plays out up close, I found myself wishing there were Money Diaries from society’s “most” powerful: wealthy, prestigiously-employed middle-aged men. People whose fates are secure, and who directly influence how the world is run — from politics to publishing. Where are the 50-year-old men sharing — even anonymously — how they’ve paid for their houses and gotten their jobs? (Why didn't the New York Times Real Estate section story about a writer and his Village mansion —a successful writer, yes, but also the son of tremendous wealth — go similarly viral?)
On Twitter, reactions to the diary entry often included a mention of a tweeter’s own scrappiness. Given that the diarist’s own scrappiness seemed nonexistent, the fun of declaring oneself relatively self-made – and the exhilaration of speaking out about unfairnesses we’ve faced that she has not – could be shared by just about all of us. Myself included: Most of the luxuries the diarist lists like they’re nothing – Equinox membership, trips to the Hamptons, Uber – are things that I, even at 34, don’t find relatable. The sentence, “The girl squad gets ready to go out on my friend's boat,” comes from a world I can barely even picture.
I do not come from an especially scrappy background, but I know from personal experience what it’s like to be young in New York, and frustrated by the generally unspoken presence of peers whose parents (or trust funds) paid their way. But where I differed from the diarist at her age wasn’t just in funds or spending habits, but in my attitude – perhaps best described as guilt-ridden self-flagellation – towards the unearned advantages I had. (Specifically, parents who could help me financially while in college, and the knowledge that after graduation, I’d only need to earn enough to support myself.) But ultimately, what did my queasiness accomplish? Did it change the fact that in the U.S., college is massively unaffordable? Or did it just prevent me, personally, from winding up whatever the 2005 equivalent was of getting owned on Twitter? (Yes, the diarist is anonymous, but contrary to much speculation, Refinery29 confirms that this is a real person’s account of her spending. Somewhere out there is a real college student seeing herself declared, to thousands, “the worst person in the world.”)
The impulse, when reading what is, after all, someone else’s personal account, is to retreat into a discussion of the personal, instead of having a head-on discussion of the larger systemic issues. And the conversation about brattiness is ultimately easier (and, frankly, more fun) than one about entrenched inequality. Among the more than 1,000 comments to the piece at Refinery29, a pattern emerges: that the problem isn’t the situation itself, but the diarist’s attitude toward her good fortune: “I don't actually mind people's families helping them out as long as they can afford it, but the diarist seems so blase about her entitlement,” writes one commenter. Another: “I guess I’m baffled and confused as to how OP is taking these opportunities for granted and the privilege she has.”
While that lack of awareness grates, it should be a side note relative to systemic privilege itself. The issue inspiring outrage shouldn’t be that this 21-year-old is on her parents’ health insurance plan, but that the U.S. doesn’t have universal health care. (She – and everyone – should feel entitled to see a doctor!) That she takes over $2,000 a month in rent money from her parents says something about her sense of entitlement (and lack of resourcefulness, perhaps), sure. But mostly, it speaks to the housing situation in places like New York City, where rents are driven up in part by the number of families prepared to subsidize their adult offspring. Yes, as some noted, more affordable apartments do exist, but it says something that a shared one-bedroom plus den would be unaffordable to unsubsidized young adults.
The problem, then, isn’t that the rich are often clueless. It’s a society where it’s taken for granted and glossed over, not just socially but structurally, that everyone has a cushion of financial support, when the reality is that most of us do not. To look at that Money Diary as a story of high-end fitness classes and depilation rituals is to miss the larger phenomenon it illustrates – namely a society where it’s assumed a 21-year-old’s basic life expenses (rent, food, health care, and education) will be met by someone, and those without well-off parents or hedge fund jobs are left behind (or in massive debt).
The intern-student Money Diary that has everyone so riled up could still function as a productive starting point for conversations about class, assuming it inspires better questions than it has thus far. Rather than asking why the diarist isn’t sufficiently aware that not everyone shares her advantages, it would be useful to ask how to move to a society where everyone has, at least, more of them.