Mass Murder and White Male Privilege

Today’s column at Role/Reboot responds to one of the many questions being asked in the aftermath of last Friday morning’s deadly shootings in Colorado: Why Are Most Mass Murderers Privileged White Men? Excerpt:

We don’t yet know what drove James Holmes to do the terrible things he did. We only partly understand what drove the likes of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Charles Whitman, and the many other white men who have committed similar massacres. While each killer had a unique pathology that helped drive him to do the unthinkable, the fact that these white male mass murderers felt so confident choosing public spaces to commit their crimes reflects a powerful truth about the culture in which they were raised. Put simply, they did what they did because of an individual sickness—but they did it where they did it in part because of white privilege.

It’s not that white men are more violent. Rates of domestic violence, including homicide, are roughly the same across all ethnic groups. Statistically, murderers are more likely to kill family members and intimate partners than strangers. But while men from all backgrounds kill their spouses, affluent white men are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our most infamous mass murderers. In other words, the less privileged you are, the less likely you are to take your violence outside of your family and your community.

White men from prosperous families grow up with the expectation that our voices will be heard. We expect politicians and professors to listen to us and respond to our concerns. We expect public solutions to our problems. And when we’re hurting, the discrepancy between what we’ve been led to believe is our birthright and what we feel we’re receiving in terms of attention can be bewildering and infuriating. Every killer makes his pain another’s problem. But only those who’ve marinated in privilege can conclude that their private pain is the entire world’s problem with which to deal. This is why, while men of all races and classes murder their intimate partners, it is privileged young white dudes who are by far the likeliest to shoot up schools and movie theaters.

“The Thoughts of Six-Hundred Pounders”: Class, Ambition, and the Privilege to Err

This is an abridged and updated version of a post I wrote in February 2009

Is it irresponsible to tell young people to follow their bliss?

Four weeks into the new semester, my classes are more crowded than ever before, as a changing economy sends more and more people desperate for new skills back to the community colleges for retraining. At the same time, middle-class parents who might once have been able to afford to pay for four years at university for their son or daughter now encourage their kids to spend two years at a far more affordable (if obscenely over-crowded) community college like my own Pasadena City College. And as always happens in an economic downturn, state services are cut at precisely the same moment that demand for those services increases.

In thinking about what we all fear is to be long slow decline in public education — and about the double-dip recession in which we are almost certainly now caught — I think about my role as a gender studies professor and feminist educator. Should how I teach — and what I teach — change, at least in some way, to address the current crisis? I take great pride, and have for years, in the number of my former students who go on to major in Women’s Studies or Gender Studies in part because of what they got out of my classes. I’ve always held that students should major in something they love, rather than something that they think will get them a job. I’ve preached the (at best, optimistic, at worst, criminally misleading) mantra that “If you do what you love, the money will follow.” That was always a questionable proposition, particularly for those students who don’t have access to the kinds of networks which traditionally provide the social and financial capital with which to turn dreams into a sustainable living. Is it even more of a questionable proposition now, as we face what could be a prolonged recession with potentially massive unemployment?

Pursuing Gender Studies as a major is obviously no guarantor of financial security. But neither is a degree in finance; look at the massive layoffs in the banking industry. A career in construction is no more promising, nor a career in real estate. (If I had a dollar for every student I knew who was working on a real estate license during the peak of the housing boom between 2004-06, I’d be able to take an entire class to lunch.) When I was an undergraduate, with the Cold War still the defining global dynamic and with Reagan in office, many people I knew at Cal were studying aerospace engineering. They figured on a never-ending buildup of arms and materiel to confront the Soviet Union; the “smart money” said a career preparing for the defense industry was a sure thing. The Berlin Wall came down five months after I graduated college, and for the next dozen years, aerospace jobs were shed like dog hair. The point is an obvious one: for a student in her late teens, looking ahead to four or five decades in the work force, there is no major at college that will guarantee a steady and reliable income. In times of great instability, a major in something “impractical” like history or women’s studies makes no less sense than anything else. It is not, I insist, irresponsible to point so many undergraduates towards academic gender work.

But I worry that my own privilege may lead me to give poor advice. Continue reading

Our Kind of People

The Good Men Project reprints a slightly altered version of an old post of mine today: Our Kind of People, Class, and Pride.

I wonder, reading it again, if I haven’t fallen into classic trap of the privileged white person: getting absolution from a poorer, browner person. Is “Oscar” (the story is real, name changed) my “magic Mexican”? (See the concept in film of the “magic Negro”, the wise black character who inspires transformative change in the white person, who is the real hero of the story. See “The Help”, “Green Mile”, and a hundred other films.)

I hadn’t thought about that before. Wondering now.

Love, like water, should flow downhill

Yesterday’s post about Guess How Much I Love You prompted a phone call to my mother. After all, I had just written that if I were forced to choose between saving her or my daughter from a burning building, I wouldn’t choose the woman who gave birth to me. I brought it up with mama, and she had the expected reaction: “Of course. Love flows downhill.” (Meaning that we love those whom we raise more than we love those who brought us into the world.) Or rather, and here’s where it gets tricky, we should love our children more than we love our parents.

In the human past where children died so frequently that the average parent buried at least two or three of their kids, the kind of love we feel for Heloise would be, perhaps, unthinkable. (This is one of the classic debates in medieval and early modern history, and it tends to get folks riled up: did our ancestors love their children as we love ours, given the high infant mortality? Did they steel themselves against heartbreak by “holding something back”? Scholars of family and childhood can’t agree.) In a world without pensions of one sort or another, the need of the parent for the child increases exponentially.

In my family, the great horror of the aging is becoming a “burden to the children.” It’s an idea loaded with both class privilege and assumptions about what a family ought to be. Comfortable retirement communities with various stages of care or a team of home nurses are out of financial reach for many. And of course, many families believe that changing grandma’s diapers, while perhaps burdensome, is part of the natural reciprocity of life. “As she once did for you, you now do for her” and so forth. That’s not our familial ideal; the thought of someday needing Heloise to care for me fills me with horror. When it comes my time, and if my mortal coil shuffles off slowly and painfully, I’d infinitely rather the care I receive be given by kind strangers than by my own flesh and blood. I’d want Heloise to visit my bedside, but I’d want to shield her to the last from the decay of my body.

Her vulnerability was my responsibility; mine will not be hers. That’s loaded with class privilege, sure, but also with what I know is a very particular (and relatively new) view of what family is. I would lay down my life for my daughter, but would be horrified if she felt compelled to do the same.

Water, love, and duty should all flow downhill. That may not be a universal sentiment, but it is as deep a truth as I know.

For every slacker, a perfectionist: some thoughts on class, sex, and the community college

One of the things about teaching full-time at an urban community college is that I have a front-row seat for social, economic, and cultural change. And when it comes to issues of race, class, and gender, the transformations I’ve seen in the last two years have been profound.

California, like so many other states, has been hard-hit by the recession. We’re on our third straight year of draconian cutbacks to higher education, with no end in sight. Fees are rising, class sections are being cut, hiring is frozen. And this has changed the student population, at least in my classes.

My students are whiter and more middle-class than they’ve been in over a decade. From the mid-90s until the mid-00’s, Pasadena City College grew progressively “less white”, with European-American students falling from perhaps 30% of the student body when I began teaching to about 15% by 2005. (And at PCC, we count immigrants from the former Soviet Union and from much of the Middle East as “white”, including students of Arabic and Armenian descent.) But with the coming of the economic downturn, the white middle-class kids are returning in droves.

Students who once would have skipped the community college and headed straight to state universities are coming here first, both because of cost considerations and because spaces have been drastically reduced at California’s public four-year institutions. In our community college district, we have more than a dozen high schools that serve as our feeders. But traditionally, we’ve drawn relatively small numbers of kids from the “affluent” schools (like La Canada and San Marino High Schools). I note — and this is all anecdata — that within the past two years, the number of students coming from those more prosperous communities has climbed.

What this means, of course, is that I have more students than ever in my classes who are “college-ready.” The percentage of my students whose writing and reasoning skills need remedial attention is lower. But the danger is that at a place like PCC, the students from more privileged backgrounds raise the competition level — and make it easier for those who lack basic skills to fall through the cracks. When the average goes up (and in most of my classes over the past two years, the “average” scores on exams have indeed risen), competition grows fiercer. And in an era of declining resources (we’ve had major cutbacks to our tutoring and counseling services), that means it’s harder than ever for the college to function as a ladder into the middle class.

There’s something interesting happening as well around gender. I’m getting more men in my classes again. In my nearly twenty years here, women have averaged around 55% of overall enrollment, though that number is skewed by the high number of men in vocational education classes. In the humanities and social sciences, the percentage of women has hovered around 65% of all students until recently. But we’re seeing more men coming in, no doubt due to the terrible job climate.

But here’s where the sex differences remain stark. It’s axiomatic that the poor economy has ratcheted up anxiety for everyone. But from listening to students in my gender studies classes, that anxiety manifests quite differently for men and women. While both men and women are more likely to live with their parents for longer periods than before, my female students are much more likely to carry full academic loads. While I have roughly equal numbers of men and women in all my classes save for women’s studies, those who are taking more than the standard 15 unit semester load are overwhelmingly female. My female students are also more likely to be working multiple part-time jobs. Continue reading

Clothing, class, and the community college

From July 2006.

This post about the “tell your boyfriend I said thanks” t-shirt briefly diverted onto a subject of dress and class.  I wrote:

To generalize enormously, the less privileged the background, the more intense the sense of competition among young women.  Far too many young ones grow up with a sense that their sexual desirability is a more marketable commodity than their intellectual accomplishments; this is all the more likely to be true in families where there isn’t a history of women going to college.  (If you don’t believe me, visit any American community college on a hot day — and then visit an elite university in the same weather.  You’ll see more mini-skirts and heels in five minutes at Pasadena City College than you will in five hours at Berkeley or Stanford.  That’s anecdotal, sure, but don’t take my word for it — try it yourself.)  The bottom line: class and sexual competitiveness among women are, to say the least, not unrelated!

Glendenb’s comment was so good I wanted to repost part of it:

I think the difference was between people who saw education as a right and those who saw it a privilege. Among the students at the cc, they dressed in their best (which for some was heels and mini skirt) to show that they deserved the privilege but also to combat a social dis-ease; they were aware that they were moving across a social dividing line and were attempting to prove they belonged. Students who were first in their family to attend college were straddling a social dividing line – breaking from a set of values that weren’t comfortable with the extreme casualness around sexuality, but not yet fully embracing a set of values in which sexuality was (far too often) separated from emotion.

Students at my undergraduate college perceived education as their right – the hedonism, brazen sexuality, deliberate crossing of behavioral barriers that were not crossed in their upper-middle class families were seen as part and parcel of the college experience – the icing on the cake. They didn’t have to prove they belonged at college to anyone, least of all themselves. At the community college, many students were trying to prove to themselves that they deserved to be there. What to my eye was sexualized behavior, was really a more carefully studied mimicking of what was perceived as appropriate collegiate behavior. Clothing choices were made that would help students feel brash, or strong, or confident in ways that students from the upper middle class didn’t feel they needed.

The bold emphasis is mine.  To use the Anglicism to which my passport entitles me, that’s "spot on".

I note this phenomenon is not merely confined to women.  Many first-generation male students, particularly but not exclusively East Asian (PCC is over 33% Asian), are ostentatiously fond of labels, particularly those that they associate with the "establishment."  Every year, even on hot summer days, my classes will be filled with remarkably neat young men in pressed khakis wearing Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, A&F, or even — oh, flashbacks to ’80s preppydom! — Brooks Brothers polo shirts.  The labels are always conspicuous.  Reading Glendenb’s comments, it occurs to me that these young upwardly mobile fellows are indeed mimicking what they imagine to be the appropriate attire of the privileged.  (Only later will some of them transfer to Cal, Stanford, and Georgetown and discover that the real privileged tend to be far more unkempt.) 

The names of many young men — particularly young Chinese from Hong Kong — are often rather touchingly quaint.  This summer, I have — these are first names, mind you — a "Fitzgerald"; a "Woodrow"; three "Benedicts" (my middle name); two "Henrys"; one "Maxwell"; and, my favorite, one "Colfax."   It sounds like a parody of the membership roster of my grandfather’s fraternity, circa 1926!  And at the risk of sounding horribly classist, it strikes me as a rather naive attempt to deliberately appropriate WASP cache.   Imagine all of these parents, newly immigrated, working long hours to clothe young "Winston Wilberforce Chan" in what television has led them to believe is the outfit of success: polo shirts and chinos with shiny penny loafers.   From the perspective of someone who grew up in WASP country-club culture, this sincere attempt at imitation strikes me as, at the least, oddly misplaced!

But as Glendenb points out, those of us who have "made it" and have an easy sense of entitlement ought not to be too quick to judge those who are eager to ascend the social ladder our ancestors climbed for us.  This morning, I’m wearing a pair of slightly distressed women’s jeans and one very bright multi-colored paisley cowboy shirt.  I’ve got a Paul Frank watch on (with Julius the Monkey in Mariachi garb.)  The affect is no doubt garish, and probably — outside of major urban centers — decidedly effeminate.  But I’ve got tenure, and I’ve got the security to know that my authority in no way hinges on whatever get-up I get myself in to.  I can afford to dress for comfort and to honor my own admittedly odd fashion sense.  Even when I was younger, as an undergrad or a grad student, I slouched around Berkeley and Westwood in old concert t-shirts and ripped 501s.    Like most of my compatriots, my certainty that I "belonged" gave me the freedom to be slovenly.  It wasn’t "affected working-class chic"; it was laziness, and a laziness reinforced by the certainty that such sloppiness would not be an obstacle to acceptance in a milieu that was, after all, mine by birthright.

In thirteen years of community college teaching, I’ve learned to be a hell of a lot less judgmental of my students.   I’m not offended, aroused, angered, or distracted by anything my students do or don’t wear — though from time to time, I’ll confess I’m still amused (a reaction I keep to myself as much as possible).  Glendenb’s point is well-taken: what students wear tends to reflect not only their personal style, but also their perception of what college is, and their own ease with being here.  I do well — we all do well — to remember that as we comment on the remarkable diversity of choices our students make each morning as they dress themselves.

Virtue coerced, or virtue chosen: on abortion, contraception, happiness, and Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat made waves last year when he joined the New York Times as a columnist. A social conservative, Douthat’s views are generally well to the right of both the paper’s editorial positions, as well as those of its star pundits such as Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman.

Today, Douthat wrestles with what must be an uncomfortable truth for any righty: “blue states” tend to have a better track record on family values than “red ones.” (For background, see this Pew report and this National Journal article). Douthat:

…from divorce rates to teen births, nearly every indicator of family life now varies dramatically by education, race, geography and income.

In a rare convergence, conservatives and liberals basically agree on how this happened. First, the sexual revolution overturned the old order of single-earner households, early marriages, and strong stigmas against divorce and unwed motherhood. In its aftermath, the professional classes found a new equilibrium. Today, couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees tend to cohabit early and marry late, delaying childbirth and raising smaller families than their parents, while enjoying low divorce rates and bearing relatively few children out of wedlock.

For the rest of the country, this comfortable equilibrium remains out of reach. In the underclass (black, white and Hispanic alike), intact families are now an endangered species. For middle America, the ideal of the two-parent family endures, but the reality is much more chaotic: early marriages coexist with frequent divorces, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate keeps inching upward.

Douthat and his allies are in a pickle. Clearly, the widespread availability of abortion and contraception have not led to the decline of those families whose members are most likely to support access to these two critical rights. The dichotomy is stark: those most likely to pay lip service to family values (and to vote Republican) are those whose personal choices are most at odds with those same values. Those most likely to delay having children — but to have children in wedlock — are those whose politics lean left. Even more simply, the evidence is stark that access to safe and legal abortion and effective methods of contraception have strengthened rather than weakened “traditional families”. What a painful conundrum for conservatives to confront!

To be clear, I don’t agree with Douthat that the rise in single-parent households is lamentable. The reality is more nuanced. To the extent that the rising numbers of babies born to unmarried women reflects the happy reality that the stigma against “illegitimacy” is waning, that’s cause for at least as much celebration as sorrow. To the extent that community networks and social programs can reduce women’s reliance on unstable or abusive male partners, this is also a good thing. (When it comes to understanding poor women’s choices about reproduction and marriage, there’s no better resource than the magisterial Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage , which I reviewed here.)

From the progressive perspective, marriage ought to be a choice rooted in mutual desire rather than a necessity rooted in desperation. Better fewer marriages, but happier ones — that’s a reasonable goal. And it’s a goal that, as Douthat notes, a fair number of “blue state” Americans have pursued successfully. But he suggests that the price of all of this stability and happiness has been too high:

Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed. The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term. Over all, the abortion rate is twice as high in New York as in Texas and three times as high in Massachusetts as in Utah.

So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.

Shorter Douthat: you liberals may be healthier and wealthier and happier, but y’all had to kill your poor blessed babies to achieve these fine things, so you ought to feel ashamed of yourselves. Continue reading

Nannies, adultery, class and consent: some thoughts on Pal Sarkozy

Briefly back in the office with a non-April Fool’s post.

Christine caught my attention with this post about something I’d managed to miss: French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s father, Pal, and his story of having sex with his nanny when he was eleven. The anecdote appears in the new autobiography from the elder Sarkozy.

Christine is struck by the circumstances of the encounter that Pal relates. Though only eleven, the father of the French president recalls himself as the initiator, and the nanny as silently acquiescent. Lots of power dynamics are at play. She is older, but he is male. She is his nanny, but he is the son of her employers. She is an adult, he a child — but he is the aggressor. Christine notes that today, we might charge the nanny with a crime for failing to stop Pal’s overtures. But the story raises the troubling reminder that aggressive sexual behavior, and a disdain for consent, is not limited to adolescents or adults.

It is not hard to imagine that Pal’s nanny weighed the cost of resisting the boy’s advances. He wasn’t an infant; if he made his displeasure known in one way or another, she might well have feared for her job. His capacity to consent was vitiated by his age, but hers was no less vitiated by her subordinate economic status. Given that all we have now are the recollections of a man describing an event that took place before the Second World War, there’s little more we can say definitively.

There is one thing that we do need to point out, and that is that even pre-pubescent boys can be sexual aggressors. Their targets are usually those who are, for reasons of age or status, vulnerable. An eleven year-old boy who is sexually assaulted by his thirty year-old female teacher is in a very different position than an eleven year-old boy who initiates sex with his thirty year-old nanny. Age compromises the capacity to consent, as we all know. But we must also acknowledge that class, status, and fear compromise consent as well.

There is also this much-reported related nonsense: Do Nannies Really Turn Boys into Future Adulterers? Based on a thoroughly unproven theory by an English psychiatrist, the discussion centers around the hypothesis that a little boy, “abandoned” by his mother for his nanny, develops the idea that multiple women are required to meet his needs. His mother’s “infidelity” to him (by having a life or a job of her own) leads to his own future infidelities years later. It’s a clever notion, nasty enough to add an extra frisson of guilt and anxiety into the lives of working mothers.

I didn’t have nannies growing up, but I spent a great deal of time with an au pair or two. I can vaguely remember that when I was five or six, I had a young woman named Sue (who must have been college-aged), whose job it was to take care of me one summer we spent on the family ranch. I am quite clear on the memory of the time she tried to teach me origami. It didn’t end in tears, but very nearly.

I had a great many women taking care of me when I was small: mother, aunts, babysitters, au pairs, grandmothers, and so forth. I am quite confident that I would have ended up a rotten husband (which I was in my first two marriages) no matter who it was who had raised me. One thing that I did bring out of my childhood, however, was a genuine liking for women as people. Women weren’t just my caregivers, they were my first friends and my best interlocutors. And my feminism, as imperfect as it was for so many years, was in no small way rooted in those early experiences.

Privilege conceals itself from those who possess it: of feminist epistemology, marriage, and “standpoint theory.”

The discussion below this post has grown heated, with the topic of debate being less the original post itself and more feminist epistemology and what is sometimes called “standpoint theory.” SamSeaborn quotes Elizabeth Andersen, who writes:

Feminist standpoint theory claims an epistemic privilege over the character of gender relations, and of social and psychological phenomena in which gender is implicated, on behalf of the standpoint of women.

Sam wants to know how that impacts my marriage (which I labeled as “feminist”), but he also seems to be asking how this “standpoint theory” affects the role of male allies in feminist settings. Though he kindly takes me at my word when I note that I don’t go through my married life with an apology for being male always on my lips, he wonders how a male feminist cannot help but defer to what, according to Andersen, is the “epistemic privilege” of a woman’s perspective. Sam gets a vigorous, and to my mind, very effective response, from commenters Oldfeminist and Mythago, and I recommend folks check out the whole thread.

I may be the son of two philosophers, and I may have done a graduate field in medieval scholasticism many moons ago, but I am no theorist. Phrases like “epistemic privilege” make my head hurt, and I must bite back the urge to plead, “But I am a bear of very little brain.” I’ve labored through Cixous and Irigaray and Butler because they’re important and necessary, but feminist theory ain’t my bag. I defer to the many wonderful folks in the blogosphere whose intellectual capacities exceed my own, and whose talent for explicating in plain English the difficult philosophical nuances of feminist theory is infinitely greater than mine.

That said, I do have some thoughts on standpoint theory and its practical application.

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status. Class and sex and race and faith are some of — but surely not the only — prisms through which we see and interpret the world. Patriarchy, the complex system through which male identity is privileged in an extraordinary number of ways, impacts everyone. Yes, as the famous phrase notes, it “hurts men too.” But one particular thing that patriarchy does is warp our understanding of everything around us, particularly things like power dynamics, sexuality, and how we communicate with one another. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: the class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself. This “greater awareness” is the epistemic privilege to which Andersen refers.

Epistemic privilege means that in a heterosexual relationship, it is generally — though not universally — the case that the woman will see gender-based power imbalances more clearly than will her boyfriend or her husband. This isn’t because of “feminine intuition”, it’s because folks in an historically oppressed class are always required to be more aware of power dynamics than those who belong to the dominant group. The same epistemic privilege can occur in race and class relations, regardless of the sex of the people involved.

Obvious example: rape and parking lots. Both men and women are cognizant of the reality of rape, and most understand that it is men who generally do the raping and women who are generally the ones attacked. But because of his privilege, a man can walk into a parking lot by himself at night and forget about rape, because his maleness affords him the luxury of remaining unobservant of the possibility of sexual danger. A woman walking alone in a parking lot at night will have a different experience, rooted in her vulnerability as a member of a class targeted for sexual violence. Not only is she more vulnerable, but her very understanding of the issue is superior to that of a man walking in the parking lot. He has the privileged luxury of ignorance; she’s forced to reflect, constantly, on rape and its threat to her. That means that when the discussion of women’s vulnerability to assault comes up, women ought to enjoy “epistemic privilege” in the conversation. Continue reading

To go anywhere and do anything: more notes on marriage and class

In Monday’s post about the bitter loss of shared dreams, I didn’t address the issue of class and status brought up by the original posts from which I quoted. Several of those who commented did bring up issues of dating outside one’s SES (socio-economic status), and I wanted to return to that aspect of the issue.

I’m married today to a woman who is, on both sides of her family, the first to graduate from college. My wife grew up poor, the daughter of an Afro-Colombian mother with a third-grade education and a father who, for all his kindness and good intentions, was hardly a reliable or consistent presence. Starting when she was eight, my wife worked with her mother cleaning houses and offices before and after school, enduring racial abuse. Her mother, who eventually made a small living as a seamstress, stressed education as the key to rising out of poverty, and my wife embraced that. Somehow, my mother-in-law found the money to buy soccer uniforms, to pay for dance lessons, to pay for the tools that my wife could use to begin her climb into a different social and economic world. My wife worked hard, won scholarships, took out loans, and eventually graduated with honors from the University of Southern California before heading into what has been a very successful career in business management. From both an ethnic and socio-economic standpoint, our backgrounds are worlds apart.

Like many immigrants who are part of the first-generation to “make it”, my wife supports (and now that we are married with completely blended finances, we support) a very large number of people within an extended family who have been less fortunate than ourselves. We send money to our Colombian relatives, paying for medical operations and schooling and clothes. We support cousins in this country as well with little bits here and there. We’ve recently moved to a larger house, not least because we are moving my mother-in-law in. My mother-in-law will get to spend lots of time with her adored granddaughter, and we can provide for her. My wife was and is her nest egg, and my beloved has always known and cheerfully accepted her responsibility to repay her mother’s years of backbreaking work.

This is not how I was raised. In WASPy families — OKOP — ageing parents do not move in with their children. They move into retirement communities with multiple levels of care, gradually becoming more and more reliant on professionals until they slip gently — or sometimes, not so gently — into the next world. I’ve grown up hearing from my mother, my grandmother, and countless other relatives the insistence that “I will not be a burden to my children when I’m old.” My own Mama has carefully designed her finances and her insurance policies to provide for the maximum degree of autonomy and comfort when the time comes. Heck, in our family when mothers come to visit, they stay in a hotel even when a guest room is ready and furnished; such is the near-reverent respect for “not causing an inconvenience.” It seems cold to outsiders, I suppose, but not to us. And of course, it is economic privilege and a social ethos of individualism that undergirds this way of life.

So we know in our household that we will care for my mother-in-law for the rest of her life, but we will not have the same responsibilities with my own mama. We know that we will be giving financial help to many members of my wife’s family, but unless some stunning reversals of fortune come along (heavens forfend), we will not need to do so for mine. There is no resentment, of course. Privilege is not virtue, after all, and in our home we know the difference. The fact that our respective families have different histories and different levels of resources is hardly an obstacle to a successful marriage. My wife and I both derive great pleasure from being able to share what we can with those who need it, and there is absolute unity in this regard. Continue reading