monday musings: the privilege of fi

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I listen to a lot of podcasts and read a lot of blogs about minimalism and financial independence. While there is a good deal of interesting and useful information out there, I often find myself either pausing the audio or taking a break from reading to scream into a pillow.

Why? You might ask…

Privilege.

Every time I hear someone say, “anyone can do [enter the blank],” a sense of fiery rage overtakes me. Just ask Justin. It’s not pretty.

what is privilege and do I have it?

In a nutshell, privilege is the unearned benefits that one has based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc. It sounds like a simple concept, but, once you dig in, it’s really isn’t.

Many moons ago when I taught introduction to sociology, I would use the privilege walkto show this idea to my students. Essentially, I would have my students line up in the middle of the room and for the positive statements they could agree with they would step forward and for the negative statements they could agree with they would take a step backward. By the end of the activity, everyone was scattered throughout the room with some students very close to the front of the room and others very close to the back of the room. Then, I would place a trash can at the front of the room and ask everyone to wad up a piece of paper – yes, this was before my zero waste days – and try tossing the paper into the trash can. As you can imagine, it quickly became clear that some people, based only on their accrued privileges, had a much better chance of making the shot. 

You can play along at home. Go to the link and add up all the statements that would cause you to take a step forward and all the statements that would cause you to take a step backward. Then subtract the steps forward from the steps backward. If you have a positive number, you have accrued privileges that benefit you.

Full disclosure: I had 12 steps forward and 13 steps backward. Meaning that I had a score of -1. If you’re wondering how I managed to come up essentially privilege neutral, many of my steps backward came from stuff that happened when I was growing up, the subject of another set of posts entirely, and my gender. The positive stuff primarily happened since becoming an adult. Yeah, that’s another wrinkle in the idea of privilege. It can change over time.

You say that I have all these privileges, but my life still sucks. Yeah, that happens sometimes. Privilege means that things are easier for you than for others. It doesn’t mean that things are easy.

You can learn more about privilege: hereand here.

what does this have to do with fi?

My general observations of the FI community (including bloggers, podcasters, and the Facebook page for ChooseFI) is that this is a community of primarily middle to upper-middle class white men. Yes, there are women in these spaces. Yes, there are people of color in these spaces. Yet, my observation is that the loudest voices and the most frequently heard voices are of those who are privileged.

The few times that I’ve seen discussion about the need for a women’s FI group, a few things have happened that make me both frustrated and angry. First, someone (usually a man) will say, “I haven’t seen any of the behaviors that you’re talking about. Can you explain to me when/where this has happened?” In other words, since this person hasn’t personally experienced this issue it must not exist. Further, rather than doing the work of seeing where this issue has cropped up, they push back and demand more labor from the oppressed group. 

The other related issue is the argument against such a group because “I want to benefit from these discussions too.” Again, this negates the lived experience of the oppressed and the desire to talk about challenges they are facing with other people in similar circumstances. It also demands that an oppressed group continue to provide intellectual labor. As a member of an oppressed group, it is not your job to educate others about your struggles or to provide intellectual and/or emotional labor to others. While I have seen this about the creation of women’s groups, I wonder if the same thing would happen if someone proposed a people of color fi group. In other words, would similar criticisms pop up or is overt racism worse than overt misogyny? Or has no one asked for such a group for fear of the backlash?

Getting away from how privilege is enacted in group dynamics, even just saying, “I’m on the journey to financial independence,” is an expression of great privilege. Knowing that one has a steady income stream and focusing on optimizing over making ends meet are just two small examples of one’s privilege. 

I get it, but how can I use my privilege to help others?

Knowing that you have privilege is only half of the battle. The question is what can you do with it now that you know you have it?

  1. Acknowledge your privilege.
  2. Make space for diverse voices and don’t shut down the conversation because it makes you uncomfortable.
  3. Educate yourself.
  4. Listen. 
  5. Use your privilege to help others. 

This can look like lots of things, but I’ll give you one example from my life. Once a month, I help to run a pet food pantry. For 2.5 hours, my fellow volunteers and I distribute pet food to people who need it. We don’t ask questions about why they need the food and we don’t means test. It’s enough that our clients fill out our form and go through the emotional difficulty of asking for our help – not an easy thing to do! I know that I’m privileged. I know that most people don’t have the ability to take time off work for volunteering. I know that I have the resources to provide for my family and pets. I know that I’m able-bodied and capable of moving big bags of dog food and cat litter. 

Using these privileges (and others), I am able to do some good in the world and, just maybe, make things a little better. At the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters?

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