How Going Undercover Reminded Me to Appreciate My Privilege

by Katy on February 12, 2019 · 23 comments

The following is a reprint of a previously published post. Enjoy!

My 15-year-old son and I just had a very interesting experience volunteering for his annual school auction. As a parent of a two high schoolers, I was surprised at how few people I recognized at a school event for a program my kids have been attending for 13 long years. (I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, as it is the elementary school parents who make up the majority of involved parents.) We were at the event facility from 5 P.M. until 11 P.M. on Friday, and spent a good three hours of that time working as a busboy. (The public school support organization kept expenses down by not hiring wait staff.) We carried plates, scraped leftover food into the garbage and worked up a sweat in the process.

As much as I didn’t know the current cohort of grade school parents, they also didn’t know me. I think a lot of them assumed I was a simple cater-waiter. I would estimate that a quarter of them were very dismissive to my statement of “If you’re done with your plate, I can take it away” which I found to be very telling. They would barely respond to me, and were certainly not helpful in maybe grabbing their neighbor’s empty plate to lend a hand. By comparison, others would reach for plates that were out of my reach and then thank me.

I’ve heard that you can tell a lot about a person from how they treat waiters.

It got me thinking about how for a supposedly egalitarian society, The United States very much has societal levels that that are both glaring and subtle. The 99% vs. 1% has received a lot of attention over the past few years, but that 99% is split into endless categories. Race, education level, attractiveness and nationality all affect how we are perceived in this world. And as a white, generally attractive and well educated woman, it’s not part of my daily thinking.

Don’t get me wrong, as I wasn’t upset or angry with the experience. I just considered it to be an interesting point to ponder.

As an experienced labor and delivery nurse, I am used to being a source of important information, with people hanging on my every word. And as a successful blogger, I am used to people respecting and admiring what I do. (As the parent to two teenage boys, I am used to being mocked and ignored, but I take that with a grain of salt.) I’m not used to people barely acknowledging my presence.

Like the show Undercover Boss, where corporate CEO’s take on lowly roles within their own company to get a real sense of how their organizations are actually functioning. Let’s just call it “Undercover Katy.”

How is this related to non-consumerism?

I am privileged.

No I’m not wealthy, but I was raised in a middle class home where I always knew I would go to college. I live in a safe and community oriented neighborhood where I can walk to two excellent grocery stores, and I can trust that my stable neighbors can be trusted. Yes, we had to buy a disgusting fixer-upper to make this happen, but we did. And I never give a second thought to the reliability of my transportation.

And I usually take that for granted.

My non-consumerism relies heavily on the community I live in. If I were in more of a low income area, my food shopping options would likely be limited, and our safety would not be a given. I have opportunities that many other Americans do not.

I’ve run three food stamp challenges over the past few years, and there are always a few readers who respond with judgment about how real food stamp recipients should be living their lives. They choose to ignore how a person’s inherent privilege gives them advantages that we’re often not even aware of.

So thank you, fellow parents for reminding me to appreciate the privilege that makes my daily life both easy and safe.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan R Robinson February 12, 2019 at 2:43 pm

I remember reading this the first time around and realizing with shock, that we truly are privileged!! Putting ourselves in other’s shoes once in a while is a great humbling experience! Great article, Katy!

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Jennifer February 12, 2019 at 3:08 pm

This was an interesting read. I always help the waiters by grabbing the farthest plate and passing it to them. It was just the way I was raised. Be kind to others and help when you can no matter what. I have to admit I have been treated with greater importance as an RN with important information yet if a doctor walked in, my importance went way down. Funny how we are valued according to appearance and perception.

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Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life February 12, 2019 at 3:19 pm

Thanks for republishing this, Katy. I find it a huge part of character for someone to be willing or able to see their own privileges, and have gratitude for them. We are privileged in many ways and it’s important to recognize that.

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HALLE PREISCH February 12, 2019 at 4:22 pm

Thanks you!

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Peg February 12, 2019 at 5:18 pm

And this occurred in a non-Trump political climate!?! Contrary to what many think, he can’t be blamed for all our woes. I believe most are inherently good, kind, thoughtful people, whether Republican or Democrat, and irrespective of our current political environment.

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Mand01 February 12, 2019 at 5:50 pm

Until I had a child with a disability, I never considered my privilege as a non-disabled person.
Until I started working with Indigenous Australians, I didn’t really have much of a clue of my privilege as a white, non-Indigenous Australian.
Until i started working with refugees, I didn’t appreciate the extreme good fortune of being born in this country.
Until my two kids came out as trans I literally had no idea – none – of the privilege of cisgendered people in this world.
So much of my understanding of my own privilege has been taught to me just by being with other people who have had to fight like hell for what I was born with. It’s not their job to educate this white, cis, educated woman. But I sincerely have appreciated the many lessons I have learned and continue to learn to check my privilege.

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Patricia Koernig February 13, 2019 at 3:19 am

YES!

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Kathy G February 12, 2019 at 6:04 pm

Some good food for thought here. Thank you.

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Jenny February 12, 2019 at 7:38 pm

Really interesting. I have a couple of different roles and it is always interesting to me how I am perceived and treated differently. And when people hear that I was raised or currently live in one town versus another, I have had them say “oh, I think of you completely differently now!” Well, it’s still me! lol

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Lindsey February 12, 2019 at 9:38 pm

One of the reasons I fell in love with my husband was how he always made little jokes or noticed something nice to comment on (such as their glasses or smile) to folks others ignore, like grocery store checkers. He always thanks them, too. He made me into a nicer person through his modelling of kindness.

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K D February 13, 2019 at 3:41 am

The more I have come to know about life the more I realize that I too am privileged. My parents had little money when I was growing up but we had a stable home, all the necessities, and a safe neighborhood and schools. I believe it is a big indicator of character the way people treat those they don’t know, especially those that are “serving” them, those that are “beneath” them.

Thank you for reposting this.

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Joyce February 13, 2019 at 4:13 am

Topical! My son and his wife work as servers in a resort area. Just last night they were speaking of the last group of “ guests” and how rude some were. The party were all senior citizens.
Whatever happened to “ treat others as you wish to be treated.”
Joyce

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Bethel February 13, 2019 at 6:39 am

This is so interesting. To your food stamp challenge comments, I just read an article about how when you’re poor, you’re more likely to be unstable because even a little financial setback (that would be seen as an annoyance to me) can change everything. As a similarly privileged person, I’ve been guilty of thinking “I save…so can they. Maybe they just aren’t as disciplined, or maybe they don’t make good choices, or maybe they’re just not very stable” Which was exactly what the article said: most people who are poor are not poor because they are unstable, they are unstable because they are poor.

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Karen Erickson February 13, 2019 at 9:26 am

Yes, kindness to all matters! I too have been struck by how certain members of society are essentially invisible. They are taken for granted and not considered full humans. I always try to make eye contact with everyone, smile and thank them. This costs me nothing and makes the world more civil.

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Ava February 13, 2019 at 9:51 am

It is not just more privileged people who show varying degrees of appreciation. Every other week, Nov.-March I help prepare dinner for 10 homeless people. They also have a warm place to spend the night, get breakfast in the morning and receive a lunch to take with them the next day. Most are appreciative. Some go out of their way to express it and are obviously sincere. Occasionally someone complains about the menu, the mattresses, or something else. One man threw out parts of his lunch rather than return it to the hosts or give it to another guest. But those people are rare. It is all the others who make the effort worthwhile.

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Bee February 13, 2019 at 10:19 am

I am blessed. I am thankful for all that I have and all that I have been given. Although being “privileged” has certainly made it easier to deal with life’s challenges, it has not insulated me from the trials and tribulations of being human. The pain of a broken heart, death of a loved one, chronic disease, drug abuse, disability, random violence, job loss, loneliness and mental illness have all touched my life directly and indirectly. Over the years, I have learned that appearances can be deceiving and things are not always as they seem. Love, kindness, compassion and understanding are much needed in this world . A smile and a kind word are absolutely free and can move mountains.

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Jenelle February 13, 2019 at 10:57 am

As a former catering server, proper etiquette is for a diner NOT to move a plate to the server. A server may have more issues balancing a plate being passed to them than one that is flat on the table. (But then again proper etiquette has gone out the window lately)

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tia February 13, 2019 at 11:39 am

Right. Plus it may cause you to reach in front of a guest which is a no-no. I love watching how they serve meals on Downton Abbey, and how the Grand Dutchess curls her lip when a newbie messes up.
I’ve been a server and realize most of the people are HUNGRY at the time you are dealing with them. I cut them a lot of slack and don’t judge them. If they give me a bad tip well then… Plus who wants to be at a school function anyway? It’s like being thrown back into the playground, not fun for most. Us little people really don’t care that you smile at us or have a nice word to feel good about yourself. It doesn’t change things. Only a world where everyone is equal and has enough, no excess or want, will make a difference. And people with power and privilege don’t want to lose their standing and advantage.

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Lindsey February 13, 2019 at 5:43 pm

I don’t think everyone you describe as “us little people” feels the same. When I was working at one of those jobs, as a maid and counter person at a hotel, I appreciated it when folks treated me like a human worth engaging. So did my fellow employees. Yes, I feel good when I am kind and perhaps lighten someone’s day, but that does not mean it is meaningless to the recipient.

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Susan Smith February 13, 2019 at 11:48 am

Vickie Robin of “Your Money or Your Life” has just written an essay on a similar topic – one line that stuck with me was – to be aware of “the narrow aperture of my mind”. How often I assume things, how often I’m wrong!

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Marilyn February 13, 2019 at 7:56 pm

Great article, Katy. Well worth republishing.

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Anthony Christian February 13, 2019 at 9:19 pm

Kindness matters

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Christine February 14, 2019 at 2:52 pm

Thanks Katy. A good reminder to me to take a step back, take a look and make sure I have my manners and attitude on straight. I believe I do and it’s nice to see my grown children and now my grandchildren acting accordingly. This reminded me of an article from The Tightwad Gazette I read eons ago about why poor people tend to stay poor and the judgement calls many of us make regarding this issue. I looked for it in my Complete Tightwad Gazette but couldn’t locate it. I believe it was a Thanksgiving cover story. Not only that, but it brings to light many advantages that we are not only born into but born with, such as people who are tall and blonde tend to be hired faster than those who do not have this in their DNA. Much food for thought.

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