I was at a networking event a couple of months ago, talking to a few other young New York City journalists. As it often does, the conversation drifted into politics—how divided our country is, the importance of hearing opinions that challenge our own, and the responsibility of the media to offer varied perspectives.
“The problem is that you have all of these privileged millennials in New York writing news from inside the bubble!” one member of our group said with a laugh, gesturing around the circle we stood in.
I nodded along. He was right, that is a problem. It’s true that the media, especially New York-based online media, is full of twenty-somethings whose parents could afford to send them to expensive schools, to support them through summer internships, and to help out with their rent during those difficult first few years, when journalists make pennies compared to college graduates in other industries.
It’s a deeply flawed system that makes it almost impossible for poor or working-class people to work as reporters, writers, or editors—the gatekeepers who decide which topics are worth discussing in newspapers, magazines, and books.
Then I realized he was referring to us—the people in the conversation—as the privileged millennials.
I suppose it shouldn’t have come as such a shock that my background wasn’t immediately readable to these people I’d just met. I was appropriately dressed for the event, I knew the jargon and the talking points, I blended in. What they didn’t know is that I’m a high school dropout who was raised by a single mother—a recovering heroin addict with debilitating PTSD who was only able to keep a roof over our heads and food in the fridge with the help of multiple government assistance programs.
When I was a teenager, my “bedroom” was a loft bed above the kitchen of our studio apartment, where my mother slept on the pull-out couch. I got my first waitressing job when I was fifteen, moved out at sixteen, and have been financially independent since.
As I awkwardly wiped condensation from my plastic cup of wine onto my dress slacks, it occurred to me that I’d done such a good job of making something of myself that I’d made my past invisible. The system is stacked against poor kids breaking into the competitive world of journalism, but I did it anyway, and now my peers see my graduate degree from Columbia and my magazine job, and they assume that I must have had help, like they did—that someone paid my rent, at some point. I pass as one of them.
The fact that I pass is, in its own right, a type of privilege—one that’s intertwined with my other privileges as an able-bodied white woman. I can choose to show my societal disadvantages or hide them at will, a luxury Black Americans don’t have, a luxury many disabled Americans don’t have. And my education and employment, no matter how much I had to scrape and scam and fight for them, provide me undeniable advantages over people with backgrounds similar to mine who weren’t able to make it out, whether because they were discriminated against by admissions offices or hiring managers, or because they had to skip college to work a menial job and help support their family, or any other reason.
Now that I’ve made it this far, I can’t deny the privileges I have today. But I also can’t—and won’t—hide where I came from.
My mother joked once that she had actually helped me pay for college by being so poor that I qualified for the maximum amount of federal financial aid. I could barely fake a smile as I thought about how hard it had been to get that financial aid when I couldn’t prove my mother’s income because she hadn’t filed taxes for the last five years. I’d had to bring in copies of her disability and social security checks—her only income—to prove I wasn’t getting any money from her.
Once, when a professor gave an especially short turnaround time for a homework assignment, I approached him after class, asking for more time. I had to work that night, I explained. He told me I needed to make my schoolwork a priority. I agreed. It wasn’t worth explaining that I’d have a really hard time doing any schoolwork at all if I didn’t have a place to live because I didn’t pay my rent. I remembered that moment, and my mother’s joke landed with a particularly loud thud.
I took an unpaid summer internship—commonly accepted as an unfair prerequisite to a good job as a writer, but I still bartended at night. I often went straight from my fancy magazine office to the dive bar downtown; dressing for both was an art form I perfected: skinny jeans with a grungy bar tank top hidden underneath a stylish blouse, with red lipstick and black eyeliner stashed in my purse to be applied on the subway. I wondered if any of my classmates had to worry about the absurdity of working full time for free, if they had to go from work to work.
Now I pass. I’ve made it. So why do I feel so queasy? Why did I have the urge to defend myself at that networking event, to tell the people around me, “I’m not one of you!”
The usual narrative about the scrappy working-class kid who pulls herself up is that she’s supposed to be embarrassed about where she comes from. She’s supposed to work hard to keep up the illusion, to convince her peers that she, too, went to sleepaway summer camps and lived in college dorms. When she passes, she has succeeded.
But I don’t want to blend in. I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never treated waitstaff or security guards or bus drivers like they’re not there, that I relate to them more than I do to most of my peers. I’m proud of the fact that I dropped out of high school, and not just because I still managed to go on to get an Ivy League graduate degree, but because I knew what was best for me at the age of just fourteen, and I had the courage to do it.
I don’t feel ashamed of my history, I feel ashamed of letting it be erased.
One morning in my sophomore year of college, I woke up in my loft bed in the tiny apartment I shared with a friend, exhausted from bartending late into the night. I’d only slept a couple of hours, but it was time to get up if I was going to make it to my 10 a.m. Literary Foundations class on time. The sun peeking in my window was blinding, and the smell of French-fry grease and margarita mix clinging to my hair was nauseating.
All I wanted was to turn off my alarm and go back to sleep. I could do it—I could stay in bed, skip class, sleep a little more. Who would care?
Instead, I lay in bed and calculated on my phone exactly how much I was paying per class session. I had scholarships and federal financial aid, but they didn’t cover everything. Even with the money I earned bartending, I still had to take out loans to make up the difference. They weighed on my mind as I remembered watching my mother struggle to pay bills and promising myself I’d never agree to pay for anything I couldn’t afford. That hadn’t exactly worked out, so I figured I had to at least make use of the thing I was going into debt over.
Once I worked out how much money I’d be wasting if I stayed in bed, I dragged myself to class, suddenly seeing my peers with clear eyes—the classmates who didn’t want to be there; the ones who skipped class, showed up late, didn’t do the homework; who treated college like a four-year party. I knew they weren’t paying their own way. If they were, they wouldn’t take it for granted.
Once I realized that, I stopped being so jealous and resentful of how easy they had it. I stopped envying their co-signed leases, their rent checks arriving in the mail as if from a giant tooth fairy. They could have all that; I had something they didn’t. Call it perspective, work ethic, appreciation, grit. Call it what you will, but I have it, and I won’t hide it.
In the moment, at that networking event, I didn’t say anything. I did what I had learned to do—blend in and let people assume that I’m one of them. On the subway ride home I was kicking myself for not speaking up, but what would I have said? How could I have told them that I’m not like them without coming off as rude, self-pitying, or both?
Then I remembered that realization I had on that morning when all I wanted to do was skip class: I have something that they don’t. I have the perspective that comes with clawing your way into a world that was designed to keep you out. I don’t need to constantly announce to my peers that I’m different from them; I just need to remember that myself. I need to never forget that I have as much in common with the doorman as I do with the fancy women he holds the door open for. I’ve made it into this world, and now I owe it to the world I came from to hold onto my perspective, my work ethic, my appreciation, my grit, and use my history to be a better writer. To tell truer stories. To speak for the people who were successfully kept out of this world.
Excerpted from Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class (Revised) by Michelle Tea. Copyright © 2018. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.