This Thanksgiving break in general has confirmed what I have long suspected: I have no home. While I’ve believed the maxim “you can’t go home again” for years and consider the life I lead at Tufts my “home life,” my senior year has changed the situation. Whereas I could comfortably look to returning to Tufts on every other break, I am faced with the reality that my days at Tufts are numbered. And in six months like many of my classmates, I, at least temporarily, am faced with “going home.”
For me, “home” is more than a geographic location. Rather, home is where I’ve been taught over the past 21 years that I belong, both by those in that place and in other places. It’s a place I feel comfortable, organically integrated with the environment. I see two potential homes for myself in the near future.
One is represented by my hometown on Long Island. To give you an unexaggerated conception of this home, I’ll tell you that as I write this, I’m sitting in a Starbucks in an unidentified town, ironically working on a paper on welfare reform. In the hour I’ve been here, I’ve counted nine North Face fleeces, seven luxury SUVs, 18 Louis Vuitton bags and 12 pairs of Uggs. (Mind you, about one-quarter of these material possessions are on the persons of those under 18.)
While my immediate family members do not own any of these things (alright, my mom actually has a Louis Vuitton purse she got in 1975 on sale at Gimbel’s), the large number of ostentatious displays of expendable wealth here always makes me coil in disgust each time I come home. In fact, there are certain area establishments I will not frequent because I cannot stand to watch what I see as pure social irresponsibility in the guise of Burberry hairbands and silk pashminas.
I’ve stopped going to a local coffee shop, for example, since seeing a 30-something mother (about 5’6″, 120 lbs) yell at her daughter for eating too much of her grilled cheese sandwich, while another woman picked at a “scooped-out” bagel and a salad lightly covered in the lo-cal dressing she took out of her pocketbook.
I do not intend to pass moral judgment on any of these people, and I want to make that very clear. In fact, the morality or lack thereof of this place is irrelevant. What I am saying, though, is that a shared geographic, educational, religious, cultural and socioeconomic background does not enable me to identify with these individuals in any way. And as someone who seeks to work on issues facing low-income children and families for the rest of my life, and having been educated in depth about the problems that face these families, it would be unconscionable for me to simply write off this clear overabundance of materialism, what one author has referred to “affluenza” as desirable.
So, fine, you say. Go work in public service. Temper the materialism in your own life. (Although my mother insists there must be a way to help the poor with a post-law school starting salary of more than $50,000.) But it isn’t that easy.
This summer, I got a peek at the other home environment I am pulled towards. I worked in New York City government developing a community outreach campaign aimed at low-income families. Not a day passed in the office when I wasn’t held as a model of privilege. The three full-time staff members who I worked most closely with often directly reminded me both in social and work-related settings of the benefits I received as a white, middle-class man. I could not possibly understand how poor minority families would respond to a particular policy. I could not possibly have any relevant perspective on how to make an environment less threatening to women. But I would undeniably get many more opportunities than they, a black man, a Latina woman, and a Caucasian woman, because of the privilege inherently afforded to me.
The conversations angered me, obviously. There was nothing I could do to change my whiteness or my biological sex. And in choosing to work to advance the lives of a largely minority, low-income urban population, I was rejecting the “privilege” bestowed upon me in several ways. At one point, I actually asked my colleague, “So what am I supposed to do? Should I just give in and become a corporate lawyer like my mother wants me to be?” He responded, “See, that’s the problem. You see a job with a starting six-figure salary as giving in. For most of us that’s not even an option.”
I didn’t even get to raise the point that, for me, not all doors are open. As a male interested in public service, I’m actually in a minority. There are communities I would like to work in where I would never get the trust needed to do significant work. There are stereotypes associated with being a middle-class white male, particularly when accompanied by “Tufts University” on my resum?©.
This isn’t a sob story about being middle class, white and male. Yes, in some public service situations I have felt “overqualified,” or otherwise seen differences between myself and my colleagues. But there is irony in the fact that I would find it easier to pursue a life plan that society deems more ambitious and rewarding (financially and with prestige) than a more modest one.
I see my life at a crossroads right now, and any place I go does not feel like a welcoming home. True, it takes time to settle into a new home. But do I have to give up all the positives that growing up privileged have given to me or completely embrace my background, go corporate, and drive off in my Mercedes wearing Diesel and Dolce? Do I have choices beyond isolation as the only white guy in a room of all white guys? Is there a home for me between the land of Uggs and North Face and a world hostile to the privilege I’ve accumulated over the past 20 years? I can only hope.
Adam Pulver is a senior majoring in political science and community health. He can be reached via email at [email protected]<$>