I once saw a homeless man walk into a grocery store and steal a bag of chips out the front door without paying for it. He got caught by a store associate and detained at the entrance. As most people did, I walked past the scene without looking back. A couple of days later, I spent a couple of minutes at an info session for a company that I have no intention of applying to and ate four vegetarian sandwiches washed down with a can of La Croix. I walked out with a full belly and no one questioning my motives. After all, I was wearing a suit, and my suit absolves me from all crimes.
Theft is theft, but not all theft is equal before the eyes of others. A homeless man stealing from a grocery store is considered grounds for arrest, but taking sandwiches from an info session without the intention to apply is considered acceptable (almost encouraged within some aspects of Penn’s culture) because I have the credentials to not be questioned. Credentials that are afforded because of my status as a student. My status that is afforded because my parents — not I — have the capability to pay for my tuition. And so, even when I am not aware of it, my life comes with many privileges that I passively overlook.
My realization of my privilege dawned on me during my tenures at various front desks I have worked at three front desk jobs thus far. They all paid $8 per hour. I work my jobs at the front desk to earn disposable income. I work my jobs at the front desk to help finance other luxuries in my life. Each of them offers me a unique perspective on the nature of customer relationships, but I consider the Quadrangle front desk to be the most insightful in developing my distaste for elitism. Because, here at the Quadrangle front desk, I face the unadulterated force of the children and parents from families with annual salaries higher than my discounted net worth for the rest of my life.
I used to pass by the Quadrangle front desk when I had been a freshman living in Fisher Hassenfeld College House, sometimes late at night. There would be guards hired by Allied Security Services who work the shifts that are not covered by students, namely the shifts between 12 am and 8 am. I’d imagine that they make more than me, but unlike me, their attendance of the front desk is their full-time job. The Allied security guards work at the Quadrangle to pay for their rent, to cover their living expenses, and to support their families. I, on the other hand, work at the Quadrangle front desk to pay for a couple additional concerts per month.
To admit that I have experienced privilege in my life is no revelation. Proclaiming that I have not experienced an innumerable myriad of advantages in my life is an insult to those who actually live with few privileges. I attend Penn, like other students who go to Penn, and even the act of attending Penn gives me more privileges than I can count. It gives me more privileges than the Allied guards, who perform the exact same duties as me but are not enrolled as students at Penn. Although I now work the same jobs as the Allied guards I passed by my freshman year, our mutual employment carries significantly different connotations because of my privilege.
I received my job at the Quadrangle front desk because I was a former resident of the Quadrangle. I am, right now, a current student at Penn. My parents pay $70k a year to give me the title of a current student at Penn. Being a current student at Penn gives me access to jobs that are only available to current students at Penn. I could not even begin to count, and even if I did, my list would never be exhaustive. For my job at the Quadrangle front desk, I did not need to submit a resume. I did not need to go through an interview. All I needed to do was submit a form with my availabilities, and here I am working for a job that most people would need an interview for.
The other day, I was writing a guest pass for the parent of a current Quadrangle resident. I accidentally closed the browser, so I had been taking slightly longer than I normally would have taken. The mother, embellished with a new black Montcler jacket, said to me, “Can you hurry up? I’m a donor, and I sent three kids here.” In a state of mild disappointment at the institution I attended, I wondered. I wondered how often that line worked to make the front desk staff work faster. I wondered if she ever worked in a customer service role herself. I wondered if she understood why, to me, sending three kids to Penn as an avid donor is not impressive.
I smiled and replied, “Sorry, I didn’t realize that I was speaking to a donor.”
And so, the mother started to yell at me. Ten beautiful minutes of yelling. I don’t blame her. I tried to say the most passive-aggressive sentence I could think of at the moment. I let years of my distaste towards institutions of elitism waterfall out of my mouth in a simple sentence. She told me that I didn’t deserve to work at the Quadrangle front desk. She is probably right. I don’t deserve to work at the Quadrangle front desk; a receptionist should not actively despise the institution that provides them so many resources. But, here I am, working at the Quadrangle front desk against her wishes simply because my parents pay $70k a year to afford me that privilege.
As a receptionist, I should not create conflict. After all, the customer is always right. I should serve my customers to the best of my ability even when they do not respect me. It is my duty as someone who works in a customer service role. On the other hand, I recognize my place of privilege. I have the privilege to call out elitism when I see it. I have the privilege to lose my job only to find another one waiting for me a couple months later. I have the privilege to express my frustration for the inequalities that exist in societies within every interaction I choose to do so.
The mother told me that she would donate less to Penn because of my poor customer service. I told her that I was very sorry to hear that. My actions inadvertently undermined a system of elitism that privileges the children of alumni. How tragic. I suppose I should be most sorry for her children who must compete in legacy admissions with children from other families who have donated more to the school than her family had. Even when her children have a such an advantage of the vast majority of students who do not have a legacy connection to the school, what right did I have of taking away another privilege from them?
The concept of alumni endowment and legacy admissions bothers me. When I explain it to my friends from other countries, the majority of them consider it to be corruption. But here, in the United States, it is an ingrained part of the college admissions culture. I understand the incentive to maximize profit; students yielded from legacy admissions donate to the university at significantly higher rates than students who do not. But, even so, the blatant capitalist attitude that permeates through every aspect of American society does not rest well with me. But here I am, an individual who implicitly supports elitism through attending an elitist university,
After the mother yelled at me for ten minutes, she started to yell at my manager for another two. My manager tried to placate the mother to the best of her ability. As she attempted to calm the mother, I genuinely felt bad for my manager. I dragged her into a mess that I created as a result of exercising my privilege in my petty crusade against elitism. Unlike my manager, I could afford to lose my job at the front desk without losing sleep; to me, it just means going to two fewer concerts per month, and I could easily live without such a luxury. As for my manager, on the other hand, I couldn’t imagine that she would be able to find another job as quickly as I could.
I have a chance of losing my job, but I have the privilege of losing my job and relocate to another front desk in the university doing the exact same work in a matter of weeks. Even more, I have the privilege of losing my job at the Quadrangle front desk to have an even better internship waiting for me when the summer comes around. Because I have the title of a student, I have very little employment friction in that regard. Because I am on the benefiting side of age discrimination in employment, I could easily cycle through entry-level jobs without even batting my eyes. Because I have the privileges I have, I have the ability to call out elitism when most people cannot.
And so, I wonder if it is my duty to do so. I wonder my level of privilege necessitates me to challenge entitled parents when the majority of staff in customer services roles do not have the privilege to do so. When entitlement goes undisputed, it only builds upon itself. Individuals who exercise their privilege for their own ends can only have a conflated ideal of their unfounded status. I wonder how many other alumni of Penn feel as if they can exercise their entitlement through impoliteness, and I wonder how many individuals challenge their perceptions of their own status. After all, they go to an elite university with enough prestige to make my parents proud.
But so do I. Although I have benefited from countless privileges through my life, I strive to the best of my ability to question the nature of my success. I benefited from many of the same entitlements that shape a large majority of Penn’s student body, but I never thought of myself as someone isolated from those privileges. Even my mere attendance creates a socioeconomic hierarchy that separates me from the experiences of the majority of people in the United States, but I try to the best of my ability to not create additional hierarchies when I have the choice. I do not, like most reasonable people, to rush customer service personnel because I feel entitled to faster service.
So now, when I see individuals exercising their structures of entitlement that they did not necessarily earn, I cannot help but also mobilize my own privilege to challenge such a abusive leverage in power. While the majority of front desk workers who are not students cannot challenge the entitled students and alumni who come with unreasonable demands, I have the privilege to be different. I have the privilege to attend the same elite school that fuels their entitlement, the same elitist school.