“And the people in the houses/ All went to the university/ Where they were put in boxes/ And they came out all the same/ And there’s doctors and lawyers/ And business executives/ And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky/ And they all look just the same.” Malvina Reynolds wrote this song, “Little Boxes,” in 1962. Who would have thought she visited Duke, where—as the story goes—the children of privilege find privileged careers.
Our discourse on privilege is a fixture. Some urge us to embrace the bespoke exclusivity of the Duke Difference in order to “do good tomorrow,” without exploring what this good looks like. Others hurl harangues against any feeling that being at Duke is earned, while ignoring how circumstance and identity make some of us far less privileged—and our road to Duke far more difficult—than others. Others still write with clarity and compassion about how these identities make “privilege” difficult to qualify.
Although our discussion and experience of privilege is varied, I believe we can talk about two truths, or possibly half-truths, that we all seem to agree upon. First, by virtue of being at Duke, we have some measure of privilege we’d likely not have elsewhere. We’re in a caste, whether we like it or not. We attend the 17th-ranked university in the world. Those four letters at the top of our transcripts will likely open doors others only dream of. Should it be this way? No. Is this how it is? Yes. And that’s our second theme: we are uneasy about having what we do. How do we understand the fact that our next step—to doctor or lawyer or business executive—will be quickened by the weight of that fine Duke name?
We all seem to think that there is a disconnect between being at Duke and being able to help people to their benefit, rather than to our own feel-good fulfillment. Enter the plenitude of conversations we have about privilege, about understanding who we are and who we are trying to help before barging in. These conversations are important. No one can help fix a problem they don’t understand. But all these conversations—all this awareness of what the Duke name does, and all this uneasiness about having what we do—all of this is wasted energy if we do not bring this awareness to what we do out in the world.
By the numbers, the vast majority of us will find our little box in the workforce—perhaps owing to financial pressures at home, or a lifelong dream, or simple ambition or any number of reasons. More of us will be employees than activists. But why let your job title limit the good you can do? What will achieve more: a few doing all they can, or all doing as they should?
In this season of accepting job offers and submitting applications, we’re vying for spots in some kind of system. A system will go wrong if filled with petty, self-interested fortunate sons. A system can do right if those within it follow a compass of conscience. Consider the field you want to enter. Think on its problems. Are these structural issues, or merely the dereliction of a duty to help those whom birth and circumstance have put in your care?
To anyone pre-med: be an advocate for your patients. Be more than a lackey to an insurance actuary. Hardly a news cycle passes without mention of someone somewhere being denied needed healthcare. To anyone pre-law: remember that your profession exists to defend the innocent, regardless of how much they can pay you. For all the perks of corporate law, there’s a chance that keeping the innocent poor out of prison does more for human weal than keeping money in the company coffers. And for all you future business executives, is the highest good of human life the creation of larger dividends for shareholders? All too often, “efficiency” means cutting livelihoods. Do not make your life by taking from those with less.
We can play at Midas with a degree, hoarding all we have to ourselves and living a safe life and buying nice things we can’t take with us, or we can use what we have to help those who have not. Maybe we chose to have all this, maybe we didn’t. Maybe we earned it, maybe we didn’t. What’s done is done, and we have what we do. Whether we keep it all to ourselves or give it to those who need it—that is our choice.
Our discourse on privilege is a fixture. Whether any of this talk becomes meaningful action, action that counteracts the hoarding of privilege that places like Duke all too often enable—that choice is ours. Whether you earned it or whether it was given to you, here you are. Whether you chose to have all these riches The ocean is bigger, said Mother Theresa, for your drop being in it, and someone’s load might be lighter for your removing the smallest part. Will we always do good? Probably not. Will we at times be insensitive to the lived experience of those we mean to help, or out of tune with what they really need? Quite likely.
Pete Seeger, the singer-songwriter-activist who performed “Little Boxes” at Carnegie Hall on June 8, 1963, said the following about singing the words of African American people protesting racism, Japanese people protesting the bomb, and dissidents and protestors the world over: “I’m not singing them exactly as I should, because I wasn’t raised to it. But I’d like to try as best I can.” Whatever you think about Duke privilege, you have some of it. You can keep it to yourself, or give what you can to those who need it. Take everything Duke has given you, and all the weight of that Duke name. Find a problem you can help fix, ask people living that problem what they need, and do your best to give it to them.
Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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