Sunday, March 25, 2012


Have you seen this "do you live in a bubble?" quiz and article from NPR?

I scored a low number, which means that I do, in fact, live in a bubble of privilege.

It reminded me of a step forward/back exercise I've been subject to in groups talking about racism and privilege and such. You step forward if you're a minority, back if you took private lessons in something as a kid, and so on.

The weird thing about these "tests" is that because of the set up, you feel like you really want to be one stepping forward (or scoring a high number), even though most US folks spend much of their energy in fact trying to step back (or have their kids step back) or trying to live with privilege. (And one of the problems, especially with the structural racism in the US, is that most people of color won't get to a good level of what counts as privilege no matter how hard they work.) Trayvon Martin didn't live with the "privilege" of not being shot because he was wearing a hoodie and went to buy some candy. But that seriously shouldn't be privilege, should it?

(I've got nothing to add to the discussion of Trayvon Martin's death, except to be horrified.)

Anyway, according to the quiz, I'm in quite a bubble. And, yes, I think I am. The bubble being explored (or revealed) in the quiz is more a social/economic status bubble rather than a race bubble, and it exposes my social class privilege pretty clearly.

If you read the comments, there are a lot of commenters sounding very defensive about their results, and I understand that defensiveness. I had the same initial response, and then I thought about it and yes, realized that I'm pretty darned privileged and my behavior shows it. (The questions reflect mostly behavioral choices--did you go fishing, watch certain TV shows regularly, and so on--though some reflect choice less--did you live in a small town, and so on.)

It seems to me that what's important is to NOT make excuses for one's choices just because they correlate with social/economic status, but to think about how one's choices and experiences aren't those that most people in the US make or have, and then to step back and think hard about one's judgments about those choices.

Here's an example from the quiz. It asks if, in the last month, you've voluntarily hung out with people who smoke. I haven't. And really, I'm happy I haven't. It's way more healthy not to smoke, right? And I want to be healthy, and want my friends to be healthy, and so on.

But a lot of people do smoke, and it means something that I don't hang out with them. Here's what the quiz says about this question:
Rates of smoking have a strong socioeconomic gradient, but the wording of the question is designed to get at something else. Open smoking in the world of the new upper class has become so rare that it is nearly invisible. Cigars and pipes appear occasionally, but it is possible to go for weeks in the new-upper-class milieu without smelling a whiff of cigarette smoke anywhere except on a public street. Elsewhere in America, there are still lots of homes, bars, and work sites where smoking goes on openly, and nonsmokers in those settings accept it as a fact of life. The question asks to what extent you have any voluntary participation in that part of America.
That's interesting, isn't it? I might wish that no one would smoke (for the health reasons, and also because we have a lot of land under agricultural production for tobacco that could be growing other stuff), but the survey is more looking at my ability to choose not to hang out with folks who are smoking. And that's a bubble ability.

Should I suddenly start hanging out with people who are smoking? I'm not going to. But I should certainly be aware that my ability to make that choice is something that a lot of US people don't have, and that's important.

To what extent are our choices freely made or not? To what extent are our "choices" determined (or strongly influenced) by our friends and family or social/economic status?


  1. I got 55, which seems to indicate that I am in touch with middle class reality. Whatever that is.

  2. I got 40, and the description is spot-on-- "A first-generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents."

    All through childhood I aspired to be upper middle class and it has been everything I've hoped and dreamed it would be. There's so much less stress! Such a wider choice-set.

    One of my friends from graduate school was here to give a talk last week... apparently she got an 11.

    In terms of how did we get here... well, my parents made a LOT of sacrifices for my education and my sister's education. We took a lot of opportunities (and made opportunities) that we were lucky to have and worked very hard.

    We had it easier than DH's family though... my parents knew things were possible, had some upper middle class siblings, had education, lots of geographic mobility etc. It's weird talking about education with DH's family because they believe that education is there for the sole purpose of providing a better job, and nobody likes their jobs. My family believes education is there to make you a better person, as a coming of age experience, and what is important is what we contribute to society, not how much money we make. That's a luxury.

    How did DH get where he is? He took an opportunity to move out of the small rural town at age 15 and a whole new world opened up. It's much harder to leave that town than it was the town where I grew up because there are so few opportunities and so few second chances.

    We're doing our best to help out his next generation of relatives in terms of education and moving forward. It sure would be nice for them to have opportunities like we did.

  3. The comments are WILD. I got a 49, which seemed to me about right. And I think that the point that you make about choice in relation to the bubble is right on. Sure, I could choose to disown half of my family and many of the friends with whom I grew up, and never to see them because they smoke, but that's not really a "choice" I'm willing to make. If, however, I came from a family where nobody smoked, it would be a choice that would be more possible.

    I'd also say, though, my results definitely skewed in the direction that they did because of my upbringing and also because of the students that I teach at a primarily commuter university who tend to be in the first generation in their family to attend college and who tend to be putting themselves through school. I don't think that it would be fair for me to pat myself on the back for my lack of privilege or lack of being in a bubble in a lot of my day-to-day living in the present tense - it's just that I bring a set of experiences to the table that don't go away just because of the privilege that I have now.

  4. I got a 26. It says I am either "a first-generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents" or "a second-generation (or more) upper-middle-class person who has made a point of getting out a lot." (The latter is actually sort of accurate, although I'd quibble with a LOT of things about this quiz, starting with the assumption that privileged = urban.

  5. Privileged does not equal urban, but cities enable bubbles of privilege. When I lived in New York, I knew and hung out with people like me, similar tastes, education, opinions, who lived all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, even a couple in Queens, but I scarcely knew anyone, even to say hello to, in my building. People who live in small (non-college) towns don't have that opportunity: they have to hang out with their neighbors, there's no-one else.

  6. Anonymous1:45 PM

    Some of the questions do seem odd, though. The one about beer, and the one about fishing, for instance. I was thinking just yesterday that the liquor store was the great American equalizer -- every class of person ends up there -- but then I read a comment on FB from one of my Evangelical students, castigating people for talking about drinking in their status posts, so, you know, maybe not. (Obligatory Baptist fishing joke here.)

    But my point is I never buy beer; I only buy hard liquor -- black strap rum. The $11.00/ bottle sort. So while in theory I ought to get points for that question (I drink like I'm working class) in point of fact I did not.

    Plus, what's with the fishing question? Everyone fishes around here. I don't think Murray's every been South of the Mason-Dixon line.

    (me, delagar)

  7. Anonymous1:58 PM

    I agree--what's with the fishing question?

    ps: I was right in the middle, scorewise. Hmmmm.

  8. Yeah, there are lots of little weird bits about the survey... not exactly sure that it's measuring what it says it is.

    For example, Mary Kay Cosmetics was what we had growing up, not Avon (Avon, in fact, I think of as snooty!) We know not to talk politics or religion in polite company. I've been to Branson, MO (though my first thought is Colbert and Richard Branson throwing water at each other), but only because I've been to almost every city and tourist attraction of note in the Midwest because my parents wanted to give us the cultural experiences they could. My DH who lived much closer to Branson had actually never been because well, the only vacation any one takes is to Disney World (I've never actually been to Florida), or sometimes the nearest city (4 hours away). He would also have had to drive 2 hours growing up at least to get to any of those restaurants listed. Of course, he feels like he was living in a bubble growing up, just not an elite bubble.

    It's definitely measuring something to do with white urban/rural working/upper-middle-classness. Which is kind of Charles Murray's thing, eh?

  9. Anonymous3:37 PM

    53 for me--as I put it to my husband, I watch bad movies and worse TV.

  10. I got a 26 - and I must be really tired because I didn't understand exactly what it meant, although I believe it is "A second-generation (or more) upper-middle-class person who has made a point of getting out a lot", which would describe me very well.

  11. I got a 37. Seems aboutnright Would have probably been lower without the pickup truck and the fishing.

    Can't believe I wasn't allowed to count my varsity letter in cheerleading!

  12. It is a weird survey. I got a 26, which was probably about right, but then I go to no movies, and watch almost no TV.

    As a survey, it seemed pretty odd, because it assumed a bubble was the stereotypical NPR listener; it seemed to measure how much you diverged from the stereotype more than the range of your social contacts. Other kinds of "bubbles" of like minded people are not classified as bubbles.

  13. I got a 25. Thought it would be lower, actually. But maybe the fact that I moved to my small town to be a college professor skews the results?

  14. Another 55er here. Because I like beer on a hot summer day and/or with pizza, dithered between Branson MO and Richard (both came immediately to mind), etc.. And I was actually startled with the 55. Have y'all seen the BBC thing that measures you in the world income range? Humbling.

  15. I got a 59, which is higher than I would have thought.
    Truthfully, it was interesting to think of which decisions were pivotal. Frankly, my "bubble" is more insulated because as a teenager I chose *not* to hang out with people who smoked (because my parents did, and I feel like I've paid my dues as someone who has no choice but to suffer through it). Conversely, the fact I chose my current partner might have 'popped' my bubble in a lot of ways... my TV and movie habits are mostly his fault, and I was amused I even got credit for his fishing (even though I haven't been).

    Though as far as quibbling in defensiveness about my privilege, I feel like I should get some kind of bonus for selling Avon, and the fact my partner bought two used pickup trucks in one year. And if Rotary counts, so should Toastmasters- that's been huge in changing my bubble.
    It is interesting stuff to think about.

  16. Anonymous1:16 PM

    I got a 58. Mostly due to my military brat upbringing, in a family from NASCAR country, and having my first job at a small college in the middle of nowhere...oh and the fact that I still identify as an evangelical Christian even if I don't care for the terminology, and I technically attend a "mainline" church...

  17. Sidera Dextra10:34 AM

    I got a 55 -- and I'm a native new yorker, prep school-multiple ivy educated, from a wasp family (trust fund + Mayflower ancestors). I'd say upper class background.

    What made my score high I think is that my former partner is army, I've lived central Harlem, and lived in a developing country. I also come from an albeit glamorous profession where your body hurts at the end of every day and you're lucky not to need joint replacements in middle age.

    And those childhood summers on Martha's Vineyard mean life long friendships with islanders -- rush listening, churchgoing, red Massachusettians. and fishing trips.

    All this is to show some the counterintuitive limits of Murray's quiz on the individual level.