I got charged $12.50 for overdraft protection yesterday. For those of you who don’t have this setup, that means I was overdrawn from my checking account, so they moved money from my savings to cover it. This costs them nothing, but they charge a rather substantial fee for it, because they can. I got hit by surprise because the IRS finally deposited my tax payment, and on the same day,I went to Costco for the first time and spent several hundred dollars on diapers, wipes, Gatorade, etc. to donate in my business-burned, Covid-careening neighborhood. And Costco only takes bank cards and cash.
I called the bank, calmly complained about the charge, mentioned my long, unsullied history with the institution, not to mention (I mentioned) my mortgage with the same, and the surprise of the double Costco-Fed whammy, and asked for a reversal. I got one, as I was pretty sure I would. So sure that I decided before I called to forward the $12.50 to an organization working against White Supremacy to “pay back” what I had gained from my privilege. And I have. But how much meaning does $12.50 hold when people like me are already donating hundreds of dollars to related organizations? What else can I cultivate from this seed?
A dollar by dollar break-it-down for my readers, of course! Let’s bust into the bounty that is this tiny sliver of my privilege:
- The first $1.00 of privilege for having a bank account (you can sing this to the tune of the 12 days of Xmas, but it won’t hold up)
- Did you know that about 7% of Americans are “unbanked”? Many don’t have enough money to keep an account active, some are put off by fees they can’t afford, some don’t trust banks because they are undocumented or had a bad experience. These stats are from 2012, but just to give you a sense of how this breaks down: of households with less than $15,000 income/year, 28% have no bank account. Numbers are similar for the unemployed and people without high school degrees. No surprise that African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics have higher unbanked rates than others since they are more likely to fall into the previous categories, due to racist policies. And the poor, as they say, get poorer. When people have to resort to money orders, check cashing services, etc. they can wind up putting a significant amount of their income each year towards fees & interest.
- Privilege: middle-class, birthright citizen, financially literate
- $1.00 for having a car
- A functioning one that allowed me to drive to Costco while the businesses in my neighborhood are burned down, damaged, or shuttered; and a valid license that authorizes me to drive it.
- Privilege: middle-class, birthright citizen
- $1.00 for the ability to drive to and shop at Costco
- I bought my car used, with no special accommodations; it even has a stick shift. My hearing and (heavily assisted) vision are adequate; I don’t suffer from seizures or sudden blinding headaches. I can be in proximity to others wearing masks in an enclosed space for a brief time with truly minimal risk to my health.
- Privilege: no significant disabilities, not immuno-compromised
- $1.00 for the privilege of paying taxes
- I make enough money to do so. Or maybe little enough money to do so…? I’ll go with both.
- Privilege: middle-class, citizen
- $1.00 for my clean history with the bank
- I haven’t had much real financial struggle as an adult and I’ve had the resources to back me up when I needed it, because at least one of my parents was not buried in debt and able to help, because my poor, immigrant Jewish ancestors were White and my grandparents were able to build a small business and invest in a home in small-town Wisconsin (at the sacrifice of their culture, but little else) with the help of the GI Bill.
- I haven’t been hit with a health or other crisis that would drain my resources
- Privilege: White, healthy, middle-class
- $1.00 for my mortgage in an area of South Minneapolis built on restrictive racial covenants
- Not only were Black people (and sometimes Latinx, Asian, Jewish) explicitly not allowed to buy many of the homes in my neighborhood from 1910ish – 1960ish, African-Americans are still denied home loans, often at several times the rate denied Whites with similar financial profiles, education, and jobs.
- Privilege: White, middle-class
- $1.00 for the ability to call the bank and request the reversal.
- I don’t seek out confrontation, but my self-righteous recognition of the pattern of institutions taking advantage of people simply because they can, coupled with the confidence I would succeed, made this quite easy. I also don’t suffer from anxiety or ADHD.
- Privilege: Neurotypical, systemically literate
- $1.00 for having the time to call the bank and talk this through
- I only work one job most of the year, because I earn enough to be able to do that. I have also been lucky enough to live my dream of never having children who might demand the time I don’t spend at work.
- Privilege: college educated, urban, access to birth control
- $1.00 for knowing the charge happened
- It spotted it immediately when I opened my email, which I accessed on my work computer, with my high-speed internet, having set up alerts in online banking years ago.
- middle-class, computer literate, employed and able to work from home during Covid-19
- $1.00 for speaking the language fluently
- Not just English, but the code used when approaching a situation like this, the subtle mix of self-effacement and confidence, the words chosen and tone used when asking for a favor that shouldn’t be a favor and isn’t really a favor, but a ritual practiced between middle-class whites and organizations on a regular basis.
- native English speaker, college educated, White-culture literate
- $1.00 for knowing this was even an option
- “When white people are alone, they give things to each other for free.” It didn’t really matter if the bank rep on the other end of the line was White, or even if I was White. The structure had already been established that this business, built on Capitalist White Supremacy, could make decisions about who to favor, based on the privileges highlighted above, and that the people it favored would know to take advantage of those privileges. As long as the overall structure guides and encourages White people, it can allow a handful of properly acclimated BIPOC to sneak in through the cracks. For the greater good, y’know.
- Privilege: White-culture literate
- And the 12th dollar for assuming I live in a world that will treat me with fairness; that I can air my grievances; that I can “take it to the manager” without being perceived as a liar, a beggar, a thief, or a threat.
- Privilege: Whiteness
That leaves me with $.50 unaccounted for. Please jump in and point out the privileges I’m missing in this transaction and the actions that led to it. I am continually unsurprised by the ways in which I am still ignorant, and always looking to fill in those gaps.
Was this too cute? Maybe this was too cute, but as someone who is literally breathing privilege every day (yes, I will write about Environmental Justice sometime soon), it can be hard to recognize it. Doing so not does not just feed my gratitude piggy, it opens me up to seeing the challenges that people not likewise privileged may live with every day. Every damn day, folks. This is the most minor of economic interactions. Multiply it by an unimaginable number and you get the unimaginably rigged system that we all navigate. The political is personal. It took a lot of pointed education and countless racist-capitalist policies to put me where I am situated, and it will take a lot more education and policy change before incurring and overturning a stupid bank fee takes 12 kinds of privilege.