When Did Entitled Become a Four-Letter Word?

by Eileen McFarland

Congratulations, class of 2013! Just one year ago I was you, and I was scared. Teetering on graduation with no job, I faced depressing reports on recent graduates’ underemployment (“Half of recent college grads underemployed or jobless, analysis says”) and a return to my childhood bedroom.

But one of my fears as I neared graduation, somewhere below not finding a job but above the commencement announcer mispronouncing my name, was the threat of being mistaken for a stereotype: the white, aimless drifter who assumes she will enjoy career success after graduation, an entitled ingenue who might not know where she’s going, but is certain she will get there.

Honestly, I did expect to get a job after college. It was all part of a narrative — “go to college, get a job, get married” — that I had been pressured to follow. Many (most?) recent graduates entered college with similar expectations, which does open us up to charges of entitlement.

But I struggle to reconcile such accusations with the drive that I witnessed in my classmates. When I peeked in my university’s library carrels at 3 a.m., their sleep-deprived inhabitants didn’t look like they expected success to be handed to them. Their debt loads didn’t imply that either: The average student loan borrower now finishes college with a total debt load of $27,000.

It’s new for the term “entitled” to be applied to upper-middle class white college graduates, but not new for it to be used on people trying to better themselves. Beginning in the 1980s with Reagan’s grossly exaggerated “welfare queen” anecdote, “entitlement” came to be associated with the (false) stereotype of a poor, black, single mother who relied on public assistance.

Our nation’s social consciousness still links entitlement with blackness, a connection that Justice Scalia exposed when he referred to parts of the Voting Rights Act as “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

In contrast, my own concern about being judged as entitled is clearly trivial. After all, Mitt Romney didn’t aim his 47% comment at those toting fresh sheepskins, and Newt Gingrich didn’t slur college students as not knowing how to work. Those comments are reserved for people who never had the opportunity to cry in a library cubicle at 3 a.m.

So: Our society calls people “entitled” for desiring a means to support themselves, be that through jobs, public assistance, or a combination of the two. Such economic problems require a solution with more forethought than a putdown and a real look at why those we smear can’t afford to support themselves.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Right now we’re on a sinking boat. Passengers on the upper decks, including recent graduates, will last longer than the poorer passengers on the lower decks. Self-interest makes it easy for upper-level passengers to ignore the issues of communities that are historically referred to as entitled — even when that decision causes them to ignore an problem which concerns them.

I wish the best to everyone graduating from college this year, and I truly hope that you enjoy commencement. But yes, that is the sound of rising water over “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Eileen McFarland lives in Nashville.