What It Means to Give Back on Uneasy Street

Uneasy StreetWhen Rachel Sherman set out to gain an understanding of how the wealthy feel about their position of privilege in modern society, she put aside her preconceived notions and assumptions. She wanted to avoid the “voyeurism, skepticism, and moral judgment” that permeates mainstream representations of individuals from the upper class, seen in media like the “Real Housewives” series. In Uneasy Street, Sherman attempts to challenge the presumption that, “rich people are unpleasant, greedy, [or] competitive consumers.” Her interviews with over fifty members of the NY-based economic elite might surprise readers—especially when it comes to issues like charity and “giving back” to those less fortunate.

Early in Uneasy Street, Sherman describes the characteristics that, according to her interviewees, make up a “good person” on the upper echelon of society. These people valued hard work above all else, as well as self-sufficiency, productivity, and independence. But one surprising personality trait desired by many is the obligation to “give back”—the only trait that explicitly recognizes the inherent privilege of the interviewees. But what does this mean for the upper class? With so many different charitable causes, and so many ways they could provide support to those in need, Sherman highlighted the varying ways that this community gave back.

On a most basic level, many of Sherman’s interviewees emphasized the importance of the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This includes presuming equivalence, and therefor equality, by not discussing money with others and treating service providers (waiters, personal concierges, etc.) with respect. But, when it came to giving money, Sherman said that most interviewees turned towards organizations that were personal to them. For example, lawyers tended to donate to legal aide, while artists gave to arts organizations. Others took a more direct approach to their charity, by attending or organizing galas, luncheons, and even full fundraising drives.

But sometimes an interviewees’ service for others was lateral—not for someone less fortunate than them, but someone of equal standing in society. For example, inviting friends and neighbors on expensive vacations, or hosting their child’s class party in their home. Additionally, when it came to giving money, there were some interviewees who made their donations to organizations from which their money had or will eventually benefit them. For example, their alma maters or their child’s school. Some even associated their annual taxes with charity work, since they felt that they would not benefit from where that money was going.

The most interesting observation about charity work, however, is the way that giving back became a value for many families, passed down from generation to generation. Many of the adults interviewed mentioned that the act of donating a portion of their income was instilled in them from a young age by parents, with those who had been giving back from a young age less willing to serve as a public face for philanthropic efforts. These adults were also attempting to pass along such values to their children by insisting they spend a portion of their time volunteering at local homeless shelters, or even the neighborhood public schools, so that they get an idea of what life is like for the less fortunate living around them.

These (occasionally conflicting) viewpoints on philanthropy is only one of the many ways that Sherman peeks past the curtain and reveals an upper class more complicated and caring than their reality TV counterparts. With Uneasy Street, she hopes to provide a thorough examination of how the other half really lives.