The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish
I gotta holler just to be heard
With every word, I drop knowledge!
I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal
Tryin’ to reach my goal. —‘My Shot,’ Lin-Manuel Miranda, ‘Hamilton: the Musical’
(IMPORTANT NOTE: I do not speak for all poor people. We are wildly diverse since being poor hits people regardless of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, ability, you name it. It’s entirely possible I may offend other poor people whose circumstances and experiences differ from mine and those of others I have read, with whose words I have found resonance and illumination of common themes. Among other things, the fact that we have the time and energy and words to write already means we’re privileged in ways that many poor people aren’t. I happen to be disabled in a way that means I have time to read and write, while it also means I can’t hold a job and have no income at present, fighting for disability income for two years. Privilege isn’t a thing you have or don’t—it’s a continuum, read this for more.)
Classism is the little black dress of discrimination—it never goes out of style.
In fact, because many of us don’t have leisure time or cars, and can’t afford where you, economically privileged person, live and shop and eat and play and socialize even if we could get there on the bus lines with all the attendant extra time that takes, most of your time is spent in a glass clubhouse with the ladder pulled up you didn’t even have to build, and never even see it’s there.
You don’t have to do a damn thing to exclude poor people. The whole world is built that way, in ways both big and little, every day. And it’s not like a little ramp would fix it. We lack money, time, transportation, information, resources to even show up. You’d have to go out of your way just to see us in our crazy, scary zoos.
And another thing: stop using us to feel good about yourselves through selfishly-motivated charity. Stop preying on our neediness to get that special warm glow inside of Doing a Good Deed on the one day a year you volunteer at a soup kitchen. Stop expecting us to stroke your ego by praising you as a hero with excess of gratitude, knowing you’re going home to your basic needs being met and tomorrow we’ll still be in hell.
Don’t get me wrong, you should continue to volunteer and donate, but don’t do it just to feel good about yourself and don’t expect us to take care of your need to feel all warm inside or give you cookies for being such a good little helper. This is one thing that really pisses me off in various coping skills and self-help material when it suggests volunteering in order to feel better. Examine your motivations. Take a good look at why you’re doing this, and check your needs at the door. (Also do at least a five-minute Google before you write a check and make DAMN sure you know the details of who’s getting that money and what is being done with it.)
You’re not even breaking a sweat, for maybe these few hours a year; we’re fighting tooth and nail year round. Plus for us to ask for and accept help is risky. It shows our weakness and vulnerability to people stronger than us, and we’ve all had bad experiences with being taken advantage of and loan-sharked. It can be frightening and humiliating for us. Especially with your insensitivity of rubbing our noses in how good it is of you to come down here and assist us poor wretched creatures.
You can respect someone you’re helping (mainly by remembering you are not better than us), but a charity relationship is not an equal one. Like teaching, pity, therapy, and parenting, it puts the recipient in a one-down, supplicant position. It’s important to remember that there is power in the situation. You could revoke what you’re giving at the least provocation, considering it an inconvenience to you. Your inconvenience is our basic need.
And if the only time you ever interact with the poor is in charitable situations, you get in the habit of these roles of expecting yourself to be the ‘fixer’ and us to be the grateful rescued by you, when frequently you show your blatant ignorance of the realities we live with every day and insult our intelligence by just assuming, by virtue of your position, that you’re actually smarter than us.
Let me tell you something.
Poor people know a lot about coping with the unimaginable. You may have been there at one time, but we’re still going through it. Our lives are in mild danger all the time. What if we lose our benefits or jobs? Or health care? What if something breaks or goes wrong that’s essential to survival and we can’t afford to replace it? And we know this, all the time. We know about pressure, oh my yes, yes we do. We may not always have the leisure time and energy and resources and influence to sit down and tell you or write it out, but we do have deep in-the-bone knowing of harsh realities that you don’t.
Ignorance is also a privilege we don’t have. We can’t turn off the nightmare, so don’t judge what we do to numb the pain. How dare you, really, judge our choices from your position outside our hells? How dare you assume we’re doing this to ourselves, that if we just worked harder we could be privileged as you?
Most of us work harder than you do just to survive—disabled and abled alike. We are already doing all we can and have even stretched the limits of human capability, endurance, pain tolerance, and survival.I’m full-time taking care of a disabled person without any kind of family, friends, community, or other support besides food stamps and erratic mental health support—and I’m the disabled person, so sometimes I can’t take care of myself adequately. You do not know what this is like.
We’re also creative in ways you can’t imagine. We find creative alternatives to things you can just buy, creative solutions to problems you can pay your way out of or never even encounter. And we have a lot of life skills you don’t from having to do for ourselves services we can’t afford to pay someone else. We’re fantastic at figuring shit out as we go, and adapting.
I value the critical thinking of someone who has weathered hard times more than any fistful of advanced degrees you’ve got, any day. We learn the hard way what’s not really true, and we question more. We don’t assimilate, we learn and adapt and keep surviving, and naïveté dies off quickly in the crucible.
We’re pretty damn good at living in the moment—sometimes to the extreme of not thinking past tomorrow, and just surviving one more day—and appreciating more simple pleasures that you’re bored with.
And I think we have better definitions of worth and value than you consume and create in this culture. We know what’s intrinsically valuable. We don’t necessarily get so caught up in appearances and perfection and take the time to look closer, although sometimes we’re so full of shame and misery we can’t feel any pleasure or make that judgment call, and I’d like to see you do better, honestly.
I know you’re afraid of becoming like us, so afraid you can’t even admit it to yourself. You cling to your families and jobs and bank accounts and investments and assets and 401ks and your degrees and your social networks and professional networks and your possessions and all your plans and beliefs and you tell yourself that no matter what happens, you’ll always land on your feet. And never be like those poor unfortunate souls with cardboard signs on street corners.
And besides, you got where you are through all your own efforts, right? You got what you deserve, and if these people applied themselves, they could too. Right?
You’re afraid even to admit to yourself that you’re afraid that’s not true. That fortune has favored you. That you had help. Even if you were once poor, you had lucky breaks. Because there are a lot of people that worked even harder than you and just plain died in the gutter.
You want to stay asleep with the blanket over your head in your ‘nice’ neighborhood—there’s no place like economically privileged home!—dreaming The American Dream. That you can be born with nothing and work your way up to the top and become president.
Really? All on your own?
No help at all?
Good luck with that.
Money doesn’t fall from the sky, and neither do opportunities. They come from government and private institutions and organizations, from legislation and from sheer lucky chance, but most of all they come from individuals, every day. Individuals like you.
Chances are you’ve helped a lot of people all around you every single day, and they were all like you—because you don’t shop or work or eat or live or play anywhere that we do. So all that helping just circulates around the same middle-class pool. You don’t even need a ‘Privileged Only’ sign on the gate, because it’s way off the bus route and we’re fucking too tired to swim anyway.
We value what we have inside us. It’s the one thing no one can take away or destroy. Poor people are strong, and creative, and intelligent. We see past appearances and think critically. We endure, adapt, and survive. We learn what you don’t have to. We didn’t set out to achieve these qualities through bettering ourselves or self-help books. We got this way by surviving.
You have no idea what we live with.
You have no idea what we have inside us.
You’ve been so generous sharing what you have inside you, perhaps you vocal few (but if you’re not speaking up in a conflict you’re on the side of the aggressor; bystanders don’t get innocence points and need to take responsibility for the consequences saying nothing). This narrative permeates our culture, and it makes me sick, and it makes us all look bad, and it tells us the story of who we are and how pathetic we are. Because we often don’t have a voice to tell you who we really are and what it’s really like. We don’t have the media, platforms, connections, credibility, respect, the time, the energy, and the nicey-nice words you wanna hear. And we don’t tell the story that fits with yours.
So the next time you wanna play Rescuer and expect me to shower you with golden gratitude—
The next time you privilegesplain something to me about my experience—or give me asinine advice without my consent (is it so hard to ask first?)—based on whatever fantasy reality you’re still living in that bears no resemblance to what I live with every day—
The next time you judge choices whose results you don’t have to live with, and assume that we had better ones—
The next time you overvalue what you’ve learned from books and institutions and studies made up almost exclusively of economically privileged people—because how many poor people have the resources of time and transportation and energy and access (or are even asked) to participate in studies in any fashion, and is that information ever noted in the documentation?—
The next time you undervalue or invalidate lived experience and emergent knowledge and understanding—
The next time you laugh at or repost a joke about some ‘loser’ living with their parents, or trailer trash, or white trash, or the people at Wal-Mart with pain in their eyes you never seem to see—
The next time you judge a poor person with an addiction, visible dirt, worn out clothes, missing teeth—
The next time you judge me as ‘not really poor’ because I don’t fit the picture in your head—that judges based on appearances and nitpicks every detail of how I look and live and makes assumptions—because I make an effort to pass as ‘not-poor’ for the same reason it’s good not to appear to be a wounded gazelle on the savannah; I get much more respect and consideration when I pass—
The next time you scrutinize and judge what I spend my money on—
The next time you pat yourself on the back for giving what’s easy to give, money you can afford by changing to a lower Netflix plan or volunteering for a couple of hours on a national holiday, and celebrate how Mother Theresa you all are with a round of Organic Artisan Local Fair Trade Free-Range Prosecco and verbal mutual masturbation—
The next time you take up my space in those rare times I summon the resources to be there and the courage to speak, talk over me, expect me to explain what you don’t understand or give you a cookie for heroically taking a few minutes to read this and dip a toe in where I have to live—
The next time you touch my body or my stuff in that too-familiar way like you do with your privileged friends—
The next time you yap condescendingly at me or some other poor person for being angry, not calm and perfectly polite and considerate of all your emotional needs (godsdamn it, we are tired—you get cranky when you’re tired too—we are tired all the time)—
The next time you look down on us—
The next time you feel sorry for us or pity us—
Just don’t go there.
If you give me the gift of one less arrogant, loudly ignorant privileged person—
one person with closed mouth really listening to what I have to say—
one person asking me to share my expertise in order to hear it rather than refute it—
—then I truly will be thankful.
And my expression of gratitude will be heartfelt.
“It breaks my heart to realize that the economic deprivation of my past and present does not simply limit me in terms of what I can buy and what resources I have access to. It also limits who I can love and who can love me. […] Being with anyone outside of my economic class requires a substantial and ongoing effort, and I cannot feel safe and comfortable with someone who is not willing or able to pick up their end of that effort. I cannot date or become close in any way to someone who casually makes classist jokes, who resists being called out for classist statements, who doesn’t believe that class is an important issue, who is insensitive or dismissive of money issues in my own life, or who becomes uncomfortable in discussions of my poverty or their privilege. […] I don’t think that people who don’t meet my standards are necessarily bad people, or that they are not worth being around. But for my sanity and security, for the sake of an emotionally heathy relationship, for the mere fact of wanting to be with someone who treats me as a human being with valid and real experiences, my close relationships have to be very carefully formed.” —‘Of love and money,’ classragespeaks.tumblr.com
Kinder, gentler articles on this subject (or companions):
- Nine things I wish economically privileged people in my life knew
- Nine ways to be a good friend in the face of economic differences
- This Is Why Poor People Can (And Should) Have Nice Things
- The Logic of Stupid Poor People
- 4 Ways We Ignore Poverty and Blame Poor People and What You Can Do to Help
- Being Poor
- ‘You should be grateful for what you’ve got’
- 5 Things Nobody Tells You About Being Poor (for contrast: this is even less kind and gentle than mine, to show you just how angry this rant COULD have been, yo)