I’ve just returned from the incredible-awesome-life-changing-affirming ROOTS Week 2016 and I’m still digesting and processing all the gifts I received there, everything I learned. In the meantime there are videos and posts that were nearly finished, that I’m continuing to post now that I’m re-entering my so-called life and finishing those up. Still so much to say! I appreciate your time and attention.
Stepping Over Street Sleepers
Money delineates where we live and work and shop and eat and socialize, or whether we have the time and energy and money to socialize. Systemically economically privileged people find it easy to be isolated their whole lives from poor communities, like the story of Prince Siddharta hidden away in the palace from the evils of the world.
I grew up middle class, sheltered. I heard all the jokes and sneering and derision at the expense of those who lived with their parents past college, those without jobs, with minimum wage jobs, the avoidance of topics of classism, the lack of discussions about any of the things that poor people have to think of all the time. Privilege means having the privilege to be unaware that you have privilege.
Now that I’m poor, things that were invisible to me are made all too clear.
Our culture dehumanizes the poor. Pity. Harassment, yells to ‘get a job!’ Stepping over them in the street. Making unchallenged jokes about the poor. Disregarding the legislation that’s anti-poor, the huge increasing gap between the very rich and very poor, the lifelong insults and humiliations of the dehumanizing position of poverty. The mistaken belief that it won’t happen here or to us.
There’s so much crime against the poor and especially homeless. There’s so little justice available to them, so the consequences are few. They’re at risk for all kinds of violent crime and discrimination. They’re effectively barred by the systemic mechanism of money from justice, including inclusion in conversations about them and their needs and feelings. And no one has to consciously work to exclude the poor. Their segregation is deeply ingrained in how our society is built, to the point that it’s unconscious, and if thought of at all is considered normal and a safety issue.
The one percent at the top of the economic ladder have far too much money and influence and the poor far too little.
When I was middle class I was aware, even as a child, of the fear in that uncomfortable silence around the poor. We know the economic gap is increasing and things are worsening for the poor in first-world countries, particularly America with its classist mythical Dream and extremely short-term memory with regards to history. Peasants throughout time have had a nasty habit of revolting, like the bloodbath of the French Revolution.
Myth of the Mooch: Question Time!
We’re socialized and inundated by cultural messaging that implies someone’s class impacts their desirability as a friend, and represents a financial danger to the more economically privileged person. The mooch. The gold-digger.
Would you be friends with or date someone poorer than you? Why not? What assumptions do you make about people who are poorer than you? What do you base this on? Would you be friends with or date someone richer than you? Would you feel comfortable ‘mooching’ off of them as you think poorer people would off of you?
If you don’t make the effort to have equal friendships with poorer people, and only seek out spaces where people of your same affluence would be when looking for prospective partners, think about questioning those things—just like questioning whether you have racial biases masquerading as ‘preferences’ in looking for romantic partners.
What assumptions do you make about people who live at home with their parents past a certain age? What reasons, if any, do you assume for this?
Do you believe that all success is due solely to the hard work of the individual? Do you believe that the poor are to blame and the burden is solely theirs for improving their station? Do you gobble up inspiration porn of the American Dream? Do you think that these people did not initially have worth as poor people but acquired it through heroic effort?
What assumptions do you make about the poor experience? Do you have poor friends? Do you go to poor neighborhoods, shop where poor people do? How do you feel around poor people? Are you aware that poor people may not look like poor people, ditto with the homeless?
Do you honestly believe people could stop being poor if they just worked harder?
The Pervasiveness of Classist Culture
Marlo Thomas, interviewing Chris Rock: “…Like your jokes about our having so much food in our country, we have the luxury of being allergic to it. You say, ‘There’s no dairy intolerance in Africa.’ That’s such a great observation.”
Food snobbery, food policing, and boycotting corporations based on their bad business practices—along with shaming those who don’t—are all sneaky ways classism can be normalized in our culture.
I’ve been inundated with so much body and life policing it’s been like being in an avalanche. That’s just what’s said and done to my face. These microaggressions are a death by a thousand cuts. The people doing this condescending advising and ‘suggestions’—unsolicited advice is criticism—have little to no understanding of the realities I live with nor the resources that privilege them to make choices that I lack, and the difference in impact such choices can have in my life versus their own.
‘The Secret,’ the ‘Law of Attraction,’ and the concept of ‘manifesting’ through visualizing what you want and saying affirmations are also sneaky popularized classism, with a dash of all the other isms thrown in too. These fail to take in that overwhelmingly the people championing the effectiveness of these things were privileged to begin with. Not everyone is starting from the same place. An important aspect of privilege is that we’re unaware of the many ways it opens doors for us and stacks the deck in our favor.
I’ve addressed this before but it’s worth talking again about language policing and elitism. When the people with power set the rules for how, when, and where conversations can take place, what words we can use, whose feelings need to be taken care of first, and how much emotion we can display, it’s very easy to silence and oppress the voices of the disempowered. When access to information about these issues is blocked by lack of money for education, lack of time, energy, lack of internet access, lack of awareness that there are resources out there, and the draining experience of being poor, we’re robbing people of awareness and opportunities to speak about their experiences.
Every day we make choices when we choose how and where we take information, and what voices we empower with our attention, time, and money. Many of us don’t question the overwhelmingly popular sources of information, nor our preference for slick (read: expensive) production values and messaging that may not be available to the marginalized and underprivileged. I feel that the lived experiences of the marginalized are more important than the opinions of the more economically and educationally privileged, but more air time, more money, more publishing and speaking options, more interview time and more space is given to popular media and privileged social scientists.
Socialization isn’t so much a science that can be studied in a lab and reduced to statistics, particularly if that lab is only accessible to people with the economic privilege to take the time and energy and transportation to participate in these studies—or even hear about them. I notice no one talking about this really important demographic absence in the study of people.
Also the demographic absence in who gets to construct the narrative, the scientists and writers whose biases influence the study and how its results are presented. Social science can be an extremely problematic and misleading lens to look at ourselves, especially the marginalized.
Poor-Shaming & Mocking/Judging Couch-Dwellers and Other Invisibly Homeless
The internet is a powerful tool for communication, for exposing and analyzing and questioning things, and it gives platforms to many people whose voices in the past have been underrepresented.
It’s also a powerful tool for bullies to normalize, popularize, and bond over schadenfreude, dehumanization, and harassment anonymously and without consequences. This targets everyone and everything without mercy.
The culture of internet ‘snark’ is normalizing an empathy-deficient bullying culture. There are websites solely devoted to giving space and influence to disaffected people hiding behind anonymity and lack of face-to-face consequences to vent their spleens on everything.
It’s a tool, like a hammer. Which can be used to build things or bludgeon someone to death.
This tool gives me and other oppressed voices for our dissatisfaction, but my moral code and that of many other activists is: “punch up.” Not down, not sideways. This means only attacking people with more power than you, particularly those misusing it and hurting others.
There is shame in spitting on those beneath you and kicking those who are down. It isn’t just bad form, it’s bad behavior. We are what we repeatedly do. Even in just silent bystanding, of not wanting to rock the boat or make waves or confront our snarky acquaintances and family members, we normalize and sanction this little black dress of oppression that never goes out of style—classism.
Online I see the worst minds of mine and other generations cavorting in consequence-free bullying and abuse of people who could never fight back, people in pain and struggling to survive. I see people who may as well be posting pictures of starving kids in third-world countries and laughing, but somehow it’s okay because we’re a first-world country and the signs of our disease and suffering aren’t so visible.
I don’t frequent these sites, but even insulated as I am from culture by my overwhelming situation, I’m not unaware of ‘The People of Wal-Mart’ and the popularity of economically privileged people engaging in this classist bullying and fat-shaming. Listen: unhealthy food is cheaper, poor people often can’t get good health care, and we certainly can’t afford gym memberships. Maybe our neighborhoods aren’t safe places to walk or jog. Many of us are so disabled or exhausted from overwork for miserly pay that exercise is a laughable waste of our already depleted energy.
I am one of the people of Wal-Mart. I go to Wal-Mart and I don’t see anything to laugh at. I don’t pay attention to what people wear or how they jury-rig cars they can’t afford to repair or how they look. What I see is the pain in many eyes, resignation, thousand-mile stares of the perpetually traumatized and overloaded, many people who struggle to survive each day. I see averted gazes, lines of worry and pain.
I look middle-class and abled. I feel deeply ashamed when people of color see me approach and skitter out of my way with downcast eyes and apologies. As if I have more right to take up space than them! I try to hang back and wait my turn if someone’s standing in front of what I’m aiming for. But I see the sensitivity of the abused and oppressed to the awareness of people more privileged than them in their midst, a sensitivity I know all too well. I am white and well-dressed, and carry my middle-class upbringing with me in ways I probably don’t even recognize.
I wish I could somehow (without being too emotionally needy or making them more uncomfortable—no one with a marginalized identity should feel pressured to take care of my feelings of discomfort around our inequality) apologize sincerely to these strangers. I am sorry for intruding on their space in a way they are all so used to. I wish I could tell them that I am aware it’s deeply unfair, what has just happened. The world shows me deference I haven’t earned at their expense and pain.
All I can think to do is to use my voice on these platforms and say, “Stop with the schadenfreude and bullying and stomping on those who are down, who are less powerful than you.”
Don’t just stop reading and reposting People of Wal-Mart and similar bullshit. Stop being a silent bystander. Use your privilege and voice stand up to your privileged friends, as I am doing right now. Tell them, “This shit is abusive and uncool and I will not tolerate it from you. I do not want to see this in my news feed. The rule is punch up. Always punch up. Not sideways, not down, punch up.”
If we want to end oppression we do it by challenging and standing up to oppressors, not aiding them in their oppression by either posting these things, or standing by and doing nothing because you don’t want to cause a fuss or upset your friendships. Recognize that if you do this you are preserving friendships with people who engage in classist and bullying behavior. This prioritizes unchallenged relations with problematic people and sending a message to those of us with less power about where your values truly lie.
And recognize that these bullies you’re keeping as friends will probably someday turn their unchecked behaviors on you. They certainly will be a source of cruelty and betrayal should anything bad ever turn to you, and life being what it is, that’s only a matter of time.
If you’re not uncomfortable with the way things are, then chances are this world favors and privileges you and makes it possible for you to be shielded from the suffering of those less fortunate than you. The aim of life should not be for you to be only surrounded by things that make you feel pleasant. This does everyone a disservice, including the things about yourself that wind up getting repressed and packed down, as my words and feelings did when I self-silenced for the cause of the ‘greater good.’
‘White Saviors’ and Inspiration Porn
I don’t want to condemn charity or declare some sort of war on generosity, but I think giving mindlessly can lead to some dangerous and harmful behavior and mindsets that I want to talk about, having experienced such toxic giving.
Charity culture as the sole way of interacting with the poor is another form of benevolent domination, giving them token handouts to make the giver feel better and expecting gratitude. It’s a systemic injustice that we should be quarrelling over these scraps, exhausted and hounded and deprived by laws the economically advantaged pass and support through funding candidates to push agendas that protect the privileged from awareness of our pain or even existence in communities.
Wars on poverty tend to slide down into wars against poor people, burdening us with the responsibility for fixing systems over which we have no control or power.
Meanwhile we only make the news when either horrifying shit happens to us or from us. Or when someone miraculously pulls themselves out of society’s dirty little secret to be more like the economically advantaged and share a success story that affirms security, specialness and desirability of non-poor lives, and affirm that it’s hard work and willpower that got people where they are.
What We Can Do as Individuals in Everyday Life
There’s no quick fix for this. But we need to change individual mindsets and what we say and do and think, and what we challenge in others. We need to recognize the hate crime atmosphere we create when we laugh at other people as if they are less deserving of respect, as if they are less than human, because they are forced to adapt to inhuman circumstances to survive.
We need to be able to humanize all poor people, not just the successful ones or the ones who fall over themselves to give the privileged warm fuzzies of gratitude when tossed breadcrumbs like we’re no better than animals, waiting for to be saved. We need to recognize that a need to actually use our own privilege to influence policy—all of us, using what we have where we are.
We also need to recognize the relationship between mental illness, disability, and poverty. Poverty is traumatizing. To be so disempowered for long stretches is depressing and causes justifiable anger. That these things feed into each other. Mental illnesses can make it hard to work, and are burdensome, expensive, and difficult to deal with, all the more so if one is poor.
Poverty and homelessness are huge problems that we as individuals can’t fix. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, just like ending violence against women worldwide when one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime, ending sexual assault when as many as one in six men will also experience it in their lifetimes but report and admit it even less. To say nothing of all the transgender and non-binary-gendered people in this world who are targeted even more for their differences.
But we can all do something every day in breaking down classist culture, challenging stereotypes, and calling out jokes at the expense of those not there to defend themselves, who have enough shit in their traumatic lives without being the butt of our insecure, arrogant jokes.
We can ask ourselves and each other why there aren’t poor people around us, and what our fears and hesitancies are. We can ask whether we’d date them, and why or why not, and whether in dating them we’d see them as a charitable service and insist on paying over their discomfort, and ‘saving’ them.
We can observe what we repeatedly do and say, what we stand up to and what we don’t, who we listen to and whose voices we can’t even hear, and ask what values these often unconscious choices are living for us. If we find we want to change, and pay attention, I believe we can all find opportunities great and small every day to make small shifts.
The one thing I know about behavior and cognitive change that I had to learn to survive to this point is this: it happens gradually, and not without frequent failures and backtracking. We are the way we are through the choices of all our years, and changing that inertia is never simple. But in my experience it’s rewarding, and brings how we want to be so much closer to how we actually are, bit by little bit.