class rage speaks
Ruminations on the personal experience of being poor and my journey toward being fully myself in spite of classism's silencing and setbacks. Here's to feeling a little less alone.
As I’ve mentioned a number of times, I recently started grad school in the field of religious studies, an experience that has been both eye-opening and difficult regarding the presence of class issues in my life. I had anticipated that my new environment- one of the most prestigious schools in the world- might present substantial challenges to my sense of myself as a poor person, my desire to own that identity, and my goal of remaining aware and encouraging others to be aware of how class issues affect academic issues. However, I hadn’t expected to encounter this challenge within the first two days of orientation.
I was wrong. This is what happened.
Standing around at the ice-cream social on the second day of orientation, idly chatting with a few other new students about our interests and plans, I mentioned that though I did intend to eventually go on for a Ph.D., I was also interested in exploring other avenues for immediately after graduation- perhaps taking a few years off to do something useful and/or interesting, and to make sure that I was ready for the time and energy commitment of a doctoral program.
One of the other students- E, a man several years my senior, who already had one master’s degree and had taken time off to work for a nonprofit- took this opportunity to advise me about what he thought I should do after I graduated. Now, I am sure that his unexamined privilege as a white, wealthy, well-educated, older male is pivotal to why he decided that he had the right to give me his unasked-for advice and make assumptions about my life and needs- but I’m not going to take that all up now. Instead, I’m going to focus at what struck me immediately and made me sick: his assumptions about class and the relationship between lower-class or poor people and people in higher education.
E went on at great length about how rewarding his nonprofit experience had been, and how much he believed it had benefited him as a person and as a scholar of religion. He rhapsodized about the poor people he encountered, and how it was necessary for any religious scholar to descend into these poor communities if they wanted to really understand how religion worked on the ground. He mentioned that he had met homeless people and drug addicts- said in a half-whisper, exoticized, as if of course I would have naturally never encountered such unimaginably destitute creatures as these. He essentially ordered me to do fieldwork of this nature, conveying to me that if I did not do so, I could never truly understand the religions I hoped to study- and, possibly, even be a good person. He told me that I was privileged, told me how I was privileged- without ever bothering to ask what situation I had come from, or what my own personal experiences with poverty might have been.
I was struck dumb. There was so much I wanted to say, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin. E’s exotifying and othering of the poor as some primitive mass of people to be studied by religious scholars for their own benefit disgusted me. His conviction that what had been good for him was best for everyone seemed out of line. His condescending tone offended me as a younger person, a woman, a human being. His seeming awareness of his own privilege was undermined by his obvious unawareness of the paternalism of his own attitude.
But most of all, there was E’s absolute conviction, his essential underlying idea: that of course I could not be anything other than a privileged person who had grown up in privileged surroundings. That I was naturally so privileged that I could barely even conceive of the idea of poverty, and had to be led to it by some wise mentor. That poor people are the people you talk about, not the people you talk to. That the person he was speaking to simply could not be a person who had experienced poverty, because poor people do not belong in a graduate program at a prestigious university. Because this is not what poor people do- and whether because of outside factors, or because of some innate, essential inability to do better, remains unsaid.
Immediately after this conversation, before my growing discomfort reached a breaking point, we went to convocation, where I sat through the speakers feeling sick to my stomach. How could I have let that pass? I almost hoped I would see E again, and be able to take him aside and point out to him how ignorant his advice and assumptions were. But the appropriate moment was gone. I would pass him many times later, and he would wave and smile, but all I could do was give a cold half-smile.
Sitting there in that tent, suffering through the intense heat and my own inner turmoil, I listened to my school’s director of religious life give a prayer of thanksgiving. I nodded along with her as she gave thanks for the pleasure of each other’s company, the community present at this school, and the great opportunity and privilege we had all been given by coming to school here. But I stopped short, wondering, as she went on to thank “the communities who thought enough of us to encourage us to come here.”
What does that mean? For how many of us, gathered there in that tent, is that actually true? And in which ways? And why do so many people continue to assume that the poor and underprivileged are naturally not- and are possibly incapable of being- among the ranks of the intelligent, the successful, or the ambitious?
I made a decision in that moment that I will no longer be silent about classism and class-based discrimination, whether it is personally directed at me or not. It may lose me friends, but if those “friends” are unwilling or unable to deal with the reality of my own life and situation, they are ultimately not worth having in my life. That is my breaking point, my pet peeve, the fundamental issue that I am not willing to compromise about. I will not stand idly by as my family, my childhood friends, my peers, and the vast body of the financially underprivileged- and, of course, me- are insulted, either by the malicious or by the ignorant.
I know that I will fail, sometimes. I’m shy and easily intimidated, especially around those who are confident in their privilege and assumption of superiority. But I am going to try as hard as I can to never let this pass again without some kind of work on my part. And I know that often I will be blown off, ignored, or argued with in ways that make me tremble to even think of, but it’s worth it.
This is my life. This is a real and pertinent issue that extends far, far beyond my own life. I need to treat it with the respect it deserves.