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.
- I am poor, I exist, and I’m right here. Hi! Many people who meet and get to know me without knowing my background are rather surprised to find this out. It matters to me on a very personal level when people do things like make nasty comments or assumptions about poor people, or assume that everyone in a given space is wealthy, thereby erasing the fact that I exist and am present. There are better reasons to not be classist (namely: it’s just plain wrong) than worrying about whether a poor person will hear you, but assuming that I’m not poor or that poor people are not present adds insult to injury and creates another communication barrier.
- I may not look like what you imagine poor people should look like- but neither do most poor people. I’m smart, well-spoken, and a careful dresser. I’m highly educated because of financial aid. I avoid doing certain things and remember to do others because I don’t want to “look poor” and be judged for that. Then again, the commonly held stereotypes of poor people- that we’re stupid, “trashy,” lazy, waiting for handouts instead of taking care of ourselves, and so on- are just that, stereotypes, not true assessments based in reality. Just because I don’t match the stereotype doesn’t even necessarily make me unusual, just one more of so many different faces of being economically underprivileged.
- I need and deserve as much space to talk about my experiences as you do to talk about yours. Talking about money- especially money one doesn’t have- is considered crass and impolite, but I can’t be fully myself without bringing that up. I know it makes people uncomfortable sometimes, but honestly, that’s not a good enough reason to expect me to keep quiet. As much as anyone else does, I deserve the right to talk openly about my background, my challenges, the reasons behind decisions I make- the realities of my life.
- Being poor has substantial, everyday, direct effects on my life, and if you spend time with me, you will have to deal with those effects. Nearly everything I do, every decision I make, is in some way affected by my financial status. If you’re close to me, you will watch me struggle with money and financial decisions on a daily basis. If you want to do something with me, it has to be something I can afford. If you give me advice or recommendations, you will have to take into account my budget, or else your attempt at help will just sound laughably insensitive. There’s no way around it.
- Being poor also has a large indirect impact on me in terms of how people think of me and the community I come from. Stereotypes of poor people abound. People frequently assume that my parents are unintelligent, ignorant, and bad parents. They treat me as an anomaly, an escapee from a uniformly horrible situation that they can pity and make fun of. People who know me treat me as an exception to a classist rule, not realizing that their upholding of that rule allows people who don’t know me to stereotype and mistreat me. That’s the world I live in.
- I don’t want your pity. For me, pity is one of the most hurtful sentiments I can experience. It assumes a really troublesome hierarchy; if you are able to pity me, you must be better than or above me in some way. Also, it’s completely useless, and doesn’t do anything to actually address or talk about the reality of my situation. It’s a copout, and it’s often a way to shut me up so that I stop “making people feel bad.”
- Yes, I know full well that there are many people in this world who are worse off than me, but that doesn’t invalidate my experiences. I’m aware that I am privileged in many ways, and that in a broad view, I’m better off financially than many, many people. Between privilege and luck, I’ve found myself in a position where I will likely no longer be poor once I’m a full-fledged independent adult, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to handle that in an ethical way. But that admission doesn’t make the substantial disadvantages that I have experienced and continue to experience disappear. They are still real, painful, and very important to my life.
- Me saying that you are (economically) privileged doesn’t mean I’m calling you a bad person, that I want you to feel guilty, or that I don’t think you deserve to have a good life. I don’t go around wanting people to feel bad. In fact, I rarely bring up things like this- too rarely, probably- because I know that people will take it personally and get defensive. Being poor is so much a part of me that it’s very emotionally difficult to handle when people totally dismiss the idea that there are substantial, important differences between my experience and theirs. But I have a responsibility to challenge the ideas- often unspoken, but present everywhere- that wealthy people are morally and functionally superior to poor people, that poor people could be wealthy if they only worked hard, and that my background, my family, my current reality can be dismissed with choice insults and assumptions that I’ve brought this on myself. If that makes you feel bad about yourself and your behavior, well, it probably should.
- If you can’t deal reasonably and respectfully with me being poor, I’m not going to be able to keep you in my life. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I can never forget that I’m poor, or behave like I’m not poor. It is with me every moment, in everything I do and every decision that I make. If you constantly lean on classist stereotypes, if you insult my background, if you patronize and pity me, if you yell at me for “making you feel bad,” if you won’t let me talk about my financial struggles or get too uncomfortable to let me continue, if you forget every time that I can’t afford to do the things you want to do or don’t share your experiences and perspective- well, I’m sorry, but you’re not worth being around. I have no interest in spending time with someone who will not give me the space to be myself, or who cares more about their own zone of privileged comfort than respecting another human being.
See also: this companion post on ways to be a good friend in the face of economic differences.