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.
A companion to this post.
Note: There is certainly another whole category of suggestions like this which would focus on large-scale ways of creating social change. I don’t discount the importance of those, but this list is focusing on the small, everyday ways that an economically privileged person who is friends with a poor person can help to make that relationship possible and comfortable- something that I’ve struggled with personally a great deal, because most of my friends and my partner are considerably wealthier than I am. Those larger ideas, the things that really challenge how this society works, also have to be part of that conversation, but in the meantime, we still have to live together and interact. Here are some things that have been particularly important to me.
- Spend a substantial amount of time thinking, really thinking, about all the different ways in which being wealthy and/or coming from a wealthy background benefits you. Learn about and acknowledge your privilege. Listen to poor people; take in the breadth of what they don’t have. Recognize the secondary effects of growing up wealthy- educated relatives and good schools that guided you to good colleges, or the ability to travel and seek new experiences for their own sake, or maybe just a lack of fear and worry that allows you to live your life more peacefully. And for goodness sake, think about how you sound when you complain about very minor money woes (your parents won’t buy you X luxury item! horrors!) in front of someone who is struggling just to get by. Understand where you really stand.
- Be self-critical and question the stereotypes you hold of poor people. These stereotypes are so pervasive that if you think you’re free of them, you’re probably mistaken. (Even I struggle with internalized classism and self-hate.) It may take some time, attention, and self-directed shame to break the habit of thinking that all poor people are stupid, lazy, welfare queens, or complainers, or assuming that all it takes to rise from poverty is hard work and willpower, but it’s the right thing to do. If you marvel at the ways I’m not like the stereotypical poor person, or if you regard me as an exception, you’re doing it wrong. You’re hurting and dehumanizing real human people- including, whether or not you think so, me.
- Work to be aware of what things cost money and how much they cost. When, in college, I started spending a lot of time with people wealthier than me, I was astonished at how little attention they paid to the act of spending money; most had never had to worry about it or take care of financial matters themselves, and many were directly financed by their parents. I always have to pay attention to how much things cost, and I always have to keep in mind that nearly everything in life has a monetary cost associated with it. If you want to spend time and share experiences with me, you need to understand this and apply it to the way you view and react to my behavior and choices.
- Never assume that I’m going to be able to pay for something just because you can or it seems reasonable to you. Don’t move into our dorm room on the first day of college and say “So I figured you would want this big-screen TV, just give me a check for your half of it.” If we’re out with (wealthy) friends, don’t suggest doing something expensive on the spur of the moment, such that I’m stuck between spending money I don’t have and being abandoned or branded a spoilsport. Don’t invite me to an event or get me excited about doing something together, and then fail to notice or tell me that it costs money. Even if you honestly think I can afford it, show respect for me by asking in a way that shows that you understand it may be a problem, and giving me time to think about it.
- Never, never, NEVER try to give me advice or argue with me in a way that questions my own assessment of my financial circumstances. Don’t tell me that I can afford something when I say I can’t, or say “But it’s a good investment!” Don’t try to sell me on expensive travel or special events because “it’s a great experience! You’ll never forget it!” Don’t give me financial advice that (wrongly) assumes I have luxuries like savings, income that exceeds my basic expenses, or parents who can lend or give me money. I know the reality of my situation better than you ever could, especially if your record of understand class privilege isn’t great to begin with. To assume you know better is not only ignorant and paternalistic, but a direct insult to my identity and my autonomy.
- Give me a safe, nonjudgmental space to be open about things I’m struggling with. Listen without making assumptions or trying to tell me how to fix things. Learn from me, especially if you’ve never encountered a story like mine before- trust me, mine isn’t uncommon, nor is it even among the most difficult. Keep your mouth shut; be very, very careful about claiming you can relate. Don’t change the subject, or get so awkward and visibly uncomfortable that the conversation can’t go on. Don’t pity or patronize me, or dismiss my concerns entirely, or tell me- in words or by your attitude- that my problems aren’t “real” enough for you.
- If you feel an urge to offer to help me financially in any way- anything from loaning me money to paying for a social activity I can’t afford- recognize that that is a highly charged situation that has to be handled carefully. This is something that’s going to vary incredibly from person to person and situation to situation. Money can ruin friendships; I could not, for example, continue to spend time with someone who constantly brought up the money I owed them or the times they had helped me. In addition, for me, borrowing money or allowing someone to pay my way is an admission that I can’t just work hard and take care of myself, something that brings on intense shame and guilt. It took a very long time before I was even totally comfortable with my partner paying when I couldn’t afford to split the cost of a date. In short: be careful with how you phrase things, don’t get offended if your offer is rebuffed, and be realistic and open about things like repayment. And question your motives: never offer to help me to boost your own ego, or because you get a charge out of the idea of me groveling in gratitude. Sorry, I don’t grovel.
- Get to know me for who I really am, and realize that I’m so much more than my socioeconomic status. On one hand, you have to accept my socioeconomic position as part of my life and my identity. On the other, there is so much more to me than that. Don’t let money make or break our friendship. If we’re really compatible, and if you really care about and respect me as a person, we’ll find a way to make it work- as long as you’re willing to acknowledge your privileged position and put in some hard work to understand what my life is like.
- If I decide that I cannot be friends with you because of the way you treat my socioeconomic status, please try not to hate me or conclude that poor people aren’t worth your time. Friendship is more important than money, but taking care of myself- mentally, emotionally, spiritually- is more important than both of these. I am under no obligation to hold your hand and personally tutor you on how not to be oppressive, to patiently guide you and explain why each assumption or action was wrong, to watch you screw up again and again in ways that directly hurt me and just sit there and take it. I can do this work sometimes, but it’s hard- emotionally wrenching, energy-draining, breeding of frustration and self-hate- to put myself in the line of fire to be knocked down again and again by ignorance. I have a life to live, and at some point, I have to say stop, to give up on someone who is causing me more pain than happiness. If you don’t have basic respect for me, I may love you dearly, but it is unhealthy for me to sink my energy into you. This doesn’t mean that you are a bad, worthless person, but it does mean that you have a lot to learn- and it’s not my job to teach you.