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.
unconquistador-deactivated20110 asked: Hello!
I had a discussion with someone who was upper-middle class yesterday. I was relaying some of my experiences with bill struggles, grocery shopping, etc. And the only concrete feedback I received was 'Well, at least you weren't starving in Africa. You should be more grateful that you didn't have it as bad."
What's your opinion on this sort of logic? Personally, it's incredibly insulting to compare, especially if the person making the comparison only cares about those starving children in Africa to belittle someone else's experience.
Thanks for asking!
I also have a huge problem with this kind of response. For one thing, it’s pretty offensive to people who actually are starving, and/or who live in Africa- or whatever “backward” part of the world is being used as a comparison. They are actually human beings, not just nameless, faceless, inferior-by-implication masses to be dragged out to make a point and bolster someone’s self-important conception of their own moral superiority. (And not everyone who lives in Africa is destitute or, as it’s often portrayed, in need of aid from those who are wealthy, white, and educated!) For another, it’s offensive to whoever this is being said to, whose lived reality is being bulldozed over by someone who doesn’t seem to actually care much about either awareness about or involvement in addressing issues of poverty.
I’ve run into quite a few of these people myself, especially since I went to a college where most students were wealthy and many were involved in aid efforts in other parts of the world. In my experience, people making these statements tend to fall into one of two groups. Some are very well-meaning, but ignorant; they feel themselves to be rightfully encouraging people to be thankful for what they have- a fine thing to do in itself- and raising awareness of some legitimately horrific situations that exist in the world. Problem is, I’ve found that these people also tend to overlook the fact that poverty exists right under their noses and impacts people they may interact with every day. They may let acknowledging that they themselves are lucky inappropriately spread to assuming that everyone who is “like them” is lucky as well, in the same ways. Poverty is not restricted to Other People Far Away; people in this country also suffer and die because of what they can’t afford, and the consequences of poverty and classism can affect people and communities in ways that, while possibly less dramatic, are still very difficult to deal with.
And then, of course, there are the people who don’t care a whit for poor people anywhere, but are just looking for ways to shut down another person’s argument, dismiss and denigrate their concerns, and shame them for speaking about their experience. Maybe it’s because acknowledging that someone they see as a peer can have their life seriously affected by not having money makes them uneasy, reminding them that this could happen to them too or that they might be complicit in upholding systems that worsen poverty, and they would prefer not to think about these things. Maybe because “stop complaining and be grateful for what you have” is a convenient way to shut down arguments that (rightfully) question the status quo. Or maybe they’re just generally jerks.
Context is also important. The particular sort of classism and concern over money that I experience has a lot to do with my position as a young, unmarried, childless woman trying to succeed in a higher-education setting, manage social situations with wealthier people, and make ends meet in an area where the cost of living is particularly high. My parents, as middle-aged, non-college-educated people with young children who live in a small town, have a different experience of poverty and class issues shaped by the circumstances of their life. We all have our own sets of intersecting issues to deal with.
I don’t think it’s useful or appropriate to try and create a strict ranking of whose problems are the worst- to play Oppression Olympics, as I’ve heard it called. And I definitely don’t think it’s appropriate to tell you that just because someone else has it worse, your own problems- which, it seems to me, are clearly affecting your life in significant ways- are not even worth mentioning. Nothing you’ve said to me indicates that you don’t understand that some people may face obstacles more immediately perilous than your own, or that you aren’t grateful for what you do have. You aren’t petty or selfish for talking about something being personally difficult for you- nor would you be out of line to suggest that these kinds of difficulties are indicative of larger-scale sociopolitical problems that deserve attention.
It’s not that I don’t support acknowledging and thinking about one’s own privileges. That’s a good and necessary thing to do! When I write here, for example, I try to always keep in sight the fact that, while I’m socioeconomically disadvantaged in many ways, I’m also socioeconomically privileged in others. I have a great education, a roof over my head, and for the immediate future, little worry about making sure I’m fed and have appropriate medical care; this means that there are certain experiences of poverty, arguably the worst ones, that I can’t truly understand or speak for. But that doesn’t mean that my experiences and the ways in which I struggle are not real, meaningful, and painful. Being poor continues to touch my life in so many ways- physical, psychological, social, through future plans and current possibilities, through how other people view and stereotype me and my family, and so on. Shutting me down because I’m not “starving in Africa” doesn’t make these things disappear.