Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It Sucks To Be Poor

I was telling my brother a story about Adam involving a relatively benign school incident that had nonetheless left an impression.

Here’s the story. Adam enters the university cafeteria, and it’s crowded. So, after spying a table, he leaves his jacket and hat as “place holders” while going to get his meal. When he returns to the table, two white female students are already seated, and they’ve pushed Adam’s belongings aside. One of the girls looks up at Adam with a defiant expression and says “Oh,” then turns back to her friend, resuming their conversation and dismissing Adam.

So Adam’s a little nonplussed. But he’s a gentleman. He’s not going to cause a fuss because these girls pushed his stuff aside. However, he’s not happy at being dismissed. At the very least, he expected one of the girls to say, “Oh! We’re sorry, we didn’t know you were sitting here,” and smile, even if the smile is disingenuous or an obvious ploy to charm. I think (and this is just me reflecting after the fact) that Adam was miffed that the girl didn’t deem him worthy of putting on the charm, not because that signified anything about his masculinity but because it (perhaps) signified something (at least to her) about his lack of person-hood.

Now you’re saying—what does all this have to do with poor people? And, I’m getting there. Promise.

So, I tell my brother the story, and I say I think Adam wondered whether he was dismissed because of his race, and my brother replies “Hmmm… my immediate thought was that this was a class issue.” Adam attends a small, private university with a lot of rich kids.

I say, “What? They’re all college students! Everyone dresses alike. You can’t tell who has money.”

And then my brother says, “Well, Adam doesn’t look like a rich kid.” And my brother's comment disturbed me, but I didn’t know why.

So I thought about it for a while (off and on for days really), and I came to the conclusion that I simply did not want my son to be thought of as poor, because poor people aren’t treated very well, and there are definite stigmas to being seen as poor. There’s most certainly a shame in not having, of being unable to purchase. If you don’t have, you are deficient. You must be lazy, or stupid, possessing of a really lousy work ethic, or in disfavor with God. And if you’re a child, and you don’t have, your parents are to be criticized, because they have been unable to provide for you, and surely it’s because they are lazy or stupid.

And so, as crazy as this is going to sound, when I contemplated, for just a moment, that my son had been slighted because of, in a roundabout way, my perceived failure to provide, well, I felt ashamed, as though I’d let him down somehow. And all of this is nuts, and some of it is mine to own, having been raised in a poor household and still carrying that around with me. But some of it is out there in the world, and it comes out in political speeches about “some people” just wanting “free stuff,” conversations about bad kids in urban schools who need to adopt “middle-class values,” and off-handed comments about “those people” who are trifling and lazy and that’s why their neighborhoods look like shit.

And, yes, there are plenty of poor people who don’t have anything because they don’t work for anything. But there are plenty of people of means for whom society completely discounts the role that legacy and luck and help has played in their good fortunes. And somehow, it’s okay to be rich and lazy, but it’s a serious moral failing to be poor and lazy, as though merely having makes you a better person.

So, no I don’t want my son perceived as poor, although there’s not much I can do about it, except wonder about a world that places such emphasis on having and challenge myself to reject that thinking, every once in a while.

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