Photo by the wonderful photographer Vivian Maier. Newspapers all seem stunned that she, a proletariat AND a woman, was actually good at something. Quick, someone write a human interest story!
Today, I am going to make a feeble attempt to discuss a subject that has dogged me for my entire life: classism. I’d like to preface this post with the disclaimer that I haven’t read much about classism, I’ve never taken a course that covered it. I think this is primarily because my entire life is a big ole exercise in dealing with classism, so I avoid reading about it in my spare time. (Like most of the working poor, I instead spend my spare time fantasizing about all the ridiculous shit I'd buy if I were rich.)
So I suppose this post is just as much about my own attempts to sort out my feelings on the matter, as it is to promote discussion.
I’ll start with my own experiences, since they’re one area of the topic where I consider myself an expert.
I grew up poor. That’s easy enough to say, you tell middle-class people that and they get a vague notion of what you mean. Growing up poor doesn’t just mean being deprived of brand-name clothing for back-to-school, or eating an excess of tinned food.
My parents were poor, their parents were poor, and their parents were poor. That’s the legacy I’ve grown up with, and I’m content with that. Proud of it even, in a perverse way. Another part of growing up poor is learning to despise & envy the rich. So my conflicting emotions on the matter throughout my teenage years were, “God damn it, why couldn’t I have been born a wealthy heiress,” and “Yeah, we’ve always been poor. That’s what actual human beings are about. Rich people are disconnected from reality, their experiences shallow and meaningless.” Obviously, I knew I was part of Sarah Palin’s “Real America”. (Coincidentally, she herself is not.)
Poverty is depressing. Poverty makes families fight, a screaming match between a 6-year-old who wants a Happy Meal and doesn’t understand what Mom means when she says she can’t afford it. “Write a check!” I’d advise, before the realization of what poverty actually meant.
By the time I was eight or nine, I was beginning to understand that wearing the same plain white pair of $10 sneakers from Family Dollar all year—long after the soles had begun to peel off—was simply not acceptable. Arriving to school decked out in stained, pilling & ill-fitted things from the charity shop did not win me friends. (Neither did my insistence that the Revelation was just around the corner and all those Hollister-clad douchebags were going to get theirs… which is a topic for another time.)
Mocked by all the other children for being the poorest poor kid in a school full of people who actually thought Wal-Mart clothing was acceptably cool, I became surly and withdrawn. I don’t think I had a true friend until 6th grade, with the notable exception of Katie.
Katie was giving, she was incredibly kind, and she tolerated my over-the-top obsession with Animorphs. I loved going to Katie’s house. Her parents would always order pizza (pizza!) and the refrigerator was well-stocked with brand name goodies and treats. I’d eat my fill of all the things we couldn’t afford at home: Fruit Roll-ups, Gushers, Hot Pockets and Pizza Bites. Their kitchen was never safe from me, I ate like a dog, consuming everything in sight because it was there.
This is a bad habit that persists to this day—with the exception of dinner dates (no one wants a food baby in a bodycon dress) I am an unstoppable monster around free food. I will eat every last bit of sliced cheese, fancy crackers, crudité and truffle chocolates, long past the point of being full.
I mean, these are the kind of habits you pick up when you’re instructed by your mother, in total seriousness, to “eat all the free samples you can” at the local Cost-Co. “Because,” she would add wryly, “you know we haven’t got anything this good at home.”
So, poverty makes you crazy. It makes you cheap. You pinch pennies, you mooch from sample ladies. Profound grudges develop over a $5 debt never repaid. It makes you miserable. I remember many, many long hours in front of the TV, swilling 39¢ off-brand cola with my mother, neither of us speaking a word to each other that wasn’t in relation to whatever police procedural we were half-watching. In fact, if I were going to make some kind of “Pie Chart of Family Time”, it would lean heavily on the Law & Order and Big K cola.
“Oh,” the enlightened intellectual might be saying right now, “but there are so many hobbies that cost nothing, that expand the mind, rather than dulling it.” (My ‘enlightened intellectual’ is some Victorian d-bag, it seems) Hey, guess what, buddy: poor people are usually uneducated. A good percentage of them don’t even bother. In America, the poor are discouraged at every turn from bettering themselves. Why do you think movies about going from rags-to-riches are supposed to be so uplifting? Protip: Because that shit is hella rare.
When everyone in your family, as far back as you can trace it, was piss-poor, why would you expect to turn out any differently? No, better to be content with your lot in life, get a job in a factory or something. Watch some Law & Order. Or hockey or something? Whatever, sports can just fuck right off. But I digress.
Maybe what I'm trying to say is that I think the 1% are so completely disconnected from reality that they have no idea what it’s like to be human. Maybe I’m trying to say that you’ll never live like Common People. Mostly, what I’m getting at here, is that even the upper-middle class, those plush carpet owning bastards, don’t get it. Poverty isn’t something that just happens to you because you’re lazy, or stupid. Poverty is something that’s been carefully fostered and tended, like a fancyass hothouse rose, by the bougie motherfuckers in charge, for about as long as humans have been documenting history. It’s not the fault of the 99% that they haven’t “made it”, and one of the most ingenious ideas that the rich have ever come up with is the American Dream. Work hard—no, harder—and one day, you too will be wealthy and happy. Meanwhile, those same idle rich titter to each other as the proles they’ve cleverly mislead work 60 hour weeks for them, chasing endlessly after something that they’ll never be allowed to grasp.
I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of people who have built themselves up from nothing. That’s obviously not true. There are people out there who’ve started off with less than you could imagine, who are doing brilliantly now. And we probably know (of) each and every one of them, as they’re presented to us with a shiny red bow. “Look, your new aspirational figure!” Those people got there through hard work, intelligence, but most of all luck. It takes luck to beat the kind of odds that are stacked against class mobility (which is a fucking joke in its self).
Once again, I still don’t know where I’m going with this. Just that I’m angry about it. I’m angry that my mother can work like a dog for her entire life, and never have anything, and people will assume that she’s just lazy or didn’t try hard enough. I’m angry on behalf of everyone who’s lived, or will live that life. I’m angry that the “welfare queen” stereotype even exists. I’m angry that classism is completely ignored in America, neatly brushed under the rug while politidicks parrot phrases like “hard-working Americans” and shove our noses to the grindstone.
I’m just so goddamn pissed off about the whole situation and I don’t even know what I could ever do about it because it’s been going on as long as people have been around and I’m only one person and I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I’m angry that I feel completely impotent against it. I’m angry that the majority of people who grew up middle- or upper class will never understand, or even try to. I’m angry that “poverty builds character” has 28,100,000 results on Google. I’m angry that phrase even exists. It’s just some bullshit excuse, something those who Have tell themselves about the Havenots, a way to sweep the delicate cobwebs of guilt out of their minds before they peacefully go to sleep.
I don’t know if this made any sense. I don’t really care. I didn’t start this blog to write angry rants about classism, I started it to post pretty pictures of fancy clothes. But where else am I going to put this thing? LiveJournal?
P.S. I’m aware of many wonderful people who I know—or know of—who DO give a damn about classism, even if they came from a more privileged background. I truly don’t hold privilege against people anymore, I got over that years ago. If someone is lucky enough to be born better-off, I hope they take full advantage of the opportunities that gives them, and I don’t begrudge them for it. What I do begrudge them for is looking down their noses at the lower-classes, as if they had just “worked harder” they'd magically be in the same place the wealthy are today. It’s not about work. It’s about systematic oppression and modern-day slavery.