Over at Butterfly Cauldron, Zan noted
what constitutes 'poor' is different for people depending on where they live, how they were raised and exactly how many 'poor' people they know.It made me think of the importance of perceptions, of relativity, of constructions.
For most of my adult life, I've thought of my family as poor when we were kids. And my sister and I have much resentment about that because we didn't have to be. My dad had one of the better paying blue-collar jobs in the area. My mom had a series of jobs--from convenience store work to picking peaches at a local peach orchard--until she got hired as a poultry processing line worker. So, two parents, three kids, two incomes in a tiny 3 bedroom brick house in rural Louisiana. We should've been okay, but it didn't feel like we were.
Oh, and we have a number of complaints. My parents weren't very good with money--they admit that. They didn't save (probably couldn't). My mom loved high-interest credit schemes (she once bought a vacuum cleaner for $2000 plus monthly interest and we didn't have carpet. She could use it to clean other stuff, she's always insisted). My dad, bless his heart, just had other stuff to do with his money. He went through a period where he just "wilded out." He payed the house note, electricity, and gas, but that was it. No groceries, no regular allowances, none of the little everyday things families need (I love my dad, but one of my most bitter memories is going on an FHA trip for 8 days to San Antonio, TX and he bitched and bitched about having to give me money. He gave me $40 (a popular number in the blogosphere, right now). I was going because I had done well at local, regional, and state levels in some competition, but he didn't care). My mom prided herself on feeding a family of five on less than $30 a week (she had to, I guess). She bought lots of generics and somedays we'd come home to things like rutabagas and turnips.
And clothes! Lord, the raison d'etre for girls in my hometown. We got five outfits to start school, one pair of shoes, and a couple more things at Christmas and that was it. No name brand anything. Things got faded or too tight? Too bad. Telephone privileges? Hah! Ours was constantly getting cut off (so damned embarrassing!).
Yet, everyone around us thought we had it so good. A friend once told me, "Hell, y'all were the only ones with a daddy." And the vice-principal would never let Sis and me sign up for summer JTPA jobs--"I know y'all's parents make too much." Still, I was convinced that we had it hard.
Until I started working with people who really had it hard. Until best friend Louisiana told me that one of the reasons she loves me so hard is because I always bought snacks at recess and shared them with her. Not a big deal, right? Well, apparently, whatever I shared with her, she tried to save to take home because it might be all she ate that day. She remembers cuddling up to her mom on the couch when their lights were off for warmth. She remembers being so hungry that it felt like her stomach was touching her back--like there was nothing inside of her. She remembers hand-me-downs and having to take care of her little sister. She remembers her dad sent paltry child support and nothing else.
Which taught me about perception. She thought it was cool that my dad was there and that I had "recess" money and that we had our own house. I thought it was cool that she could make straight parts (learned while combing her little sister's hair), wore trendy clothes (that she remembers as too big, even if they were nice), and was always so totally ready to defend herself or me (she had to learn that).
So as an adult, I get to thinking. I have real issues because I had a house and utilities but no luxuries? I had clothes and shoes but they weren't name brand? I had a mother who came to all our school events, cooked everyday, did homework with us, but didn't line our pockets? I have basically constructed a memory of poverty where, in reality, none existed.
But that construction is as powerful as reality. I continue to live my life based upon it. I am determined never to "look" poor again. Oh I didn't say "be." I said look. Perceptions, you know. And so I get caught up in the sorts of things that Jill was talking about. Only the things I do, they aren't done out of any sense of fun, but of a disturbing form of classism, the desire to set myself apart from (perhaps, above) what I've defined as poor. More troublesome to me is the fact that most of my intimate interactions with poor people have been with poor black women and I wonder if part of me is trying to set myself apart from women I claim as sisters.
Thus my obsession with adornment and teh trendy can be written in the following equation: patriarchy + class hierarchy + internalized racism = one shamed woman.
No fun at all.