Tuesday, October 17, 2006

It's Relative...

**Written a few days ago--no big insights beyond 1) how we perceive poor, in some cases, is relative and 2) I really can be self-centered and clueless.**
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.


Gwyneth Bolton said...

Perception is a funny thing... and it's the reason why I read most autobiographies as part fiction. The way we "re-member" our lives is always so interesting. But there is a really important aspect here. So much of the lives we lead as adults and the people we become is wrapped up in the things we endured as children. My mother has a habit of going to the grocery store every day. Her cabinets are always full. And she always kept tons of books in the house and made sure we got new dolls for Christmas. These are all things that she was deprived of growing up and for a couple of years when she was an adult and left an abusive husband.

Dual memories exist for me. I remember when we first left daddy and times were hard. (We're talking Spam and box macaroni and cheese hard.) I also remember having both parents and both of them having good jobs; and all the toys and birthday parties that go with young black love when it was good... And I remember when mom finally got hired at the Post Office when I was a teenager and we moved on up to the good life. I also know that I have this bad habit of living above my means... because appearances are everything. And I have stopped myself (almost) from becoming my mother and stopping at the grocery store everyday. But I also know that these little nuances stay with us and our children a whole lot longer than we could ever imagine...

Thanks for making me think about what I "re-member" today!

Anonymous said...

Great post.

This equation:

"Thus my obsession with adornment and teh trendy can be written in the following equation: patriarchy + class hierarchy + internalized racism = one shamed woman."

works, and could be modified slightly to fit a couple of different situations.

elle said...

I also know that I have this bad habit of living above my means...

Gwyneth, that is literally one of the biggest problems of my life. I started to include it here but was already all over the place. From name brand clothes for my son to name brand cosmetics for me--I am way overextended. Yet how can I go back--everyone would think I was doing badly!! And no one can think that!

elle said...

professor z,

you got me thinking about that equation.

thanks for the comments.

RageyOne said...

Great thought-provoking post Elle. Yes, perception is key and how we view things over the years definitely changes. Gwyneth's comment about reading autobiographies as part-fiction is true. I always wonder how those people remember such detail. Simply amazing to me.

nubian said...

i really like how you said you "constructed a memory of pverty."

i'm all into memory lately, and i think it's fascinating how we construct memories. how the act of remembering, is always influenced by how we want to remember things or how we don't want to. iono, maybe im just rambling :-)

elle said...

you're not just rambling. hell, this thing i study, in large part, is about perceptions and constructions and interpretations and one prime example of what you mention--of remembering being influenced by by how we want to remember--is the post-Civil War South's construction of the "Old South" and their "noble cause." As they say, the North won the actual war, but the South definitely won the battle over how it would be remembered.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...