respectability politics are suffocating poor people, i’m tired of being ashamed

September 21, 2017
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By Jenina Pellegren* / BlackYouthProject, AFROPUNK contributor 

It is for the sake of everyone else’s comfort that I never allow a single chink in my armor. No one wants to be face to face with the realities of poverty—it’s too ugly and too sad.

As working class poor, I am locked in a constant battle between the pressure of respectability politics and the exhaustion from just trying to survive. Both often plunge me into apathy.

In our society, we carry a certain expectation of poverty—especially in the Western world—and those who are forced to navigate within its confines must abide by a strict set of rules.

Rule #1

Look like you are in need, but don’t be needy.

Rule #2

Work very hard—24/7 if you have to. And if it still isn’t enough, do not ask for “handouts.” Just wait around until you are deemed worthy enough to help.

Rule #3

Handouts are for the destitute and you must be destitute before anyone is willing to help. Homeless people deserve help, but only if they are drug free with no criminal record and seem “harmless” (read: white presenting).

Rule #4

Poor families deserve help only sometimes, but only after parents prove their worthiness by meeting an arbitrary set of standards put in place by a random social worker with a biased set of criteria.

The world is cruel and extremely prejudiced to poor folks, especially those of us who do not meet these standards. In response to this prejudice, I have spent an incalculable amount of hours worrying about whether or not people can tell that my family is poor.

I find myself compelled, even as I make efforts to unpack and leave this behind, to share “my situation” with you. To explain how we got here so you will look kindly upon me. So you will not judge me for having so many children. So you won’t suggest I “stop making more babies for us to support,” as a social worker once suggested, casually, while reviewing our application for SNAP benefits.

I want to explain the deeply intimate details of my husband’s invisible illness so you do not attribute our struggles to a laziness you might imagine either of us having.

This pressure to keep up appearances has been a blessing and curse to me over the years. Some days it pushes me out of bed and into the shower. It pushes me to show up and show out for my family in extremely resourceful ways. It also pushes me to make purchases that seem impractical to others for appearances sake.

I have a standing nail appointment and I need the occasional salted caramel frappe from Starbucks. I know that people who judge others by things like credit scores would say I don’t deserve these niceties. Scroll through the comment section on any post regarding welfare or food stamps and you will see these judgements playing out in real time.

These are the folks who peek into your shopping cart as soon as you pull out your EBT card at the register to assess whether or not you are wasting “their” money. I use self check out often because (SPOILER!) if you buy any type of shellfish with your SNAP benefits, you’re in for a fight about it from some pretentious asshole who thinks lobster is only for the wealthy.

Until recently, openly admitting to my financial status would have been unheard of because I know that judgements, both kind and cruel, always follow. We judge financial success as well as failure, and assume that only hard work and perseverance precede economic gain. The menace in the oval office is a testament to this illusion.

A myth persists that if you are poor, it is due to your inadequacies as an earner. The myth says that you simply are not working hard enough, even though data shows that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Perhaps it’s true for white Americans but I have only ever made .54 cents on their dollar. So the American Dream, for me, becomes Rule #5 Live modest. Don’t ask for much. But capitalism put even that dream into minimalist packaging and tried to sell it to me for $999 a pop.

I can’t afford that kind of happiness.

Getting caught poor, in my mind, is worse than getting caught with my pants down in public. Poverty exposes me, for better or worse, leaving me open to judgements about my intelligence at best. And accused of being an inadequate, neglectful parent at worst.

I have written about this shame, again and again. Each time I do, it’s an exorcism. A way to confront my demons and forgive myself. This isn’t my fault. That’s the greatest lie that has ever been propagated against poor people, that it is our own fault and not the result of a horribly rigged system.

I do it as a way of reaching across the table and showing you my hand. I do it despite knowing I will be lectured to about skipping that Starbucks, as if my 4-5 lattes a month is the reason why I can’t achieve the upward mobility I’ve been longing for, rather than capitalistic greed and institutionalized racism among other social violences.

I work so hard to hide my “condition” from the court of public opinion. This work has become an affliction of its own—a side effect of all my economic strife.

I know there are others like me suffocating from this, desperately trying to check all those respectability boxes. Constantly asking themselves, “Is this good enough? Am I enough?”

Buy the latte or don’t. Save for that iPhone or don’t. Fix your hair or leave it alone. You are enough, regardless. I promise. And you deserve nice things.

Respectability isn’t a tool to help us improve. It isn’t a gauge to measure our success, but rather a weapon to keep us in line, forcing us to suffocate inside of everyone else’s expectations of us.

Respectability prevents us from experiencing ourselves as whole and complete people, isolating us from one another and creating ever more hoops for us to jump through in order to be considered worthy. We are worthy. We have always been worthy. My financial stature does not change that fact, despite the lies that respectability politics and anti-poverty rhetoric try to convince me of.

This post is in partnership with BlackYouthProject.com

*Jenina writes about smart media and centers Brown Girls full time. A loud mouth with a heart of gold, her hobbies include knitting, dismantling her own personal biases, while shaming white supremacist garbage, and trying new recipes she finds on Pinterest. You can follow her on Twitter @Jenina_ishere and support her work via paypal.me/JeninaMarie


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