Disgusting Classism, Disguised Classism
November 30, 2013
Alright Internet, sit down. We need to talk about something really important. Namely, the context and connotations of what happened here.
I hadn’t read the original essay until today. I’m glad, though, ’cause I would have written it off. I would have pointed out right away that it sounded phony. No one I know who has been poor has “unstructured thoughts” that sound like this. There’s no prefacing, there’s no carefully crafted separation between systemic and academic problems. That’s not an off the cuff thing, not without a lot of training on writing papers. That’s just one of many things that stick out to me, things that sound like affluence call backs or the kind of refinement a poor kid puts into their essay to sound smart. Things like the use of “some time” in the opening of the third paragraph. It doesn’t read like a poor person to me, and I live in an intersection of being poor and having a good education, being poor and being fairly intelligent, and being poor but coming from a once-solidly middle class family.
Is this a problem? Is her lying, itself, a problem? Well, yes and no. No, for the most part, because the issue isn’t her essay. If she was honest about this being a fantasy exercise, a sympathy exercise, it’d be fine. This is a gross misunderstanding of most people’s lives who live in poverty but if she’s trying to raise awareness or become more sympathetic, it would be a fine exploration of fantasy. The part where it becomes a problem is when she claims that this is a real telling of events, a true story snatched from her life, where she clearly had time to refine her writing in the midst of being able to sleep for only three hours a night. It camps out in problematic territory when it’s clear to anyone who has been poor that she clearly hasn’t but is claiming this is real.
Now, to restate my credentials here for anyone who hasn’t been following along – until August of this year and from February 2011, I was functionally homeless except for a five month stretch where I rented a room at a friend’s house. I became homeless after I lost my last IT job and my until then unknown disability reared its ugly head and I found out that I can’t drive anymore without endangering myself and others. While I was on unemployment insurance, I housed my mother, my youngest brother, my cat, and myself in weekly motels. Until we got kicked out on the 4th week at one and couldn’t find another room, then we lived out of my mom’s van. My childhood with my mother was pocked with poverty – she was trying hard to rise out of being poor, out of being supported primarily by my grandparents, but the deck was stacked against her between her depression, her PTSD from her relationship with my father and my youngest brother’s father and a drug addiction that he caused. My entire life has been one of survival since high school, the last time I can remember doing any kind of real formal education.
I know poor people. I am still, technically, a poor person. I am invisibly disabled with no diagnosis. I recently got healthcare, but it’s an awkward healthcare where I wait about a month between doctor’s appointments. I haven’t seen a dentist in over a decade. I have no income and I spend part of every day in pain that I can’t control. I still can’t drive without being very cautious. I live day to day because that’s what I’ve always done. I enjoy what I can right now ’cause I don’t know how long I’ll have it for.
Even I, however, knew how to cook broccoli when we were homeless. Nearly every homeless person I know has known how to cook. Some of the best steaks I’ve ever had have come from people in poverty because when they treat themselves, they know how. Want to know why we don’t eat more veggies or fruits when we’re homeless? They’re fucking expensive.
That’s where the fact that she’s playing this off as a real story becomes an issue (before we even get into the biggest problem here). She’s perpetuating myths about what it’s like to be poor that reinforce delusions of us being subhuman – being uneducated, being unaware of real life, being trained in “bad logic” that prevents us from being healthy and happy, working better jobs, or eating better. That if only we knew to buy in bulk, eat cheap vegetables, save money, we could rise out of poverty somehow. Well, it turns out that this isn’t true. Most people in poverty that work at least one job are not idiots, they’re not uneducated savages scraping by on cheap cheeseburgers from Jack in the Box and buying lavish sneakers and televisions. This is a fantasy concocted by well meaning liberals to create sympathy, latched onto by cynical conservatives to damn the poor, and perpetuated by rich children who have never seen an actual poor person in their life. At least no longer than the amount of time it took to quickly walk past them, maybe drop a quarter infront of them, and get away form the stench of the masses. She was never poor and it’s disturbing to me that she thinks she can speak for me, for us.
Going past disturbing, though, in to full blown anger is the fundraising campaign. I ran a fundraising campaign here, as many of you know. I wanted to raise two thousand dollars, a paltry sum in the grand scheme of things, to not be homeless anymore. A magnificent goal, one I’m quite happy I met, but even then I was accused of lying and that I wasn’t “desperate enough”. This woman, though, lied about being in poverty, uses these codified “I am secretly rich” linguistic signals, and she’s raising $150,000 for a surgery she doesn’t want to pay for, for teeth that look totally fine. I’m sure she might actually have a medical problem but my teeth are disintegrating in my mouth and I have a massive cavity in both of my upper canines, right in front of my face. My teeth are rotten and I can’t raise that kind of money. I haven’t had income in almost a year and I can’t raise that kind of money. I was homeless and I couldn’t raise two thousand dollars without being harassed. This woman, on the other hand, writes a false essay and has raised over sixty-thousand.
This is what disgusts me. She is exploiting the poor, the image of the poor and a false understanding of the poor, to raise money that she doesn’t need. Not only is this taking sympathetic money from the hands of people who desperately need it, people like me and who are worse off than me, she’s making it unlikely that those same donors will ever help someone who’s actually poor. Why should they trust my story, or anyone else’s story? They, who have the luxury to be picky about who to give money to, will feel cheated if it turns out that I’m not as poor as they thought I was! There are these stories of wealthy panhandlers, stories of people with good jobs pretending to be homeless to save money, and then there’s this woman, a society elite and political scholar who used a false poverty essay to raise money! Why should they help the needy? Or, rather, how can they tell if the needy are actually needy?
This woman is poisoning the well of altruism and charity. This is yet another subtle attack on poverty, on undermining the poor and reducing our status in the eyes of society from that of human, of peer and compatriot. I am a swindler and a thief, a liar and a malcontent, lazy and disreputable. All because I have no money. In a society that already equates morality with the size of your bank account, it does no one any favors when the wealthy start pretending to be poor to raise money. Nor does it help anyone when they succeed, despite their audacity, while people like me whither, starve, and die.
Please, if you want to help the poor, start at home. Find the actual poor people around you and talk to them about how you can help them. Ask them what it’s like to be in their position. Don’t just listen to people online about it, don’t just listen to news reports, don’t just read the emails that get forwarded to you. Help the actual people, struggling and starving, in your community.
Normally I’d ask for tips or donations at the end of an article that was this exhausting to write, but I’m not doing that this time. I’m simply too disgusted by this whole situation to think about putting myself in a similar light in any fashion. Take that money to the people in your area that need it instead. Not the organizations – the people. They know how best to use a little bit of money, that’ll make their lives easier and better. Believe me, they do.