I was born into a poor family, who lived in a “hood” area with other poor people and low-level criminals. I will also die poor because I will never become an uber-rich spoiled, and highly privileged person that I am supposed to admire (think celebrities, or heiress who’s only real claim to fame is…being born) and I am perfectly okay with that. Apparently I am not supposed to, according to the messages my friends, family, and culture have all been inundating me with. I am resistant to all them because I am proud of my hard-working, hands-blistering family, despite the fact that they never think they are good enough, or are doing enough.
Alongside this subliminal message of aim for prosperity (and material riches) there is also this idealization of poverty, globally and here in the Boulder community. I was at a party (read: designated driver standing away from the other party-goers giving off a “f*ck you” vibe to keep people from talking to me) and an oldie was put on: “What Would You Do?” by City High. For those who do not know the song, it is about a group of friends who are debating how much “choice” a mutual friend of theirs has in being a stripper-sometimes-sex-worker to support her son. One of the more powerful lyrics is the chorus:
“What would you do if your son is at home
crying all alone on the bedroom floor ‘cuz he’s hungry
and the only way to feed him is to
sleep with a man for a lil’bit of money”
So for you, this is just a good time,
but for me this is what I call life.”
Basically, it is a song about numerous people who are forced into workspaces that some see as degrading or just as occupations where the people who perform the job duties are treated like crap—in video for the song, a customer throws a one dollar bill to the protagonist of the song with a smug look because he knows she is desperate for money and knows she saw his twenties and hundreds in his hands. It is also a song about the majority of people I know—victims of child abuse, incest, exploitation and circumstance.
My own mother, when she was homeless with my older sibling performed illegal activities to buy hotel rooms and food. My uncle stole food from a store to feed their incapacitated mother when she was ill with heart problems. He was arrested, incarcerated for under a year then released. Years later Officer Racist (his real nickname in my neighborhood is too explicit to write here) planted cocaine on him and he was given a heavier sentence for being a “habitual offender” and we didn’t see him for another couple of years. My father was here illegally for a few months because of misplaced paperwork and also had to work in dangerous work with no benefits because of his irregular status until he married my mother.
So when a random dude at the party (henceforth Random) decided he could talk to me about the song, shit hit the fan. He thought this was clever:
“Dude, imagine being so poor that you could make dumb shit decisions and not get blamed because it was your only option.”
“What?” I asked, because someone would not say something that incompetent and ignorant to a complete stranger (who is glaring at everyone who invades her bubble).
“Yeah, like, the chick in the song is a whore but it’s okay because she has no choice.”
I will not reveal the slew of curse words I uttered to him, but there is one thing I can state: this is an example of idealization of poverty. Here is a pop culture example: I Love You diet magazine recently published a spread with food being posed as a dangerous luxury not needed in life, just an indulgent of the weak. Needless to say, for some people food is a luxury—some children in the United States only get one meal per day, at school, or like my childhood neighbors, eat canned dog food because it only costs around 50 cents. It was not the author’s intention to mock the truly starving but nonetheless that is what the magazine does. You can read a more analyzed version here at Jezebel or visit the I Love You magazine website which I find way more depressing and food-erotic centric, which is very unhealthy in and of itself.
Another example is the poverty tourism through slums in South Africa and India, which has a large U.S. customer base. These tours show Black, and “Colored” people and families living in shacks surround by wires (looking like cages) where the tourist ogle them, supposedly get educated on what it is like to live in such dire circumstances, then go back to their homes, their probably safe, warm, and secure homes.
Another larger one is Chris Arnade’s “Faces of Addiction” photo book with pictures of drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless men, women, and children in the Bronx. While Arnade has the best of intentions, and is not looking to deliberately exploit those he has photographed, it is a still a fetishization of their poverty. Viewers look at these pictures, feel sad/angry/indignant or whatever, and then return to their lives. The people in the pictures? Who knows, we do not now anything about them beyond the portraits. Showing underage girls dressed in revealing clothing, showing cocaine and heroine addicts smoking and snorting, and showing a homeless man in his cardboard make-shift home is exploitative, intention or not.
What bothers me—and probably overly sensitive to—is that I do know these people. I know the 16 year old who trades sex for a safe place to stay the night. I know the men who smoke cocaine, unable to escape its addictive cycle. I know the families who live in rusted and moldy shacks because they have no place else to sleep. I know the people washing up in the public restrooms and standing on the corner asking for work. These people have all been my family, my neighbors, my friends, and sometimes they have been me.
I have been hungry before. I have slept huddled with my entire family because we couldn’t afford heat that month. I have listened to my mother cry at night because she didn’t know how much longer she could keep us fed or a roof over our heads. I have eaten rotten food because it was all we had. I have only experienced this type of extreme poverty once and for only six months. Circumstances got better for us; we were fortunate in that respect. But that is not always the case. I’m fine now, but I rarely talk about this time in my life, I become too afraid, angry, and helpless. Currently, I am an unstable housing situation and it terrifies me.
To hear Random make that kind of statement infuriates me. It’s not just Random, it is everywhere in the CU and Boulder community. There is a homeless man that is always outside of Barnes & Nobel on Pearl, asking for work or sometimes food. I was walking past him and saw some of my fellow Buffs—and I even recognized two of them—point and laugh and speed away two weeks ago. The man looked down for a while, and then looked back up. He’s a nice person; I have talked to him and have bought him food when I have money to spare. My mother still gives food when she sees homeless people because she knows what it is like to go hungry.
I own three pairs of jeans, and one winter jacket, because that is all I can afford. I have severe anemia and asthma and can only afford my medicine once, sometimes twice a year. I still take under-the-table pay jobs, some degrading some just harsh. I studied abroad for one month and have been told (teacher, fellow abroad alumni) it is not a “real experience” because it was so short. Well, that is all I can afford, and will probably be the only abroad experience I will ever have, but thank you for making me feel inadequate.
I am only able to attend CU because I work hard, save and receive scholarships and financial aid. I have reported other students anonymously about students who are not the “need-based” students like I am who apply for scholarships and aid, not because they need them, but because it looks great on their resumes, and I feel that money should get allocated to people who are really dependent on them. I was so angry and hurt seeing the CU-Occupy here, because they do not speak for truly down-trodden, truly poor…to me, they were almost as bad as the “1%.”
Being marginalized and a victim of circumstance is never “cool” or “lucky.” It is a horrible and dehumanizing experience, one that should never occur but does everyday and to people we all know. Being in the upper-class bubble of CU has been draining—some of the things here are so trivial it offends me to even be bothered with those “problems”—and has made me more cynical than I already was. But there is good here and I learned to be proud of my destitute roots.
After all, they made me the person I am, they made my parents who they are (and they are pretty great) and have taught me to survive in ways a college education never could. I will never be rich, I will never have luxury items, and I will never be famous with money thrown at me with out earning it. I will work hard for any and everything that I get; I will die an accomplished person. I only want to make a difference in the world. My past has taught me to see everyone as human—rich, poor, child, adult, “bad” or “good”—and I will continue to treat everyone I meet that way. And I am damn proud of that, me, and my non-lucrative ambitions.