Yesterday, my partner and I decided to have coffee at a local coffee shop to kill time between dinner and an 8:20pm movie. On the way, we stopped at an ATM to get cash, taking turns. As I waited on him, I people-watched, remarking on how ridiculous it was to see people wearing shorts in the midst of winter. White middle-class people — I just do not seem to “get” them, and continue to feel somewhat alien in spaces where they are the majority.
Nearing the coffee shop, we passed a church where two men who I presume are homeless were lying in front of the door. The echo of their conversation in the breezeway in front of the door is what caught our attention. Turning the corner, we saw another man sleeping in front of the church’s side entrance. My partner asked why the church was closed. I explained, recalling from the days that I volunteered at Shalom Community Center, that there is no full-time shelter in Bloomington, and the day shelter at Shalom is open on weekdays only. But, there is nighttime winter shelter program at various churches (including the one we passed).
Seeing the first two men struck me. “Gosh, what a shame…” But, seeing the third man, lying spread out on the sidewalk (rather than tucked into a corner) hit me harder. That people literally live on the street for much of their lives is, indeed, a shame. But, that so many who are better off walk by them, ignoring their existence, is inexcusable. How can we pride ourselves on being a first world nation, touting patriotism, with such pervasive poverty and homelessness?
As we ordered our warm beverages, my mind stayed on the three men we passed. What can we do? What should we do? Should we purchase warm drinks and pastries to bring to the men? Should we go to them to invite us to dine with us? Should we just give them money? I felt torn between obligation to help, but also fear that presuming they need our help would be patronizing and offensive. (I recall a comedy film where a man stood outside of a courthouse with coffee in a Styrofoam cup, in which someone threw a quarter, probably assuming he was homeless.)
My drink was ready minutes before my partner’s, so I had some time to find a table as I waited. I sat at the one closest to the entrance, which is also next to a bulletin board covered in flyers for upcoming shows, and a bookcase stacked with various flyers and advertisements. A simple half-sheet flyer caught my eye — “DISCRIMINATION.” It was an alert, I assume created by Shalom Community Center, that several people experiencing homelessness and poverty were harassed by Bloomington police in January. They were asked for their IDs and many issued tickets for jaywalking. (There was a peaceful protest one week later that was interrupted with unnecessary violence.)
Yes — I get discrimination. As a Black queer person, personally familiar with racist and homophobic discrimination, I can at least attempt to relate to this aspect of poor and working-class people’s experiences. But, through conversations with friends from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as my research on discrimination, it has become increasingly obvious that I do not actually “get” poverty, largely because of my own middle-class background.
Regretfully, I wrestle with this. By understanding racism, heterosexism, and (to a lesser extent) sexism, and having a perspective of the social determinants of inequality, I have assumed that I had a good handle on social class and poverty. Personally, I am still a modestly-paid graduate student, and many of my relatives come from and still live in poor backgrounds (including some who have experienced homelessness). For all of my indirect connections to poverty, the remains a distance that prevents me from really “getting it”. (In fact, my parents have worked hard to support me so that I do not have to have to experience poverty.)
Through these conversations with friends, the invisibility of class, poverty, and classist prejudice and discrimination has become more apparent. Though we talk openly about race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity, albeit rarely and tentatively, there is a conspicuous silence about social class: the ways in which people from poor and working-class backgrounds feel alien in predominantly middle- and upper-class spaces; the assumptions we readily make about others’ socioeconomic standing; the prejudice and discrimination faced by those presumed to be poor.
- Politicians pay attention to your class, and fight for your vote in election seasons.
- You can advocate for your class to politicians and not have to worry about being seen as looking for a handout.
- You can readily find accurate (or non-caricatured) examples of members your class depicted in films, television, and other media.
- New products are designed and marketed with your social class in mind.
- If you see something advertised that you really want, you will buy it.
- You can swear (or commit a crime) without people attributing it to the low morals of your class.
- If you find yourself in a legally perilous situation, you can hire an attorney to ensure your case is heard justly.
- You can talk with your mouth full and not have people attribute this to the uncivilized nature of your social class.
- You can attend a “fancy” dinner without apprehension of doing something wrong or embarrassing the hosts.
- You understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy food, and can choose to eat healthy food if you wish.
- You can walk around your neighborhood at night without legitimate concern for your safety.
- In the case of medical emergency, you won’t have to decide against visiting a doctor or the hospital due to economic reasons.
- You have visited a doctor for a “check-up.”
- Your eyesight, smile, and general health aren’t inhibited by your income.
- If you become sick, you can seek medical care immediately and not just “hope it goes away.”
- If you choose to wear hand-me-down or second-hand clothing, this won’t be attributed to your social class, and may actually be considered stylish.
- You can update your wardrobe with new clothes to match current styles and trends.
- As a kid, you were able to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities (field trips, clubs, etc.) with school friends.
- As a kid, your friends’ parents allowed your friends to play and sleep over at your house.
- You don’t have to worry that teachers or employers will treat you poorly or have negative expectations of you because of your class.
- The schools you went to as a kid had updated textbooks, computers, and a solid faculty.
- Growing up, college was an expectation of you (whether you chose to go or not), not a lofty dream.
- Your decision to go or not to go to college wasn’t based entirely on financial determinants.
- People aren’t surprised if they realize you are intelligent, hard-working, or honest.
- An annual raise in pay at your job is measured in dollars, not cents.
- You’ve likely never looked into a paycheck advance business (e.g., “Check Into Cash”), and have definitely never used one.
- You are never asked to speak for all members of your class.
- Whenever you’ve moved out of your home it has been voluntary, and you had another home to move into.
- It’s your choice to own a reliable car or to choose other means of transportation.
- Regardless of the season, you can count on being able to fall asleep in a room with a comfortable temperature.
- When you flip a light switch in your house, you don’t have to wonder if the light will come on (or if your utilities have been terminated).
- People don’t assume you’ve made an active choice to be in your social class, but instead assume you’re working to improve it.
- The “dream” of a house, a healthy family, and a solid career isn’t a dream at all, but simply a plan.
- People do not assume based on the dialect you grew up speaking that you are unintelligent or lazy.
- When you choose to use variants of language (e.g., slang terms) people chalk them up to plasticity in the language (rather than assuming your particular dialectical variants deserve ridicule and punishment).
Using My Privilege
On this matter, as I advise concerned whites and heterosexuals, I need to continue the journey to recognizing the ways in which I am privileged as a highly-educated, middle-class person, and call attention to the ways in which society supports such privilege. And, I must be careful to prevent the sense of guilt that I have from paralyzing me. Like the guilt that some whites, heterosexuals, men, and cisgender people feel regarding their privileged status, it is a noteworthy, but ultimately useless emotion.
Middle-class guilt stems from being unable to rid myself of these unearned privileges. But, in light of the many ways in which other individuals, as well as various social institutions, value my existence, perspective, and contributions over those of poor and working-class people, I will never be able to completely eliminate such privilege from my life. Rather, a better strategy, beyond eliminating those privileges that I can relinquish, is to use my middle-class privilege to fight economic injustice.
While giving money is one option, I can also use my access to predominantly-middle-class spaces to call attention to poverty and homelessness. From my focus on prejudice and discrimination, I can also push more attention to classist discrimination, like that of the police harassment in Bloomington, Indiana.
For example, during a teaching demonstration on poverty during my job interview at University of Richmond, I added to victim-blaming and structural perspectives on the persistence of poverty attention to classism as a system of oppression. That is, in addition to moving beyond attention to individuals’ actions that keep them in poverty (i.e., victim-blaming), and even beyond structural factors (e.g., limited minimum wage, racism and sexism, incarceration), I stressed the need to consider the discrimination targeted against poor and working-class people. Similar to racism and sexism, classism entails structural constraints and interpersonal barriers that promote class inequality.
Another strategy is to advance a more complex definition of social class. Indeed, while how much money one makes is an important factor, attending to income alone misses wealth, and the non-monetary forms of capital (e.g., social and cultural capital). By some accounts, I would be classified as working-class (by income, working-class/poor upbringing of my parents), but my high level of education (PhD by this May) and privileged socio-cultural status certainly mark me as middle-class.
Indeed, certain aspects of class are typically unmarked or invisible. Short of appearing to be economically disadvantaged in clothing, accessories, and even hygiene, there is a tendency to assume that everyone is middle-class. Worse, we have a tendency to make obvious markers of poverty invisible. When ignoring the physical presence of people experiencing poverty and homelessness on the street is not enough, we actively push them out of sight. We are either repulsed by their presence (classist prejudice) or are made uncomfortable when their presence reminds us that pervasive poverty exists (middle-class guilt).
This is all complex and difficult to address. But, it is necessary. So, this begins the lifelong process of attempting to be aware of my and others’ middle-class privilege and, when possible, using that privilege to challenge economic injustice. As a privileged ally to poor and working-class people, I will always be blind to certain aspects of their experiences, as well as of my own privileged experiences; and, I will probably get some things wrong along the way. But, inaction, whether due to lack of care or the paralysis of middle-class guilt, is a horrible alternative.