“Pardon me while I burst into flames,
I’ve had enough of the world and people’s mindless games.
Pardon me while I burst and rise above the flame.
Pardon me, pardon me. I’ll never be the same.”
-Incubus, Pardon Me
We live in a world where discrimination still happens but it often happens in the shadows. It is done in the way cowards typically do things- when the world isn’t watching or paying attention. And it still happens far too often. But there’s one type of discrimination that is totally acceptable to flaunt, to declare with authority and smugness.
It’s still acceptable to shame the poor. It’s totally ok to stand up in the U.S. Congress and sneer about the “takers.” It still o.k. to go on Sunday morning talk shows and wear an unholy mask of disgust and contempt while talking about welfare and entitlement programs. This is all fine. You can do this and still be a regular guest on a news show. You can do this and still get elected to be a political leader. In fact, some people will vote for you for this very reason.
Souls vs Stomachs
One very powerful Congressman recently said the school free lunch program gave students a “full stomach but an empty soul.” Because anyone who’s ever gone hungry knows that you need to feed your soul. I mean, that’s top on the list of concerns for a hungry child who’s trying to make it through a school day with a growling stomach eating away at his concentration. That is a priority in a life of not knowing when your next meal will come. More than one political leader has suggested that poor kids do janitorial work in exchange for free school lunch. They say that this will help those kids to understand that you must pay for things. That things just don’t come easy. Because, you know, poor kids are so entitled. They don’t understand the value of hard work. Especially when they watch their parents work two jobs and struggle to pay the bills. So, let’s have the poor kids sweep and mop and scrub toilets. While their wealthier peers look on and eat their lunch that I’m sure they worked very hard for. Some people actually think this is a good idea. Teach those little free-loaders that life ain’t easy. 16.1 Million U.S. children live in poverty.
A Combo Meal of Discrimination
Recently, one very powerful Congressman got flak for saying this:
“this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
His assumption- that there were entire swaths of people who have no desire to work, who wanted to receive handouts- was not the problem. The problem was his use of the words “inner cities,” a.k.a., minorities. Yes, this comment was one of those underlying racist comments, indicative of a mindset so entrenched that the speaker doesn’t even realize it’s racist. And it should be derided. But the outcry shouldn’t have stopped there. In one statement, this politician managed to dismiss two disenfranchised entities. It was a two-for-one. But it’s ok to shame the poor, so his comment was called out for being racist, when it should have been called out for exactly what it was. Racist and poor shaming. It should have been called out for the bullying tactic that it was.
Insight and Ramen Noodles
Recently, Karen Weese wrote an insightful article on poverty. She gets to the heart of what it feels like to be on the fringe. She illustrates the perceptions that exist and pokes holes through all of the standard theories. But where she really got me was when she discussed “The Ramen Noodle Effect.” She explains that many of us can point to times in our life when we can all relate to being “poor.” Those years post college of living on thrift store furniture and eating 25 cent packets of noodles. But this is a false equivalency. Having a few years of living in a run down apartment is not the same as growing up poor. Surrounded by a family and community in poverty.
“It is much easier not to panic about tight finances when Mom and Dad have a guest room you can always move back to (even if you never actually do)…. It helps when there’s someone in your family who can advise you about applying to college or buying a home. It’s reassuring to know that, no matter how bare your cupboard, there will be a full spread of food when you go home for the holidays, and family and friends who can help you, standing in the wings.”
Not Even Close
It’s not the same. Working in a minimum wage job for a few years as a teenager does not give you insight into the lives of people who spend a lifetime in those jobs. Your stepping stone is someone else’s tenuous life line. Your “character building” position as a dishwasher or fry cook is someone else’s shaky grip on survival. Sleeping on a mattress on the floor for a few years isn’t equal to growing up sharing a bed with three siblings or finding yourself sleeping in your car. Digging for change in the crevices of your sofa for Starbucks isn’t the same as juggling finances to figure out which bills get paid this month. Selling your old shoes or clothes at the consignment store for beer money isn’t the same as selling plasma every month to pay medical bills.
The things people say when discussing the poor. They harken to Dickensian times. “Lazy. Victims. Takers.” These words are used to dehumanize an entire group of people. These words offer justification and comfort to those who wish to keep the poor exactly where they are. Poor people are fundamentally flawed, in character and morals. They don’t want to have better or to do better. They want a hand out or a hand up or a free ride. They enjoy this lifestyle. If they were motivated and ambitious and resourceful they wouldn’t be in this position. These are the statements that are repeated. They are hollow excuses for disdain. They are the rationalization for judgement. They are the lame attempts to lift oneself higher while stepping callously on the backs of those already crippled with exhaustion. They are the words of bullies.
Lack of Empathy?
Some people seem to lack the imagination to understand any circumstance they haven’t personally experienced. They are so self involved and egocentric that they can’t be bothered to consider what any other reality may actually be like. Maybe they were spoiled or grew up so isolated from people who were different. Can we really blame them for their obtuse view on life? Yes. Yes we can. We live in an age of information and access. One only has to spend a few minutes listening or reading to hear what other’s reality is. One only has to pay a tiny bit of attention to the person cleaning up after their office closes or caring for their elderly parent. It doesn’t take much effort at all to shed the notions bred by ignorance to see the good in people versus the bad.
Some people like to think that they have arrived at a place because they are better than. And those who haven’t reached that place must be less than. I was poor. I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. Sure you did. But perhaps you fail to recognize that not everyone experienced life in exactly the way you did, in the same exact circumstances. Perhaps you worked super hard. And perhaps you had a little luck. Perhaps there was someone who gave you a hand up. Perhaps there are some people so caught up in the downward spiral of poverty, scratching and clawing to feed their children and keep a roof over their head that “bettering” themselves isn’t on the bare table they face every night. Perhaps your experience isn’t exactly the same as someone else’s experience. Perhaps you could use your experience to try to be the one to extend a hand. Perhaps instead of tearing people down because they didn’t arrive at the same place you did in the same way you did, you could offer help or encouragement.
Maybe they were the bully on the school bus. Maybe they were the kid who only felt good when they were putting other people down. Maybe a tone of self righteousness couched in policy making and social commentating gives them a sense of power that they crave and need. Maybe they need to understand that the bullying that left them feeling angry and empty when they were younger is not going to fulfill them as an adult. Maybe they need to direct their anger elsewhere. Maybe they need to find another outlet rather than the convenient punching bag of someone who is too busy trying to survive to fight back.
Whatever the reason, it needs to stop. Heaping shame and humiliation on those living in poverty isn’t productive. No one has ever solved a problem when coming from a place of judgement and contempt. But the bullies don’t get this. The bullies need to be called out. We tell our kids to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. We tell them to “Stand Up and Speak Out.” Maybe it’s time for us to say something. Most of us are good people. We’re appalled when we hear racial epitaphs. We cringe when we hear a sexist remark. We wince when we hear a gay slur. It’s time we started reacting to the words and actions used against the poor. It’s time we stop accepting the false arguments that have been touted as justification for poor shaming.
Vernacular can be changed.
Mindsets can be altered.
Empathy is a skill that can be learned.
Kindness can grow and spread.
Assumptions can be examined.
Bullies can change.
Poor shaming can be called out as discrimination.
We can vote.
We can stand up.
We can speak out.
I’m glad you posted this today, because I’m thinking about what to write for Friday right now, and this has my wheels turning.
Poverty is the one issue I want to blog about that I haven’t tackled yet. I like how you connect the shaming to dehumanizing language and the lack of empathy.
Ooohh, that makes me so happy if my blog post gets someone’s wheels turning! Can’t wait to see what you turn out for Friday! I should be a little less busy this Friday and have more time to weigh in on our discussion. And I’ll be happy to host again soon, I don’t want to jump in too quickly since I’ve already hosted in case someone else wants to give it a try!
Any time you want, feel free, but absolutely no rush. Once you’ve hosted 1 time, you have an open invitation, but I can keep it going in 3 or 4 week stretches, no problem.
Decided to go with the label discussion this week. I’ve got the post first-drafted and I’m going to cut it once I catch up on my comments.
You are so, so very right and I am so pleased that you wrote this post. This is, admittedly, not something I have any first-hand experience with, but I’ve learned a few things about how to be a decent person over the years. Like you said, there is a major difference between poor and broke. I’ve been broke – meaning out of fun money, and eating black beans for a few nights in a row. But I never worried about getting evicted.
Also, you made me think of something my sister (unfortunately) posted on Facebook this morning. It was an article lauding Chick-Fil-A for some actions they’d taken to honor fallen military service people. And they were good actions. But the tone was very much, “See, people think that you can’t be a good person if you don’t support gay people, but this proves you can!”
Disagree. Dis. A. Gree. And I suppose that’s a bit tangential, but I am tired of (some) people patting themselves on the back for being religious, as if that were more important then being a decent human being.
Well, you Jennie, are one of those caring and compassionate people. You shouldn’t have to experience something to understand the difficulties and pain that others go through. And that is what drives me to want to pull my hair out. Lack of empathy, I think, is one of the biggest problems we face as a culture. I honestly could have written 1,000 more words on this. But I had to reign myself in as I’m already VERY wordy!
And I completely agree with you! Racist and bigoted people can do some very nice and charitable things. But doing something good for one doesn’t negate the hate and discrimination they may inflict on others. And it’s funny how more often than not the ones they help resemble them. And I am totally stealing what you just said: “patting themselves on the back for being religious, as if that were more important than being a decent human being.” You just summed up, in one sentence, the issues I have with people who use religion to justify their intolerance. And you said it perfectly. Thank you so much for that.
Length is worth it when the topic is so crucial! Thank you for making me think of that summary – I’m going to use that again, myself. And I’m also borrowing your line about people helping people who resembles themselves. (Man, the truth stings, dunnit?)
Poverty is such a difficult issue–thank you for writing this.
Thank you Diana. I know I just scratched the surface of a giant issue but this was something that kept popping up in recent months, with politicians especially, saying really ridiculous things. I really try to be non-political on here (because if I go down the road of politics I know it will just turn this blog into something different) but I feel that issues like poverty and feminism and LGBT rights shouldn’t be political. They are humanity issues that have been co-opted by some politicians… Anyways, I plan on addressing it more in the coming months.
I agree that poverty and equal rights issues are unfortunately politicized when they should be simpler. I have tried to maintain a mostly apolitical stance at PTM, though it’s probably pretty obvious which way I lean. It’s not that I don’t think politics are important—I do. I just don’t think my blog is the place for them generally. But there are some things that have to be talked about, even if they mean a sort of delve into politics to do so.
This speaks absolutely to my soul. I am so, SO pleased you wrote it. YES! I will shout this from the rooftops. BOOM! Brilliant.
I totally thought I responded to this last week! I hate it when that happens! Thank you so much for your encouragement and support. You are such a generous spirit. It is so helpful when you’re mired in doubt about a piece you wrote and then someone says something like this. Thank you for that…
*raises eyebrow* yaknow, I thought you did, too!
ANYWAYYY 😀 You’re welcome for the support – this piece is utterly amazing and I still love it. Cast those doubts away – this is brilliant.
‘poor kids do janitorial work in exchange for free school lunch’ – it’s disturbing that anyone thinks this is a good idea. Lets humiliate and belittle children who are in a world of shit through no fault of their own. Some people are sick in the head.
Isn’t it incredible???? And more than one politician seems to think this is a good idea! It is a cruel way to view the world. It almost makes me feel sorry for these people, people who go around with such venom for people who are struggling. What a twisted world they must live in. But really, it just makes me want to scream.
Reblogged this on DBCII and commented:
This post came recommended by Sourcerer Blog, and Gene’O was really hoping it would be shared and move around the Blogosphere. Figured I could help!
The point? Words still matter. The things we say can help keep people in bad situations. There’s a lot of words that have just worked their way right into the lexicon that I have never really gotten into myself, and I am so happy for it. I’ll stick with my curse words, thank you!
Thank you so much for re-blogging this! And yes, I’ll take curse words any day over these labels and generalizations that try to hold people back…
This has to be one of the most incredible posts I have ever read. This is absolute brilliance and uninhibited honesty. Thank you so much for writing it. I will be sharing it every single place on this planet that I can think of because it needs to be read. By everyone.
I think I might be speechless. Thank you so much for saying that. I don’t even know what else to say. But, truly, thank you. To think something I’ve written resonated with someone is just an incredible feeling.
I’m with you on everything but one thing, here. Equating the term “inner city” to minorities seems to be a slap at minorities…like minorities are the only people who live in inner cities. That’s just not true. White people live in inner cities, too. The rest of his quote is BS, though. Sure there are some people who take advantage of the system and don’t want to work, but the majority of them just want a job which provides enough money for them to live comfortably.
I completely agree with you. To be clear I don’t equate the term “inner city” to minorities. But that is how the phrase was perceived. The fact that he needed to differentiate between inner city poor people and rural or suburban poor is what led people to assume it had an underlying implication of minorities. And I can’t say if that was what he intended or meant. But I do think that the statement was complete and total BS, as you say. I probably should have made that point a little more clear. Sometimes when writing in a fit of anger I forget that some things can come across as confusing or not quite clear! Thank you for pointing that out. I may see if I can edit a few sentences. I certainly don’t want anyone thinking that is my viewpoint or assumption! And thank you for coming here to read it!
This is really powerful writing…I’m moved to the point of being sick to my stomache over those who would have a child go hungry in order to feel superior. That’s not good policy, that’s sociopathy.
And you are so right that we all need to start calling these hate-spewing bigots out. No more.
Well, done, Gretchen.
GURL, you have such an amazing voice. You must consider writing for the Sisterwives blog! I hope you do. I love the mosaic that is your blog. This was a smart and inspiring post. xoxo
Thank you soooo much Beth. I definitely want to write a guest post for the amazing Sisterwives blog! What you guys are doing is so exciting and so, so cool. Samara mentioned it to me a while ago and said she would email me to talk about it. I have some ideas but definitely have some questions about the content. I had told her months ago that there were things I couldn’t write about on here but that I felt an urge to write about. So I have a few questions about if what I was considering would be appropriate for what you guys are trying to put out there. If not, I know I can come up with some other topics. Either way, it would be an honor to share that space for a little while with you guys! xo
I doubt there is a subject the sisterwives wouldn’t be proud to tackle! Please submit to us! We have a submissions link at the top of the blog….we’ll be waiting for the Great Gretchen…..