We probably seem painfully ordinary or even invisible. We are middle-class-looking people (or "better") who drive unremarkable but reliable cars, usually conjugate verbs correctly and probably went to college. We might even have jobs and successes that make us seem like we sailed through the flaming hoops of the privilege circus to land there. We look and talk and act like people who have all the hallmarks of a middle-class upbringing, so we are treated that way.
But underneath our passable exteriors, we know that every step forged ahead, every job secured, every bit of debt reduced, every entree into "better society" is another million light years away from what we lived like before, when we were grateful for SPAM, food stamps, and a dental program. But what the outside can recast, the inside may never fully erase — what surprises me most about achieving so-called middle-class status is that you never forget the mentality of what lies just beneath. And you most realize this when any number of conversations, assumptions, questions, or comments about money, class, upbringing and etiquette trigger your class rage like some kind of recurring rash, and remind you all too well that you were once and in some ways will forever be from the wrong side of the tracks.
Poor, is, of course, a relative thing. There's a popular saying about work in exceptionally impoverished countries: the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited. If that doesn't make sense to you, you've probably never gone without for long enough to have to think about it all that much. Consider yourself lucky.
But poverty isn't a "Yo mama's so poor" competition, although as a once-destitute person I find those jokes to be wonderfully cathartic, and have the added perspective of seeing how they are both hilarious and politically incorrect. Anyone who has suffered through the aching nothingness of having nothing, no matter the scale, can relate. But for me, it's these five topics that tend to stick in my class-rage craw the most.
Or rather, when people talk about it like everyone's gone to Europe, and everyone is going to Europe this year, because going to Europe annually is what people do. If you grew up poor, you likely missed the 9th grade trip to France, or the year abroad in Japan, or the post-college year of travel and wild times backpacking through India. So when you have to endure another conversation about how everyone is getting over to St. Maarten this year, your class rage might heat to a nice, sunny simmer.
Your Problem: Traveling regularly — even in the form of family vacations growing up — is about as familiar to you as a reliable car. It's extremely difficult to explain to people that the very concept of a luxury such as travel is, to some people — even in this day and age — so distant as to not even be a real goal. And even as an autonomous adult, whether you worked your way through college and spent your twenties paying down that debt or never went to college at all because you had to work, getting to another country is probably so far off your list of actual real things you might be able to do that you it still seems literally exotic to you.
What to Do: Take a deep breath. Realize they are merely talking about their own experience, and relish the free education. Ask about their trips, and listen. Curiosity always serves lack of experience well — it's part of what helped you out of the cycle of poverty in the first place. Find out what you can about the places they've gone, where the best deals are, what was a waste of time, what unique viewpoint travel has given them. This comes in handy if you ever find yourself in a position to drop everything and go one day, and if anyone bothers to ask you where you've been or whether you're going to St. Maarten, tell them they can stick St. Maarten up their bougie ass. Kidding, tell them the truth. If you have to listen to them droning on about luxury travel, tell them about how much you love Vienna — the sausages. The Billy Joel song. You get the idea.
They say where you went to school doesn't really matter, it's what you do with your education that counts. But "Where'd you go?" is still a question I'm asked more often than I would have ever guessed in my life. People who ask this question typically, I find, went to really fucking good schools, which is why they are so into talking about it. Hell, I would too if I, or someone I was related to, paid $50k a year for me to do it. But when this tired but totally useful (to people who went to good schools) social game comes up yet again at another party or meeting, you can find yourself silently boiling with your mixer-wine-infused class rage while backs are patted and shared jokes are made.
Your Problem: Either you didn't go at all and have to whip out your tired little "University of Life" joke, or you went to a shitty, thoroughly unremarkable state school that no one has ever heard of, which you also have a really good, tired, shitty little joke about. As a journalist, I often found myself as the only person in the room at work, or among the people I interviewed, who didn't go to a "good school." (P.S. It can feel like this.) Or who didn't have a master's. Or who didn't have a built-in network of contacts from those good schools I could call up to set me up with the most powerful person in town for that lunch of getting to know you. I also can't tell you how many times I watched people get hired through that network — no-good, better-schooled, thoroughly unremarkable people. I got hired by literally hanging around and doing the poor person tap dance of "PLEASE LOOK AT ME, I'M SMART! I'M PERSISTENT! I MATTER! I GOT NO CREDENTIALS, KID, BUT I GOT MOXIE!"
What to Do: It's clichÃ© as fuck but please remind yourself that you've got loads of experience from living the way you have that no degree can ever replicate. You're resourceful, you're street smart, and boy do you have some fucking stories about bologna (question from real person who went to Ivy League school: What's bologna?). Do we all have to be Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting to prove that we are assets, too?
And so when people ask you what school you went to, tell them the truth, and mention that the best part of going there is that you don't even know what you don't know, so they could tell you literally anything about world civilization and you'd just have to take their word for it. Then outdrink them and outwit them, but don't join their trivia team. (Kidding. You know the answers. You just think you don't.)
3. Media/Political Portrayals
When the discussion isn't abstract and academic, it is pitying and sentimental. When it isn't demonizing, it's overly mythologizing. Poor people are lazy, they are dumb, they are the salt of the earth, they are heroes, they are noble. Or worse, they could totally just choose to opt out of it but they won't. When you hear, read or see another safely distant, ignorant take on poverty or struggle, it can make your class rage agitate to a steamy rolling scald.
Your Problem: If you've lived in poverty you've met a lot of poor people, and they have all the same wonderful and abhorrent human qualities as any other label you want to slap on a demographic. What they lack are the resources and opportunities — and are usually from generations of people who lacked the resources, stuck in a cycle — to lift themselves out of poverty. They lack good models of what to mimic. They have to do three times the work to get to college, a notion that is automatic and inevitable for most people with means. They are exhausted. They are possibly depressed. They are not lazy or dumb or dishonest, except when they are just as lazy and dumb and dishonest as any other lazy, dumb, dishonest person you know — that, my friend, has got nothing to do with money.
What to Do: When people talk about poor people as a monolithic group of ne'erdowells, it is your job to educate them. Email journalists who get it wrong. Write to politicians who sound insensitive. Correct well-meaning friends who don't know how ignorant they sound. Draw attention to the misinformation as much as possible. The hard part is doing this without a SPAM-shaped chip on your shoulder. But if you can see that by automatically assuming that they — a "better-off" person — wouldn't "understand" your perspective, then you're doing the same blanket labeling to them that they are doing to you. Give them a fair chance to blow it at least.
4. When Middle Class People "Slum It"
Oh god, the thing where the people whose parents pay their cellphones, college tuition, health insurance and car payment love going to dive bars so they can feel authentically gritty. If you had to endure your entire twenties with zero safety net, surrounded by trustafarians with an affection for faux-poor minimalism or suburban kids who called themselves poor while they drank freely at the shittiest pool halls in town, the ones they drove up to in their parent's Saab all in their quest to feel real danger without actually risking their safety — then you've likely felt your class rage bubble up like a cauldron of annoyance.
Your Problem: You go here because the booze is cheap and the faces look friendly. Maybe you're living out a destructive cycle you witnessed growing up. Maybe these are the bars of your home town, the bars of your neighborhood, and the stories of the men and women who frequent them can be totally mundane, or really sad, or perfectly OK, but always familiar. Newsflash, slummers: These dudes are not Charles Bukowski ready to bust out some working-class insight for you. Some of them have abandoned families, lost their way, relapsed, and they are here in the dark getting comfort in the only cheap way they know how. This is a place for compassionate communing, not a place to co-opt grit.
What to Do: Ah, fuck, it pains me to say it, but those middle class kids don't know any better. Maybe this is the closest thing they get to a dark spot. Is it better than showing no interest at all? And really, if we're being honest, it's truly ludicrous to suggest there is a meter for authentic rights to grit — to suggest that anyone else from a more financially stable life can't dive into the deep end and craft their own alcohol-numbed fog is unfair, not to mention just as limiting as the unfair assumptions about your capacity for nuanced thought or debt repayment merely because you grew up in a trailer. Let this one go, even though it might just be the most irksome of all. Your class is showing!
When you try to educate or merely share experiences about poverty or financial struggle with people who haven't experienced it, they can get pretty weird about it. Sometimes, if you're talking about money, people act like that's "low class" or rude. Or they get defensive, like you're attacking their stability by offering a counterpoint. Usually, though, the response is a pitying look followed by awkward silence. When you can't even have a conversation about the reality of poverty in this country without middle class or "above" folks getting all clammed-up about it, it makes you wonder how anyone can actually work on the issue for realz. It also makes your class rage swirl around like a mini-tornado.
Your Problem: Being poor sucks, but until you're old enough to really process it, it's all you know. You adjust to it, and learn some valuable lessons from it, like what a savings account is. Later, you're able to unpack some of the assumptions that come with having grown up this way, as beautifully illustrated in this list of things the writer on this Class Rage Tumblr thought were just "for rich people" growing up — like butter, umbrellas, and cable TV. You can laugh at this stuff later, and in many ways it makes you stronger. At the end of the day, your experience is a valuable one, and it should be listened to, not pitied. Also, fuck, it's your life. It's what you know. If you can't talk about it, what the hell are you supposed to do? Constantly trot out other stories so that everyone around you can feel better about themselves?
What to Do: Sometimes you have to just talk people through it and spell it out real-obvious like: "I see you are looking at me with the pity eyes like I just told you I watched my dog get murdered, but maybe you could ask questions about my upbringing or talk to me about it like it's a story I'm sharing, and not a case of shingles. I've had a lifetime to unpack the way this has affected me, and I tell you this as a point of biography, not to fish for pity. I will however, take any extra money you might have on you."
There's so much more it would be nice to help non-poors understand about the world the rest of us live and have lived in. I love this list of "Nine Things I Wish Economically Privileged People In My Life Knew." It's a humanizing, illuminating explanation of the experience of poverty, the shame and stigma you carry no matter how much you improve your lot. My favorite is number 9:
If you can't deal reasonably and respectfully with me being poor, I'm not going to be able to keep you in my life. I've said this before and I'll say it again: I can never forget that I'm poor, or behave like I'm not poor. It is with me every moment, in everything I do and every decision that I make. If you constantly lean on classist stereotypes, if you insult my background, if you patronize and pity me, if you yell at me for "making you feel bad," if you won't let me talk about my financial struggles or get too uncomfortable to let me continue, if you forget every time that I can't afford to do the things you want to do or don't share your experiences and perspective- well, I'm sorry, but you're not worth being around. I have no interest in spending time with someone who will not give me the space to be myself, or who cares more about their own zone of privileged comfort than respecting another human being.