Sunday, October 12, 2008

"We was po' ": College and a Low SES girl go head to head

She meant nothing by it. I know that, hence the reason I won't name her or rail against her personally. However, a few things must be said. A girl in one of my religion classes was commenting on something or other and made the following statement, "His family was fairly well-off, upper middle class, as all of us are." Maybe she felt safe in assuming, but...

I resent being assumed to be in one of these upper brackets. Now, don't get me wrong. I am in no way romanticizing poverty or the state of semi-poverty that we generally find ourselves in. Struggling sucks. A lot. I would much rather not live paycheck-to-paycheck, but such is our lot for now and the largest part of our lives up until now. But there are expectations of certain ideas when assuming economic class. People assume that your belief structures and experiences are built on the same foundations as theirs, and that simply isn't true.

"Impoverished" and "poor" are not separate planets from "upper middle class", but they can seem so. And I never saw as much distance between the groups (ideologically at least) until coming back to college. And maybe it's not the same everywhere, but at Florida State, there is this huge majority of well-off upper-middle (and maybe middle-middle) class kids. To the point that I think I know one person here who did not grow up that way. Many people I've talked to use such a different version of vocabulary that I find it impossible to talk to them.

Before someone jumps down my throat for the following examples, let me clarify that they are all from actual conversations.

1. "Broke"--me: no money or just enough to put gas in the car if we roll change. them: "I can buy the $150 bag, but not the $200 shoes to match."
2. "My checking account is all fucked up."--me: "We're overdrawn by a lot and have no way of fixing it." them: "I had to dip into my savings/trust fund/stock/$100 buffer to go out partying."
3. "I have, like, no food."--me: "really, none, well maybe some Ramen or something." them: "I ran out of chips/beer/Coke."
4. "I have no [financial aid] money left after tuition."--me: "really, I don't. I hope the financial aid office finds me enough to pay for books." them: "I only had enough to pay all of my bills for the entire semester,so I couldn't go shopping [or at least not where I really wanted to]."
5. "So this is how the other half lives."--me: we had $30-40 left over this week, or we unexpectedly came into a couple hundred dollars. them: "we had to eat Ramen last week until my dad came up and bought us groceries for the month."

Now, lots of kids here work and go to school so they can pay rent and such. Not everyone's parents pay their way, but they seem to think that this Ramen-noodle pseudo poverty qualifies them for some "welfare club" and it does not.

I'm not saying all this to get a pity party started. We have been too broke for too long for me to even give a damn about really feeling sorry for myself over it. We're just low income/poor/broke ass/low SES, and that's it. I hope to one day work up out of that, but it's reality for now. The whole point of this long-ass post is best made by the following:

I mentioned in a conversation in some random class or other that I am considering using whatever graduate degrees I get to work with low income women in the rural south (Alabama to be more precise). I don't know what or how yet, but it's a possibility. They replied, "That sounds interesting. I've always been fascinated with how those people function and deal...blah blah blah...I think I want to do something in an area I'm unfamiliar with too." [emphasis mine] Okay, first off, "those people' pissed me off, but...I promptly informed this sadly misinformed trust fund baby (she really was) that I was thinking of this because it's where I come from. "Those people" are my people--my family and friends. Not some alien race I would be descending from my ivory
tower to study and assist. We are them, just shifted to this weird planet temporarily. She had the good sense to look relatively ashamed, and then just said, "I'm sorry. I guess you poor people do need to stick together, huh?"

What do you really say to people with these mentalities?

What worries me is that this will only get worse as I progress in my studies. Grad school is even worse. Barbara Ehrenreich mentions a book in one of her fabulous books about attending grad school coming from low SES background. The author has terrible troubles adjusting to the environment and even has friends from similar backgrounds that had nervous breakdowns. The expectations and general belief structures among peers in those groups are so much different than what they were used to at home and what they were struggling not so much to overcome as to keep but with a higher salary that they just snapped. Goddess knows, if grad school is anything worse than this elitist snake pit, nervous breakdown is a possibility.


Anonymous said...

amen sister.

also i FINALLY added you to my google reader and am off to add you to my blogroll :)

Anonymous said...

i was thinking of you and this today because i had two major instances of where is this planet and what the fuck am i doing here. i think we are aliens. really.

also, i love you and i hope your hp paper is going okay. <3

Anonymous said...

A'ishah turned me onto your blog. I really feel this post. I don't even go to college and am 34 with no degree for precisely these reasons. Getting financial aid that I can live on to go to school is impossible. Just taking one course at the community college a couple years ago... the kids in the class were sweet, don't get me wrong. And they weren't the "trust fund" type or they probably wouldn't be in community college, LOL. But there was still a higher degree of privileges present. I mean, I had to ask my parents to buy my textbook as my birthday present as that was the only way I'd be able to get it. And for my parents, that really did mean that they couldn't buy me anything personal once they pooled their money for the book - and it was only one book, bought used! As long as you are in academia, there's no way around dealing with these sort of people and their skewed thinking. I don't know how you do it.