After my last post, a friend sent me a link to this piece on the Huffington Post, in which a woman so eloquently explains some of the reason why poor people make “bad” choices and how hard it is to pass for middle class. I can say from my own experience that the mentality that Linda Tirado writes about in that article is precisely what plagues so many families that live on the edge of homelessness. The biggest barrier for many of them, aside from the lack of money, was the fact that they were perceived of as poor.
Oh, come on, you might say. “Lindsey, they were homeless! What else were they supposed to be perceived as?”
I can remember one time where a guest of ours was on the phone talking to a collection agency. With the snap of a finger the way she was sitting in her chair changed. Her voice became silky-smooth and her diction even changed. She sounded perfectly middle class. She thanked the collection officer profusely for his patience and understanding while she worked out her “momentary problems” and promised to get back in touch. After she hung up the phone, her boyfriend asked her how it went and she said, “We’re never paying that f&^%ing moron.”
But, for just long enough to get the collection agency off her back, she’d passed for middle class. I’d talk more to her later about why exactly she didn’t work harder to look and talk the way middle class people did if she clearly understood how it worked. She’d laugh it off and say that it wouldn’t make a difference in the long run. “I can pretend to get what I need,” she said, “but I don’t want that to be who I am.”
I write about that story because it’s something that niggles in the back of my mind. It’s one thing for me to walk and talk middle class while being poor, because my family is middle class and poverty for me is a transitional period. We weren’t always this poor, and we won’t always be. We’re recession-poor. For other people, who were born poor and feel that they will die for, passing for middle class feels more like a betrayal. It is, to put it simply, pretending to be something that society continually tells you that you are not.
I had a weird moment the other day. I was closing the gate behind me after driving into my drive. Instead of wearing the ripped jeans, battered sneakers, and badly stained t-shirts that I normally wear around the house, I was wearing my work slacks, my hair was pinned up, my makeup was on and my school ID badge was pinned to my tie. My neighbor was out working on his car. Normally I get a “nice day” or “what’s going on?” from him, but in that moment he said, “g’day, ma’am”, and I had to blush. He blushed too, and said, “you’re like professional, it’s a reflex.”
Right, because I deserve deference in the moment I pass for middle class, instead of just being the girl next door who shares gardening advice and whose kids constantly kick their ball into his yard. I felt more respected by him when he was joking about my nice melons.
Respect for the middle class is so deeply engraved into the way that people in poverty think. It’s a respect for the persona, the clothes, the air of competency which you never feel you can pull off when you’re changing your own oil or struggling to just, you know, get through another bitter day.
And the backhand of the respect for the middle class, of course, is the fact that when you are in poverty you feel beholden, like a burden, less than. Like a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs you “ma’am” the world and then hope to go unnoticed, because the thought of another patent-leather loafer kicking you in the face is never far away. You feel loyalty to everyone else who runs in your pack and you feel as if you are betraying everything, even your own morals, by being anything else.
Desire to make it is always bitterly paired with resentment, and this clinging need to want to remain exactly as you are and still be loved.