Posted by Pattie on 1/28/2003 12:27:00 PM


I had two separate experiences last week that threw me a bit off kilter. Both were with women whom I like very much and with whom I enjoy talking. In these encounters, it was obvious that the other person assumed that I came from a middle-class background and had no direct experience with poverty or working-class people. In the first encounter, I commented that I indeed had this background, that I had come from working-class roots and had, in fact, been homeless and on food stamps at various points in my life. I was then told how wonderful it was that I had worked so hard and had overcome so much and that I was proof that hard work and determination and positive thinking could overcome hardship. I was polite, but saddened, because before my very eyes, I was transformed into the poster girl for class mobility.

This transformation tapped into one of my greatest fears about getting a Ph.D. When you come from oppressed roots and don't fit the stereotype (i.e., you have a brain and a fat body and a poor background) and you manage somehow to use that brain power to do something with you life beyond what is expected, you often get designated as "proof" that the oppression did not actually happen. The circular logic is that if you overcome the oppression, it was never real oppression and that this is proved by your having overcome it. The flip side of this is that you are considered "too good" by the folks back home. They are proud, but distant and sometimes resentful of what you achieved. The language you speak and the knowledge you have is regarded as "high and mighty," and therefore, you have to be careful not to "lord it over" your less-educated friends and family. In other words, you no longer fit in. You are between two worlds. Both worlds define you as something you are not and ask you to justify yourself in their terms, not yours. It is a lonely place to be.

One of my favourite artists, Jennifer Reeder, understood this dilemma. An art student from a working-class background, she felt the rock-and-hard-place position that someone pursuing an advanced degree can feel. Pursuing art is a middle-class and upper-middle-class thing to do, and the assumption was often that she either came from a middle-class background or understood that she was pursuing a middle-class dream, that she should have taken for granted the unmarking of class OR she should have been grateful for the chance to be a part of the middle-class world. Her response was to create "White Trash Girl," a superhero persona she created and assumed as a way to explore class mobility and class relations, especially in light of gender issues:

"This was White Trash Girl's project: to deploy the classed and improper body onto the art world at-large. Because while art world habitu├ęs may play at poverty chic and disdain bourgeois conventionality, class hierarchies are still entrenched and rigid, and the wrong class origins or the wrong sort of anti-style still mark you as the interloper, the gate crasher at the citadels of Culture. Hence the birth of the White Trash Girl, invented just to discombobulate the fairly unexamined social relations of the art education biz." (p115, "White Trash Girl: The Interview" by Laura Kipnis with Jennifer Reeder in White Trash: Race and Class in America, edited by Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz.)

When I read about White Trash Girl, I knew she was my new superhero.

The acceptable body versus improper body motif hit home with me in many ways, and, of course, having a "fat body" fits right in with having a "white trash body." White trash girls and fat girls are considered two sides of the same coin. And that coin is threatening in many ways. Last week, Paul Campos was invited to "debate" Greg Critser, author of the new fat hatred mantra, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World in which Critser asserts that race and class are the driving forces behind America's alleged fatness. Yep, according to this kind of rhetoric, white trash girls sit around on their butts all day long, watch soap operas and eat junk food and get fat. If they aren't fat, then they are easy, smoking cigarettes and getting laid with the cowboys down at the local bar. Either way, they are just no good and are dragging the rest of America down, along with the "dark" people (Critser's term for African-Americans and Latinos who are supposedly making America fatter on average).

Who talks like this? Middle-class people, usually self-identified liberals, who think that they are assessing the lower classes with sympathy and concern. Critser wants to do something about the poor and the oppressed. He sees us as victims in the exact same moment he assesses our lives for us and defines our experiences in his terms. I have grown tired of well-meaning people. I usually run away as fast as I can from them because invariably they are trouble. The reason is that they know less than they think they know. Why? Well, do they listen to the experience of fat people or poor people or dark people? No. They probably don't even hang out anywhere near such people. They just know what's good for us. And well, if they get it wrong, they couldn't think of everything, you know. So we must forgive them and be grateful for their efforts. I am not alone in this distrust of intention.

That brings me to the other encounter last week in which it was assumed that I had always been middle-class and didn't understand working-class oppression and values. This incident involved a discussion of "work" versus "job." A lot has been produced about how one should pursue meaningful work and that a life work might not be the same as a job. I mentioned that I had rejected this dichotomy and that a new paradigm about human activity might be more useful. I suggested that pursuing livelihood included sustaining oneself through earning money, but it was also something that should involve the soul, the emotional and spiritual well-being of a person. I felt like an emphasis on work, even if it is disconnected from the capitalistic notion of a job, was still falling into the paradigm of defining oneself primarily through career and related constructs. I think it could be pushed beyond that. Before I could expound on how such definitions could be pushed into new territories, my friend gently reminded me that some people didn't have those choices and that I was privileged to be able to think outside the box about work because in some parts of the world, working was necessary in order to survive.

My friend missed my point entirely. In addition, she made assumptions that have been bugging me ever since. If someone from "the other side of the tracks" actually thinks about spiritual fulfillment then they are ipso facto considered privileged. She assumed that (1) I had no direct experience with the other side of the tracks and (2) people living on that side of the track don't get to think about things like spirituality or fulfillment because they have baser needs on their minds.

Maslow's hierarchy, well-meaning as it was when first developed, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in contemporary rhetoric. I hear this all the time. One would think that if you were poor, you would have nothing but food on the brain. I guess that's why we supposedly eat so much and get so fat. Malsow's attempt to explain why some people did not respond well to psychological treatment without first having had their physiological needs addressed has become a rigid system whereby proof of poverty is in the lack of so-called "higher" needs.

Well, these assumptions are wrong. I made the decision to stop pursuing "a job" or "a career" when I was on food stamps. I spent the first 15 years of my adulthood doing the right thing. I worked hard, sometimes at 2 or 3 minimum waged jobs at a time. Sometimes I had health insurance. Sometimes I didn't. I tried to save money, but something always came up. I went into debt, a great deal of debt. I found better jobs and then was chastised for changing jobs too often. At the age of 30, I finally found a great job making around US$11 a hour (great for me at the time). After a year and a half, I got laid off because someone in another place, far away from me and my daily life, decided to "downsize" the work force at my plant. I tried to find another "great job" but wasn't able to do so. I drifted for a bit, working for temp agencies and moving around some in an effort to find something better. After a couple of years of this, I ended up on food stamps, using public health clinics and simply the landlord's kindness away from being homeless.

It was during this period of extreme poverty that I realized that financial security was a farce. I had done everything "right" and I was still a white trash girl. I still was in debt. I still was on "welfare," so-called. I was not lazy. I was not stupid. I was not a poor planner. What I was, was oppressed. I was tired of it all.

In the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a passage affectionately called the promises. One of these promises is "fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us." Most people I've known who have tried to interpret this have suggested that it means you will be able to hold a steady job if you are sober. What I realized when I was at this particular bottom was that "financial insecurity" was merely a narrative that kept you willing to take whatever job was thrown your way. No one was financially secure, not even rich people. If money is the thing you pursue, then there is never enough money. If you are poor, you have always had unmet needs. If you are rich, you worry about theft and swindlers and people who are friendly towards you because of your money. There is no security.

So once I accepted that I would never be financially secure, I lost the fear of financial insecurity. I realized there must be a better way to think about economics than the one I was told. I realized that my sense of security must come from something other than money or a "job" or a "career." Economics has always been a question of surviving in the natural world. I realized that there were many resources available to me to assist with my survival. Money was merely one of those resources. In addition, many of these resources were discounted by social convention, leaving everything but money unmarked. For instance, reliance upon friends and family is considered a weakness. Never mind that most rich people provide amply for their families and that many rich children have social capital available to them because of where they live and with whom they associate. If you are poor and you use a network of friends and family, the dominant culture holds that you are just being "dependent." You aren't making it on your own. If you are rich and doing the same thing, you are "networking" and "shmoozing." I decided I was going to appreciate any contacts I had who helped out and not feel bad about taking help or using help. I also decided that my brains and talents were assets even if they didn't result in financial gain. I looked for creative ways to offer my talents, skills and knowledge to others and to myself for our mutual survival. In other words, I realized that obtaining social capital was as important as obtaining financial capital. I came to regard this as "creating a livelihood" rather than "working" or "getting a job." I decided my goal would be to create a right livelihood, not financial security.

This led me to ask questions about what I wanted to know and what I was good at doing. That led me back to school and eventually to the Ph.D. in sociology. Yes, the Ph.D. has given me some privileges. But I didn't think outside the work paradigm after I got the privilege of a Ph.D. I had to think outside the work paradigm even to consider pursuing the Ph.D. And let me set the record straight. My degree cost me a lot more than it would have had I not been poor when I started. I borrowed an exceptional amount of money that I still don't know if I will be able to repay. I had to work while I went to school. I had little resources to get grants or scholarships. I tried that game for a while, but it took up too much time with little results. My age, my economic background and the fact that I drifted from job to job and school to school put me in a poor position to receive such funding. My gender didn't help, either. I submitted a proposal to NIH that used the exact same methodology as a male colleague. His proposal was accepted and he was funded for five years. Mine was dismissed because the methodology was not “scientific” enough. I found this very interesting, since he had lent me a copy of his proposal and I had basically copied the methodology section verbatim. I often wondered if I had put the name "Pat Thomas" on the application instead of "Patricia" if the results would have been the same. And please, don't leave a comment regarding "blind" reviews. I know better. Someone at NIH decides where to send the piece to be reviewed and that someone knows your name (and therefore assume your gender) when making the decision. My male colleague's proposal was reviewed by social scientists. Mine was reviewed by medical doctors. BTW, I thought about appealing this decision, and I probably could have made a case. But the news of the decision arrived a week after my father passed away, and an appeal takes quite a while (it may have taken longer than I wanted to stay in school). My options were limited once again.

The point of this personal history is that I am not a poster girl for class mobility and I don't want to be. I didn't "make it." Everything with which I've struggled for the past 10 years was deliberately aimed at me not making it. I wasn't supposed to make it. And now that I'm perceived as middle-class, I'm uncomfortable with the position. I still have to keep my mouth shut way too often. And, well, I'm not making that much money. I do have considerably more resources than I did 10 years ago. I've grown savvy at managing resources. But it took a lot of deprogramming to get to this point. So please, don't use my experience as proof of some Horatio Alger myth. The jury is still out on whether the Ph.D. has led to anything sustainable, and the struggle is still very real. I am privileged, but not in the way that my friends assumed last week. I do appreciate my resources. After all, they weren't always there. I do know what poverty feels like, and I don't prefer poverty to privilege. I don't long for the simple days when I was poor. I like my apartment, my urban neighbourhood and my computer equipment. I've been on the street, slept in my car a few nights, collected aluminium cans to have enough money to eat, and been harassed by the American police on more than one occasion. There are people in the world who are far worse off than me. There are people in the world who are far better off than me.

I have not found the right response to this weird space I occupy in class symbology. I don't want to wear my "white trash" background on my sleeve. I came too far and worked too hard not to enjoy some of the spoils. But I also don't want to be corrected by well-meaning liberals who think they know something that they don't. I've got a history and a knowledge that comes from this background. If I make a statement about privilege and oppression, I expect it to be respected in the context of that history and knowledge.

Maybe I do need an alter ego -- Fat Girl -- a superhero able to devastate her enemies through the irony of being fat and smart. Fat Girl's power lies in the rift she creates in the cultural time-space continuum. No longer classifiable, Fat Girl messes with the minds of those people who "just know." Look out, another simple mind has exploded. The grey matter splatters all over the landscape and before you know it, someone might learn something. One can only hope.