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Damn poor people, why don't they just get a job?
Here's a little something that's been on my mind. Nothing big, but a little thing that's been crawling around beneath my skin itching to get out.
There's an odd type of person, of a political persuasion that's hard to pin down. They seem like great liberal types. They like gay people, have a few gay friends, don't harbor any racist tendencies, aren't particularly religious, sometimes even scornful of organized religion, they like multicultural societies and seem pretty cool overall.
They harbor nasty class prejudices. They don't like poor people. They feel like poor people should be blamed and punished for not being rich and successful. Being poor is a scarlet A on a person's character. Its shows you're an immoral or stupid person if you don't have fine things, or a nice car, a fancy house or the latest gadgets.
They don't feel like there should be any other reason other than a person's own laziness for their poverty. They refuse to consider the idea that society might be tilted against some people. And most of all they resent people taking THEIR money to support any sort of safety net.
This attitude seems to afflict mostly middle aged white men the most. Usually they've had access to good schools, family resources to draw from and a network of connections to work with as well. It pains me to hear them talk about their own success, oblivious to the advantages that made their success possible. Its as if they refuse to consider that their lives would have been different had they been born into a different environment. Its like most American's who seem to believe that its their own specialness, not the great opportunity of living in a wealthy society, that affords them such riches and material wealth.
I recall a few cultural references to illustrate my point:
Remember that classic Eddie Murphy skit on Saturday Night Live where he pretends to be a white man and people treat him differently, they give him free stuff and he feels like he's joined some secret society? Sure, it was an exaggeration but it reflects a reality that you don't see unless you can put yourself in another person's shoes. Where I work, the security people keep a close eye on "suspicious people". All too often it turns out to be scruffy looking people or minorities. Its not so much a conscious decision but rather one based on cultural biases. We have it programmed into our psyches that their is a certain way people look and act to be respectable. Its no accident that every serial killer going to trial gets a haircut and a new suit to wear.
If it didn't work they wouldn't bother.
If you live in a world where the cultural biases are in your favor you don't see them. Its like a swimming with the current. Its myopic to believe that those social conditions are the same for everyone. It isn't. That's a truth you should learn quickly, if you haven't already.
I attended a Catholic High School here in Tulsa. One of three I think... but that's not important. During my attendance there it was required that we wear uniforms; a pair of dress pants and a button down shirt. The girls wore skirts and button down shirts as well. Hair length was to stop at the collar, no longer than that. A few guys pushed the limits but you couldn't go past the collar while you were still in school there. So of course after I graduated and went to college I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
I should pause and say I'm a firm believer in willfully putting yourself outside of your "comfort zone" for the educational opportunities it affords.
So I grew my hair out long. I would wear it in a ponytail most days but other times it would blow around in the wind and hang down over my face and down my back. Nowadays I try to keep it around the collar but long from the top. I still don't much like that cropped short look that most guys favor. I have beautiful black hair and it's straight as could be.
But enough about me and my hair...
Part two of the experiment was to be poor. I would be a non-consumer. Try a little experiment for yourself when you feel like it. Dress down. Ratty work clothes and maybe an unshaven look. Go into a store, someplace nice. Spend a few minutes looking around; pick up and look at a few items. Don't buy anything. Walk out of the store with nothing.
Feel the eyes on you.
Its hard to do if you don't have "the look". But its a worthwhile experiment even if you can't get the full effect.
My point, amongst all this rambling and unnecessary biographical information is this: What you look like, and who you are MATTERS. Otherwise we would all wear out PJs to work and never shave or get ourselves groomed. Its hardwired into our brains to assume a person's character by their appearance. And it drives me nuts when people assume that who they are, and what they are has NO affect on their opportunity to succeed. Not to say that we can't all achieve our goals. But its not the same for all of us. And when you think that these little cultural biases don't mean anything you're missing the point. It might seem like a small thing when your nation's cultural heritage is defined in terms of white men's "discovery" and "pioneering" but it feeds into a larger scheme of who deserves to succeed. Those little narratives become part of our cultural value system. As much as it becomes convenient to ignore that most blacks in America lack some sort of familial wealth and connections that help pave the way for success. Its just easier to write them off as lazy or stupid. The same with other poor people. Luckily most of us have the good sense to see past these gross prejudices.
Growing up in a sheltered world makes it hard to see past your own circumstances, and empathize with others. But its a constant source of hope for me to know that no matter what environment we grow up in, nothing ever goes completely according to plan. And its in those moments when your preconceptions of the world get tested that you become more human.
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