by Ruby Collette
“Pretend we were poor people,” my young daughters sang in their storytelling voices. One of their favorite games, gathering stores for the winter. Their father and I chuckled. Oh, if they only knew how poor we are, here in our only two bedroom house with only one car.
As a child I, too, was fascinated by the creativity of The Boxcar Children to change a spoon into a knife by turning it around. I longed to find My (own) Side of the Mountain, although the Island of the Blue Dolphins seemed lonely and distant. As a young adult, I lived briefly under a railroad bridge on an island in the Mississippi River and in a tent in the Arizona Desert, emulating the hobo I met under another Mississippi bridge.
We baby boomer parents wanted to bring up our children with all the possessions and education our original family may have lacked. And so we deprived our offspring of a good kind of deprivation, the kind where you adapt to the world rather than paying the world to adapt to you. Many privileged children are bored, although I cannot compare the boredom of too much choice to the boredom of the person in the system’s constant wait: waiting in line at the food bank, at the food stamp office, at the disability office, filling out form after form. Waiting for the check, for the letter, for the paperwork to go through, for the appointment to make an appointment with your worker, with the doctor.
Yet a hip thing now is for privileged kids to dress in dirty grey brown steampunk carny suits and sing old timey songs about poverty. Poverty chic. What is it that makes poverty appealing as a fantasy?
It’s easy to romanticize oppression of all types. How many times have I wished I came from a big Jewish family where we talked about everything, wished I had brown Native skin and glossy black native hair (not in bad shape from government food). Wouldn’t life be easier if I were a lesbian and could plug into that culture without the guilt of my bisexuality? Often life seemed it would be way better if I were not a boring white girl from the suburbs but a sassy tough Latina chick.
Yeah, ‘cuz being Jewish, Native or a dyke is such an easy ride. Not.
Imitating oppressed groups without understanding the culture you’re appropriating is clueless at best. So when I see the children of privilege dressing as poor people, I get a tight feeling in my stomach. Much as I am happy to see our young people grow up and express themselves, much as I want to support them, I cannot open my wallet and give them my last dollar. I need it way more than they do.
Ruby the Resourceress used to be a straight middle class natural food store owner. After becoming disabled, she spent two and a half years between a local mental institution and homelessness. Ruby is a homeless homeless advocate and artist. – RC