If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars?
One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive.
Like a lot of people (more than would probably admit it), I don’t have a lot of patience for the ‘plight’ of poor people. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people who ought to have known better do something stupid that either makes or keeps them ‘poor’. ‘Geez, dude, think it through!’ is the theme of my personal soundtrack. And, over the course of the years, I have been forced to admit that there are tons of folks who can’t or won’t ‘think it through’. (Watch the Sopranos. They’re all over the place.)
Less understandable are those who seem to think that the ordinary skills needed to navigate in the non-poor world are somehow an imposition, their use somehow ‘selling out’. This author seems to fall into that category:
I internalized that lesson and I think it has worked out for me, if unevenly. A woman at Belk’s once refused to show me the Dooney and Burke purse I was interested in buying. Vivian once made a salesgirl cry after she ignored us in an empty store. I have walked away from many of hotly desired purchases, like the impractical off-white winter coat I desperately wanted, after some bigot at the counter insulted me and my mother. But, I have half a PhD and I support myself aping the white male privileged life of the mind. It’s a mixed bag. Of course, the trick is you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied. Who knows what I was not granted for not enacting the right status behaviors or symbols at the right time for an agreeable authority? Respectability rewards are a crap-shoot but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power.
I find this outlook puzzling. Why expect respect if you refuse to act ‘respectable’? That’s like expecting to win the lottery even if you don’t buy a ticket.
Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable. Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It’s the aging white hippie who can cut the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management while aging black panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative and, like life, it ain’t fair.
This reminds me of a joke my brother used to tell (and may still) the punchline of which was ‘If yo’ is impotent, yo gots to look impotant.’ The argument, if I can call it that, of this article is that life is a game of plastic banana, so spending money on silly but upper-class-signaling plastic is the way you win the game.
I have about a half dozen other stories like this. What is remarkable is not that this happened. There is empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by appearances differently and more harshly than are white men. What is remarkable is that these gatekeepers told me the story. They wanted me to know how I had properly signaled that I was not a typical black or a typical woman, two identities that in combination are almost always conflated with being poor.
And why is that? The author seems unable to grasp the fundamental truth that stereotypes exist for a reason; they are not just drawn out of a cereal box at breakfast but are based on life experience that a lot of people have with a lot of other people, and that to break out of the stereotype requires not conforming to the stereotype.
Why do people treat those with a lot of obvious ugly tattoos as low-lifes? Because for the most part they are — what you look like is a public statement of what type of person you wish to be taken as, and if you don’t want to be lumped in with a particular ‘type’ then you need to avoid dressing and acting as that type dresses and acts. Appearance and behavior don’t just drop on you like the rain that falls upon the just and the unjust alike, they are formed by the choices we make every day, and as with most choices we are forced to live with them. Don’t waste time whining and moaning about how other people treat you; take the time and effort not to present yourself as the sort of person that other people treat that way. This is the old-fashioned virtue called prudence, which seems to be out of fashion in these degenerate modern times but which works every time it’s tried.