On Identity and the Appropriation of Poverty
I have my first personal essay for Lunch Ticket up on the blog now! You can read it here. It’s about food justice and access, and I wrote it as a menu of sorts to describe my history eating and exploring food, from living on a one-parent income on the south side of Milwaukee to working for an organic family farm in rural Wisconsin.
Back in February, the Eunoia Review published a flash creative nonfiction piece I wrote about the first time my boyfriend (now my husband) made me breakfast. I was so delighted to have the piece published that I didn’t check back on the comments until well after the fact. Then, I found that an anonymous commenter had written this in the comments section:
“You went to private high school that cost thousands of dollars a year and grew up in one of the toniest suburbs of Milwaukee. You weren’t raised on canned food and SNAP benefits. Don’t appropriate urban poverty.”
My sense of accomplishment deflated when I read this. This reader seemed to think I appropriated urban poverty by mentioning my childhood diet, with its dearth of fresh food.
This reader has false information. Fake News, if you will—ironic given her misguided attempt at defending the enlightening and edifying experience that is “urban poverty” (this is sarcasm, in case you couldn’t tell) and the throwing-around of the term “appropriation.” She assumes I grew up in a tony suburb of Milwaukee. I did not, though if you Google my maiden name, it appears I did; my parents rented and lived in a tiny, carpeted side-by-side duplex in Brookfield for a couple years so my little sister could attend public school in the suburb’s stronger school district. However, I never lived in that duplex—I was already out of college and living in Madison when they moved there.
I went to a private, Catholic, all-girls high school on work-study grants, which I assume was the cause of the reader’s confusion over the cost of my high school. The school cost more every year than my subsequent annual college tuition at UW-Madison. On paper, my education credentials make me sound richer than I am, a curriculum vita that would have delighted me earlier in my youth, when I worried over my knock-off jeans and concerned myself with our family having the “right” kind of car.
After this comment, I scrawled a cursory, 800-word essay—a mostly incoherent rant about how the commenter was incorrect and how
After I calmed down and my self-righteous annoyance faded, I started researching poverty appropriation. Troublingly, it has proven trendy in recent years, a phenomenon that astounds me. Having grown up working class, I cannot fathom why someone would willingly want to be associated with food (cheap and subsidized), clothing (dirty and torn), hairstyles (the mullet and the rat-tail come to mind) , and shelter (trailers) that I often saw as the only available resources for people with less means. My mother worked extremely hard to give me what she thought was a better life than some of our extended family—a few of whom lived in trailers and never got off food stamps and didn’t attend high school beyond their sophomore year. Although I now loathe the idea of referring to people—any humans—as “trash,” these people with less access to more expensive resources were repeatedly referred to as “trashy,” by my family members, by my friends, and, sadly, by me.
I used to lament that the only thing I wanted out of life and my career was to not be trashy. Composed, elegant, educated—never trashy.
Trashy, as in, keeps a ratty upholstered couch on the front porch.
Trashy, as in, over-plucked eyebrows, crop tops, low-slung jeans—too much much.
Trashy, as in, an unwed teenage mother who drops out of high school to have a baby.
Trashy, as in, “white trash,” a breathtakingly racist term (it seems to imply that people of color are simply considered “trash”) to describe a lifestyle I think I’ve already pointed out is both “painful and dehumanizing,” as James Swift writes in a biting and oft-condescending essay on Thought Catalog, “Hipsters and the Co-Option of White Poverty Culture.”
Trashy, as in, eats only food dyed unnatural neon colors and drinks cheap beer, a recent hipster phenomenon July Westhale derides in her essay on The Establishment, “The Troubling Trendiness of Poverty Appropriation.”
Trashy, as in, poor.
I knew that education would free me from a life of cyclical poverty, but I wasn’t sure how. I just knew I needed to do it. So, I left Milwaukee to attend UW-Madison, where I met a world of people, some from much, much smaller towns than Milwaukee, and some with many, many more financial resources. Their baffled faces when I told them I couldn’t afford to go out to eat never failed to amuse me. I used fashion and my manners of speech as armors against appearing less wealthy than them. Perhaps the anonymous commenter even was one of these disbelieving college friends.
So, have I appropriated urban poverty, as the commenter claimed? Perhaps a little, depending on the readers’ definitions of appropriation.
I cannot claim the same experience of Lilly Dancyger who wrote in her “Passing for Privilege” essay that she was a
“high school dropout who was raised by a single mother—a recovering heroin addict with debilitating PTSD who was only able to keep a roof over our heads and food in the fridge with the help of multiple government assistance programs.”
But, I can certainly relate to the feeling of “passing for privileged.”
So, I guess the moral of the story is, if you make mean, anonymous comments on my work, I’ll GET YOU. And by, “get you,” I mean, I’ll take it extremely personally, think about it for half a year, let it eat away at me as I write multiple drafts of an essay on what poverty is and means to me, research and mine data and quotes from other sources, then write a 2,000 word personal essay inspired by it and food access, and publish it on a national platform. So EAT THAT!
(I’m only human after all. I try not to let the trolls get me down. But, when they do get me down, I never stop writing.)
As I wrote in the essay: