In Lesbian Ethics Vol. 4, No.2, Spring 1991)
I am not a mercenary warrior. As a woman born to poverty, my first loyalty is to other women of poverty. It is often difficult to reconcile this position with my life as a radical lesbian feminist. How, for instance, am I to receive discussions of classism which address only the interface between the working and middle classes, while ignoring poverty women, who by definition must bear the heaviest onus of class oppression?
It seems to me obvious that the poverty women who have lived to tell about it must necessarily have words of value to offer to the discussion of classism. Classism is not merely offending and insulting us. It is murdering us. It is casting us into prisons made of concrete and steel, as well as the prisons of addiction, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and inadequate education. It forces us to become warriors before we lose our milk teeth and demands that we harden our hearts before we grow to full size. If we manage to learn to trust our instincts and hunches, if we can kick our brains into gear when panic would more naturally prevail, then we survive.
We create the very notion of hope out of our own gossamer dreams, and at poverty, gossamer is in short supply. We exist as testament to our own endeavor. We have been compelled to improvise and to create the avenues by which we survive classism at its most vicious, yet in discussions of classism, what we have to say is largely ignored. It serves little purpose to ascribe intent to motives which one does not understand, yet I cannot help but wonder at the motives of those who aspire to comprehend class oppression while denying the credibility of those who survived the front lines of that battle.
Because we live as prey, women of poverty learn that it is unwise to form into groups, for as groups, we make easier targets. One poor person is regarded as a manageable criminal, two are a gang, three or more constitute a riot. To avoid the repercussions of being perceived as a threat, poverty women often keep to themselves. By and large, we live lives of abiding isolation. When you are thoroughly absorbed in protecting your back, you tend to eschew any approaches to your front or flank. Because of this, it is incumbent on me to say that I can only truly speak of the phenomena of poverty from a very personal perspective. While there are many, many women of poverty, we each experience it alone and those of us who survive it do so alone. The old reflexes die hard. While we must on one hand depend on one another, we learn that we must ultimately depend on ourselves to survive. Women of poverty learn to give trust reluctantly. A mistaken trust will not only result in a broken heart, but possibly in the loss of our next breath and heartbeat.
And so, I will reiterate this very important point: I speak from a personal perspective. My experience is that of nomadic poverty, shifting from migrant farm camps to rural poverty to inner city squalor. I cannot speak as one who has ever stayed in one neighborhood for a full generation or as one who has managed to maintain her family through a lifetime of picking fruit. There are many women of poverty with experience akin to mine. Transience is a very real part of what life at poverty is. It is however not the only avenue of poverty. Black poverty, white poverty, Latin poverty, immigrant poverty, rural poverty, urban poverty, the poverty of those who live in cars, on the streets, on reservations, in institutions, in servant’s quarters, in migrant camps …. Poverty is everywhere and takes many forms. What we all have in common is that we are regarded as expendable. We are on the outside looking in, but we are looking in from many different windows.
The middle class and the poor seldom encounter each other, and so, as a woman born to poverty, the naming of the middle class as the ultimate classist aggressor seems ludicrous to me. I am not unaware of how the middle class benefits from the oppression of the poor, but in my neighborhoods, it was not the middle class who were arresting us and shaking us down. It was not the middle class beating us up, spitting on us, robbing us of our integrity. It is the working class who actively and vehemently hate the poor.
In radical lesbian discussions of classism, poverty is occasionally included as a subgroup of the working class. The sardonic irony of this is astonishing. The working class affirm repeatedly that their families never took a dime that they hadn’t earned, that they would have died rather than accept welfare or food stamps. They rankle at being treated like poor people, at being regarded as part of the undeserving and unfortunate teeming masses. They make little or no attempt to hide their contempt for what they regard as the lazy, crazy, criminal, poverty class, and yet no one ever calls them on their own classism. In fact, their claims to hard working virtue are offered as proof that the working class absolutely does not deserve to bear the burden of classist oppression. This very argument implies that the poor do deserve to be oppressed.
While the working class and the middle class seem to have an ongoing feud raging, poverty so seldom comes in contact with the middle class that there is very little opportunity for any genuine animosity to develop. Those few middle class individuals whom we do encounter are usually intending benevolence. They are social workers, community activists, church people, or school teachers. While it is recognized that these people often do more harm than good to poor people, it is also recognized that, however convoluted and confused their efforts may seem, they generally intend kindness.
As a woman of poverty, I am sometimes struck by what appears to me to be the vapidity of the middle class, and often I have been stunned by their emotional sterility. I distrust the middle class when they pity us. Poverty learns early on that pity is merely honeyed contempt. In all honesty, I cannot say that I bear the middle class any abiding malice. I find their assumption that I would prefer their lives to my own irksome. I would not trade my experience, my family, my friends, my entire life to have a middle class life. The arrogance of that assumption is galling, but beyond that, I have never known them well enough to develop any passionate emotion towards them. The only exceptions to this that come to mind are judges and the “ten-dollar man.”
A long white car used to drive through Chicago’s Uptown, a very poor, racially mixed neighborhood. It was a new car, a Cadillac or a Lincoln, and it contrasted sharply with the broken down relics that littered Uptown’s streets. The driver of the car was a middle-aged white man. As he drove through the neighborhood, he paused occasionally, sliding down his electric windows to speak with the women and girls on the street. He was the “ten-dollar man,” and everybody knew what he wanted. If a girl would agree to get into his car and perform oral sex, he would pay her ten dollars. Mostly, we laughed at him, but he was a clever fellow. He knew that the most promising time to visit Uptown was toward the end of the month when women’s food stamps had run out and their AFDC checks were still a week away. That was when the “ten-dollar man” could find a taker or two for his proposition. Though we tried to laugh him away, we hated him. We hated his white car. We hated the home we supposed he lived in, we hated the power his ten dollars could wield, and I suppose we hated the woman whom we imagined shared his house and who did not keep him on a tight enough rein. The “ten-dollar man” is the only middle class individual whom I ever had the opportunity to learn to hate.
The “ten-dollar man” was not the only one to seek out poverty girls as sexual targets. Boys from the working class are encouraged to sow their wild oats with poverty girls, but to marry “nice” girls, i.e., their own kind. Not until I became an adult did I learn that rape is generally regarded as a crime. Growing up, I believed it to be merely a part of life, a denigrating and humiliating rite of passage which every woman must endure.
The working class provide the poor with considerable fodder for bitterness. For years in the lesbian community I have listened to working class women bemoan their oppression at the hands of the middle class. In my experience, when lesbians talk about classism, they are generally referring to the interface between middle class and working class. To date, I have not heard the classism discussions address the interface between the working class and the poor. I suspect that the middle class women’s fear of being labeled classist precludes their listening, and the working class claim to classist victimization cannot afford the truths that women of poverty would bring to the discussion of classism.
As I have said, we seldom encounter the middle class and so, seldom develop genuine feelings about them. However we do encounter the working class with frightening regularity. The interface between the working class and the poor is often fraught with violence. We were the kids they mugged on the bus, slammed into the lockers, and harassed with unyielding fervor. They were the salt of the earth. We were the scum of the earth. Lest we forget our place, the working class infused our lives with vicious and cruel reminders that they were noble and hard working people. We were the human garbage that polluted their environs. The message was clear. They had every reason to be proud, while we merited shame. Their efforts were to be honored, ours were to be scorned and ridiculed.
Yes, I do understand that the working class has a legitimate case to make in the classism arena. The middle class treat them badly and disrespectfully. However the insinuation that the working class are candidates for canonization in this arena completely astounds my sensibilities and disregards the abuses that poverty regularly suffers at working class hands. The intimation that, had the working class had the power that the middle class wields, they would have used it more benevolently is completely without merit. The working class does have power. They have power over the poor, and they abuse it with a determination that the middle class can only imagine. If in radical lesbian discussions of classism, I ever hear working class women accepting even a fraction of the culpability that they foist into the laps of middle class women, I will be both stunned and heartened. At that point, these discussions will truly gain some measure of credibility to me. Until that time, I will regard these discussions as exercises in shaming the middle class to guilt and aggrandizing the working class to supercilious sainthood. I am serious about my radical lesbian politics, and I am eager to see classism openly and honestly addressed. I am not a mercenary warrior however, and I see not point in fighting battles in which the issues of poverty go unattended.
Classism is Murder
There are many issues which relate particularly to poverty which I wish radical lesbian feminists would acknowledge and address. The average age of mortality for women of poverty is between 47 and 52 years old. When we discuss the rights and respect due to lesbian elders, it would be gratifying to hear it at least noticed that poor women seldom ever live long enough to join the ranks of the elders.
A recent phenomenon in lesbian circles is to hold events which use racial quotas of 50% lesbians of color and 50% white lesbians. These events cost money, and so the first to register for them will be women who are sure of their money situation. The sequence of registration by class is an inevitable one. Those most certain of their resources three months down the line will be able to register three months ahead. Those who are playing catch as catch can with their resources will not know until the last minute if they will be able to spare the time and money to attend an event. For an event which has established racial quotas, this results in an attendance which is 50% lesbians of color and 50% white lesbians from middle and working class backgrounds. White women of poverty are virtually excluded because, by the time we are able to register, the quota for white women has already been filled.
Attempting to navigate the seams between my commitment to women of poverty and my commitment to the feminist movement has often been very difficult. In the battle for reproductive rights, Operation Rescue has been clearly named an enemy of the feminist movement. I agree that every woman should have the right of reproductive choice and so on this issue stand with my feminist sisters in renouncing Operation Rescue’s position. Yet the children of the poor, based on their poverty and their parents’ lack of access to resources, are routinely rejected in the selection process for organ transplants, experimental treatments, and potentially lifesaving surgeries. To date, only Operation Rescue has rallied against the practice of condemning the children of the poor to death based solely on the economic status of their parents. Of course, I believe in and support a woman’s right to choose. I also believe in a poor child’s right to live the life that she has been born to. How can I fully and wholeheartedly denounce Operation Rescue when only they have stood against the barbarism of the medical selection process as it relates to the children of poverty? As a woman of poverty, it is just one of the quandaries which I must navigate. I do so by keeping Operation Rescue in mind as a strange bedfellow. I continue to support any woman’s right to choice, and at the same time, I will refuse to carry an organ donor card until some chance exists that people of poverty will benefit from the organ donor program. I am not a mercenary warrior.
The problem of gang activity in the inner cities is overwhelming. Young men armed with guns and dealing drugs bring a sad and violent picture to mind. Yet in poor neighborhoods where the role of the police is primarily to arrest and abuse, and almost never to serve and protect, the gangs serve a purpose. They are often the closest thing to a police force which exist in poverty neighborhoods.
As a teen-aged girl in Uptown, I avoided any involvement with the gangs that ruled the streets there. As far as I was concerned, they were pitching their lives down a dead end alley. I knew I did not want to make that trip with them. A day came when I was walking down the street and was yanked into a gangway by a man whom I had never seen before. As he dragged me between the building, ripping at my clothes, boys clad in denim and black leather filled both ends of the gangway. They entered the fracas and pulled me free of the man. They told him that they intended to teach him not to “fuck with Uptown’s home girls.”
I left before they administered the lesson, and so cannot tell you what exactly they did to my would-be assailant. I never wanted to know and so never asked. I will not forget though that they saved my hide that day. While the police do not perceive the rape of a poor woman as a crime, gang members do perceive the assault on a home girl by an outsider as a crime to be averted and avenged. Does this forgive the violence that gangs do in their own neighborhoods? No. Does it forgive the truth that those same gang members would feel entitled to rape the home girls themselves? No. When there are no police though, these vigilantes will step in, committing all the sins and taking all the liberties that are the hallmarks of vigilantism. So, do I want gang activity stopped? Yes, I do. Do I worry about what will happen in poor neighborhoods if gangs are wiped out? Very much.
Education in poor neighborhoods is hopelessly inadequate. The dropout rate for children of poverty is overwhelming, and for poverty girls, the situation is particularly bleak. I left Uptown after dropping out of high school. In the years that followed, I managed to get a GED and then worked two full time jobs to put myself through college. I earned a degree in sociology, and then returned to Uptown to work with adolescents. I ran a career training program which prepared kids for white collar work. At the beginning of one year, 90 students who had dropped out of high school enrolled in the program. Of these 60 were boys and 30 were girls. By year’s end, 25 boys had finished the program. Every one of the girls had dropped out, most due to the demands of unexpected pregnancies.
Poverty girls are born with the label of “slut” hanging over their heads. They are barely out of diapers before they become the sexual prey of boys and men from all classes, including, and perhaps most especially, poverty. In a place where growing up very quickly is necessary in order to survive, sexual maturity is hard pressed to keep up with sexual activity. And so, babies are born to babies. Fourteen-year old girls are compelled into motherhood, coerced away from an education, and forced into the degradation of the welfare system. (That we have opted to use the term “welfare” for a system which degrades and humiliates its recipients is a particularly cruel and insulting irony.) In fact, it will not matter how many new computers and textbooks are added to poverty schools if adolescent pregnancies preclude the students’ presence in the classroom.
In many states, the lottery has been offered as the solution to the problem of educational opportunity. The irony of this is no less cruel than the use of the term “welfare system.” By and large, the millions of dollars raised through lotteries comes directly out of poor neighborhoods. People teased by the possibility of escape from the ongoing degradation wind up providing the financial support for a system from which they will almost certainly receive minimal benefit. In grocery stores where no other concession to bilingualism is even attempted, only the lottery advertisements are posted in both English and Spanish. Millions of dollars, many of which are welfare dollars, are taken out of poor neighborhoods and recirculated “equally” throughout the lotteries’ home states.
I am anxious for the day when lesbian discussion of classism include the topics of the function of gangs at poverty level, the sexual exploitation and abuse of poverty women and girls, the health care of the poor, and the inadequacies of the educational system as it relates to poverty. While the discussions of classism address only the interface between the middle and working classes, it is difficult for me not to close my ears and harden my heart. The discussion seems to focus on the hurt feelings and compromised self esteem of the working class. I truly regret their pain, but I recoil at the notion that these issues of classism seem to have taken precedence over the fact that classism is not just compromising the perceived self worth of poverty women. It is killing us. It is killing our children. It is killing our mothers and our sisters and our friends. My mother and sister are dead. I saw my friends die. I have seen more miscarriages and stillbirths among the women of my family than I have seen live births. Classism is a deadly and formidable enemy. I cannot and will not forget that.
It is impossible for me to attend to or to believe in discussions of classism which trivialize the impact of class hatred. For women of poverty, classism is not just a matter of hurt feelings or low self esteem. We bear the enormity of classism’s weight. If we are not crushed by it, it makes us very strong women. We are scattered throughout Lesbos, and we have a great deal to offer in the battle against classism. To date, we have represented an untapped resource in lesbian discussions about classism. It is my fervent hope that this will change.
Of middle class lesbians, I would ask that you stop caressing your guilt and allow for the possibility that classism is not merely a function of your relationships with the working class. Listen. Notice that you have rarely, if ever, heard a woman of poverty speak in classism discussions, and ask yourself why. Not a lot of us survive to name the names and tell the stories, but when we do survive, when we offer you the information, for the love of the Mother, listen. What we have to say you have not heard before. Do not suppose when we recount the ravages of classism that we are hating our lives as poor women. It would be no wiser for a poor woman to curse her poverty background than it would be wise for a pot to curse the kiln or a sword to curse the forge. As much as you are the product of your life, so we are the products of ours. We have earned our survival as you have earned yours. Truth to tell, I am not sure that I could have survived the emotional sterility of the middle class. I comported myself well at poverty though. I will honor and respect the battles which you had to fight in order to become a lesbian, and I ask those same courtesies of you.
Of working class lesbians I would ask that you acknowledge the interface between the working and poverty classes, and tell the truth about the vehement hatred which exists there. Your role in classism has been a dual one. You stand as both the oppressed and the oppressor. Classism is not limited to the vagaries of the middle/working class interface. You know that. While you were aspiring to the middle class, you were also eschewing and belittling the poverty class. Please add this information to the discussions of classism. It is not my intent to diminish the impact of what you suffered in the arena of classism. I ask a similar courtesy of you.
Of my sisters, of other women of poverty, I would ask that you insist on being heard. Refuse to be mercenary warriors. You more than anyone know the price that classism exacts. Do not be shamed or intimidated away from the truth. More than anything, I ask you to continue doing what you have always done. Resist the temptation to make love to the pain. Instead, celebrate your survival and your strength. I ask that you not be seduced by pity. Those who would prefer to pity us rather than honor us do not understand. They offer a siren song of sympathy that is occasionally enticing, but ultimately destructive. We danced on death’s borders and survived. That is not cause for mourning, but for jubilation. Your loves, your passions, your determination bought you every breath and heartbeat. You are amazing and formidable warriors. That is a sound and sturdy truth worthy of your embrace.
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