Thursday, January 9, 2014

Nuance. Pass it On.

Chances are, you made a new year's resolution about money. I didn't, mostly because I didn't make
resolutions, because I'm in a constant state of struggling with improvement. New Year's Day isn't going to magically make me want to go on a diet, nor is it going to make me suddenly realize that I need to exercise. It is going to shine a spotlight on spending, because coming out of the Christmas season, it's pretty clear when you have been spending too much.

I am always spending too much. None of it is lavish. What do I consider lavish? Shoes that are over $100, luxury hotels, wine that's more than $25 a bottle. Some of what I spend is necessity, groceries, household items. Some of it isn't. We all have iPhones. Is that lavish? Maybe. But I have a hard time going backward with technology.

What's bothering me about this is the notion of privilege. Because the word privilege gets tossed around a lot lately. And people get prickly about privilege. No one wants to be privileged. Everyone wants to believe they got what they have because only they worked harder than the person who doesn't have the same thing.

And then I read this blog post from The Feminist Breeder on understanding the nuances of privilege, where the author breaks down what forms privilege takes: beyond the binaries of white / non-white, rich / poor. Truth is, there are many things that might be working to your advantage: race, gender, language, citizenship, class. The trick is not to be a dick about them. To recognize what you've been given, and still, work hard and play fair.

I have advantages. I'm white. I'm not transgendered. I grew up speaking English. I also grew up under the poverty line, in a family where abuse -- physical, mental and substance -- was rampant, and where more than one member struggled, or continues to struggle, with mental illness. The expectations for what I should do with my life were painfully low: they didn't include college. They did include marriage and young motherhood. An hourly-wage job instead of a salaried one. There was a lot of settling. The view was narrow.

Some kids have the whole horizon. A lot of parents pride themselves on telling their children -- especially girls -- that you can be whatever you want to be. If you can dream it, you can be it. No restrictions. This was not my childhood. I was told early that I was not good at math, and that I should consider modest, feminine jobs, like nursing. It was much more important to have something to fall back on. To make a safe plan, and not in the way of making a better living, but in a way that was safe all around. Apply for a job you can get, even if you have shitty grades and a high school diploma. If you do go to school, go for something middle class and stable. Be a teacher, not a professor. Write a column, not a novel.

How did I get here?

Partially, I got lucky. We could have ended up elsewhere. We might have worked lesser jobs, or stayed in jobs where the pay was low. Of course we had advantages. Geoff went back to school for another bachelor's degree in computer science, a move that opened many doors. Are there setbacks? Of course. We spent so many years making just enough money to be approved for credit cards, but not pay them off, that we are still crushed under the weight of that debt. We still live paycheck to paycheck. In between, we dip below zero. We don't have a savings account. You read that right: no savings account. We have a moderate house that costs us too much because we've never had money to put down on a house, because we are always paying off credit card and student loan debt. It's a cycle.

Last spring, I decided to not teach again in the fall. At the time, I was teaching a 2/2 load at Utica College, on campus two days a week, and working, honestly, with prep and grading, four days a week. It earned me a whopping $11,000 for the entire academic year. So I quit. I have the privilege of quitting. Do I miss the little paychecks every two weeks? I do. Because when you're below zero, even a small check helps.

Here's the thing. Lately, I've been acutely aware of others' hardships. I can pay my mortgage. No one is disconnecting my utilities or repossessing my car. The bills are paid on time. There's food in the fridge.

What bothers me is the lack of nuance. The assumption that this is what money looks like. The notion
that I can (and will) spare $100. (When the truth of this is that I will spare the $100, because not sparing it is painful to me when someone needs it.) It's the casual way in which someone mentions, I want money, when they look at our house. Or the way someone refers to Geoff as Mr. Big Money.

None of this is binary.

As Gina Crossley-Corcoran points out, "recognizing privilege simply means being aware that some people have to work much harder just to experience the things you take for granted." In some ways, we are the people who had to work harder. In some ways, we're not. But in most ways, I'm not taking anything for granted. I get it. Both Geoff and I have experienced hardship first hand. Both of us spent time on food stamps or welfare. College was not a given for either one of us. And yes, it was easier for us to break out of the patterns of the working poor. In some cases, because of the advantages we were simply born with.

My point: no one is served by a binary system that simply categorizes people into classes of privileged or not. A nuanced version of it, what Crossley-Corcoran calls intersectionality -- where you might recognize someone as more than just one goddamn thing -- probably prevents anyone from being a dick about it. Maybe it's better if we see and acknowledge the struggles behind anyone's current situation. To recognize that even if you are privileged in one way, there are other ways in which you might not be. Maybe we shouldn't rely so much on a quick surface judgement.

Just me, shopping on a regular Tuesday.
I spend a lot of time jokingly playing into the binaries. Agreeing that yes, since I'm not teaching a dead-end, low-paying adjunct job anymore, all I do is lie around and eat chocolates. That I'm driving a luxury car, and not simply a mid-range sedan. It all goes down easier than me being defensive. 

But I'm tired of it. I'm tired of apologizing for having a husband with a high-skill job that pays well, just like I'm tired of always running out of money. I'm tired of paying off credit card debt from fifteen years ago, and still paying on student loans. I'm tired of assumptions.

Probably, a lack of nuanced understanding is everything that's wrong with how we treat each other as people. No one wants to be pigeon-holed as one thing: old, poor, fat, or even white, middle class, or educated. And if that's all you're willing to see about me, then as my dad used to say, You don't know who I really am.