letters about poverty

lis and dean submitted this to an anthology project Michelle Tea is putting together called Without a Net. pascal wrote the response that follows.


Hey. How’s things in NYC? Tired here. Just home from hanging out with everyone. Feeling really tired of the class stuff we were talking about the other day. Tired of people fronting like they’re poor or grew up poor or whatever-like it’s cool to be poor. You know the deal. They put it on like an accessory. You know? Just like co-opting any culture. Do you know what I mean? It’s like people who wear ‘native garb’ from wherever they’re exoticizing at the moment-but the thing is they take it off when it gets old to them.

I guess I’m just feeling pretty pissed. Like I can’t take it off. Like it IS old. It’s always been old. And makes me feel old and fucking tired. And small.

I don’t mean to rant.

The main reason I’m writing is ‘cause you carry the facts and I feel like I need them. You know the details that I think can help me not feel erased by these kinds of nights. You know how much mom made. You know the welfare info. It sounds dumb-I know what it was like but I’ve spent my whole life pretending it was something else-my whole life trying to pass as something else--I need the numbers to feel justified or some shit. I need those numbers to prove me wrong or call me out or something. Does that sound weird? It’s like I’ve even convinced myself...also like I want some fact to separate me from those people.

I mean I remember it. I remember what it was like. I remember the shame and all that. I remember that greedy excited fucked up feeling I got when she’d bring home the groceries. I remember swallowing myself one zillion times. I remember that heavy fucking cloud that hung around our tiny house. That fog that made it so hard to breathe. That stress that kept us all quiet and angry and sad. Remember?

I’m scrambling for something good and light but it goes back as far as I can remember. It only got darker and heavier.

The end was the worst, right? I guess fro me it was the worst because I felt like I was the mom when she was sick. You know? Not that we didn’t both have to pick up what she couldn’t carry anymore. But I remember doing the grocery shopping by myself. You know I think it’s really only the last maybe 5 years that I don’t have some crazy fear while in line at the grocery store. I think this is actually the first time I’ve really thought about it. There’s the shame of shopping at the discount store. Scared someone from school would see us or something-and scared that if anyone ever (not that they ever did) come to OUR house they’d see the bags from there. (Not to mention just seeing the house!) But then there were all the times we had to put stuff back-do you remember that? I cringe thinking about it right now. It was terrible. Embarrassing. I remember being scared to look at mom in that moment. How she’d look it all over a have to decide what to put back. How did she do that? How can you decide what food your three kids DON’T need? Can you imagine how stressful that must have been for her? Ugh. I fucking makes me want to puke. Then there was the shame of using food stamps. It’s funny how kids I know now use food stamps with so much pride.

Dean this sucks. I hate thinking about this stuff. I’m trying to reclaim it or something but sometimes it just feels like mom trained us so well that passing is easier and the shame is too thick. Sometimes I think I’d make the world’s greatest spy because I can pretend so well. Time to sleep.

I hope you’re well-

I’m glad we have each other in this.

xo lis

Dear Lis,

I took this letter with me to Montreal where I was showing the film Tara and I are making about trans people and bathrooms. While I was there, the friends of friends had a “white trash” themed barbeque. The people I was staying with called the hosts to voice our protest to this theme, and heard that others were also upset, so we went anyway, thinking people wouldn’t participate in the theme and that the message had gotten across. Of course, we were too optimistic. Many people came fake-pregnant, with giant Budweiser cans, fake southern accents and severe blue eye shadow. What to do? I thought about how ‘trashy’ it is for poor people to have children, how differently poor people’s substance abuse is surveilled and punished, how easily these white people employed a term that suggests that all non-white people are trash while only some white people require such labeling. I thought about the time you were invited to a white trash event where people were encouraged to black out their teeth, and I thought of how mom lived her whole life hiding that she had dentures-like everyone in her family-from a time when dental care for the poor was pulling out all their teeth in adolescence. When she died I learned she had hidden this from me (you too?) my whole life-sleeping in uncomfortable dentures all those nights during our 13 years together when I was too scared to sleep alone-all to hide from even me her poverty shame. (Meanwhile I dreamt of braces other kids at school could afford.) I thought of my own consciousness, starting in elementary school, of the need to separate myself from the term white trash. Be carefully how you smell, who sees your house. Try to get mom not to curse or smoke in front of other people’s parents.

But at this party I bit my tongue, turned my head when they arrived in costumes. Couldn’t bring myself to speak on this rooftop full of people I just met. I spend 60-80 hours a week exclusively talking about poverty and advocating for poor people, but I could not advocate for myself, could not give up the small amount of passing, of blending in. We left fast and Pascal, Brianna and I ranted on the street wondering how we should have handled it, talking about how girl-social conditioning still operates in our trans bodies convincing us we shouldn’t confront. With every passing hour since I’ve been more irate, no place to put it, more anger to add to the churning crushing pile that lives behind my sternum.

Tired. I hear you about being tired. I’m tired of being diplomatic about poverty. Tired of trying to convince rich people at non-profits, rich people at foundations, and rich gay people especially to care about and support the lives of low-income intersex and trans people. I’m tired of helping them notice that we exist, trying not to make them too uncomfortable to give money to the struggle that (when we win, which we will), will end wealth and poverty for everyone. Tired of being gentle and non-threatening and helping them appease guilt about their hoarding so they can act a little. And I’m tired of hearing that you’re getting paid less than the private-college educated man who sits next to you doing the same job, and tired of seeing all my trans friends without jobs, adequate housing and trapped in the criminal injustice system. I’m tired of other poverty lawyers (from upper class backgrounds) telling me I don’t pay myself enough when I make twice what mom supported 4 people with in the years she had jobs, and when our clients are fighting like hell for a couple hundred bucks a month from welfare or ten bucks to make a call from jail. I have to figure out how to not get too tired. Sometimes I think that’s what killed our mom. Somehow, you and I got out of there, out of that dirty house, off those gravel roads, out of Virginia, but she didn’t make it. I think all the time what it would be like if she could see us now-if I could make her a fancy dinner in my apartment (artichokes) and take her to see something city-beautiful, if for her birthday we could fly her to San Francisco and all three of us could have tea in your kitchen and walk around gold gate park and she’d tell us the names of all the flowers. It’s almost mother’s day.

You asked for the facts. I carry them around like the chip on my shoulder. The most she ever made was $18,000 one year. Our welfare was less that $400/month. We got a total of $50 when we three spent Saturdays cleaning the glass and mirror store, less when we cleaned houses. The Social Security Survivor’s Benefits our foster parents got for us were about $500/month each until we turned 18. (It’s sick that she could support us better by dying but there was not money to help keep her alive.) The jacket she always wanted when she was in middle and high school, that all the other kids had but she never got, was $7.02 Canadian. The most important fact, maybe, is that if we’d been in the same situation after the 1996 welfare cuts, we wouldn’t have been entitled to the same benefits because of her immigration status, and, in my estimation, we would have had a much harder time keeping a place to live or staying together as a family as long as we did.

I love you, Lis. You’re my memory and my witness, and my only connection to all that we’ve lost. I love that you keep the sweatpants mom got in rehab and that I slept in them when you were caring for me after my chest surgery. When I’m not biting my tongue, it’s because I’m thinking of how quickly you call people on their shit, how vicious your wit can be, and how you always have my back.

Love, Dean

Dean --

This is not an editorial note but a further reflection on the night we attended that fucked-up party. Internally and with other people I’ve been hashing out feelings of anger, repulsion, and frustration about how events went down and the way in which I responded to them. Mostly I felt horrified and betrayed by the fact that the party’s theme had not been dropped (or remotely questioned) by the time we arrived when the host had been confronted in advance about the theme’s malicious nature. In the end, the decision to attend the party at all was under the assumption that we would be participating in a barbeque, and not in something with a “white trash” motif.

Of course, things did not play out that way and we found ourselves amidst attendees clad in “trashy” clothes, either fake-pregnant or drug-addled. In my head I thought about people’s costumes and behaviors as racial and class minstrelsy, where masquerading as white and poor shored up this tacit claim to a clean, bourgeois white identity. Recognizing that not everyone shared this assumed middle-class white background would have the disrupted the suppression of guilt and denial of privilege enabled by white trash fetishism. You are so right to point out the racist and eugenicist implications of the theme as well.

What remains more troubling to me than people performing “white trash” was how i found myself utterly silenced and unable to confront them about their fucked-up behavior. It’s intense to think about how deep girl-social conditioning runs, compelling us to be diplomatic and non-confrontational when the situation called for the contrary. But that aside, it’s really important to acknowledge the differing degrees of marginality we experience in a given context. For you, not saying anything to the people at the party might have been a survival strategy. For me, having never had to deal with food insecurity or the social crime of being poor, not saying anything meant being complicit with the theme’s anti-poor message. Though i thought things had been rectified beforehand, i’m responsible for having invited a friend to a party where there was a known chance that they could be made vulnerable. Also, part of surviving is knowing that we can depend on people we care about to advocate for us is situations where a vulnerability to oppression prevents us from advocating for ourselves. In this sense, my silence meant failing to be an ally when it was needed. As well, you didn’t know any of those people, which made it difficult to engage them in any sort of challenging dialogue. Some of the folks there i consider friends and many do good political work, so i was distressed by this strange peer dynamic which shutdown conversation and isolated (and dismissed) those who took issue with the theme.

This has got me thinking about strategies we can prepare for the next time something like this happens (b/c sadly, it’s bound to). i attribute my silence and inaction to not having been ready to deal with the surprise and severity of what we witnessed. While this may be legitimate it’s certainly no excuse. Being able to respond with immediacy requires a little fore-planning, like enlisting all of your friends before the event happens to dis-invite themselves and to make explicitly clear their refusal to participate in anything so fucked-up. Or, deciding to collaboratively crash the party with the intent to make sure people get it. i remember that person who came wearing white articles of garbage and thinking how subversive that could have been with a different intention. Confronting with tact, creativity, and most of all NO COMPROMISE is an idea that consumes my thoughts a lot. Next time i’m fully prepared to make a stink, knowing that whatever vicious or defensive bullshit others might level will be outweighed by the support of people i love.

I really appreciate the letter format of the communiqués between you and Lis, not to mention both of your sharp analyses and your incredible accounts of surviving and reckoning. Transmitting something political though a correspondence with someone you respect and care for deeply has this ability to communicate in unconventional ways. Class stuff is so difficult to tackle in general but especially on a personal level because of the incredible guilt or shame and social reticence around it. It’s ingrained in us from early on to conceal our economic status, to actively avoid discussing class privilege in real terms, and to deny, vilify, or (for upper-class liberals) romanticize poverty. Having just read some of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” and its rave reviews by upwardly-mobile liberals, it disgusts me to observe how issues of poverty are only believed or taken seriously when interpreted by an educated, middle-class person. Where much of academic writing about poverty fails is in addressing why poor people can’t speak of their own experiences and fucking be heard. This is also why the letter format is so effective. It throws readers outside their impersonal, distant relationship with the text, encouraged by most academic writing, and makes them face up to their own anger or discomfort over what they read. Your writing has this effect. Keep up the amazing work and I look forward to reading any changes or additions you make.

with love, pascal