Tag: Stereotypes

Asians Don’t Experience Racism. Or Do They?

Are Asians the “model minority” or the “ignored minority”? In this country discussion on race tends to be about African Americans & Caucasians even though Asians represent approximately 6% of the population. America’s worst times involved slavery and the civil rights movement orchestrated by African Americans. There’s a lot to be said about our resilient nature (African Americans, that is) although we still struggle with racism.

But what about Asian Americans? Where do they fit in with these discussions about race?  I mean I’ve written about racism before between African Americans and Caucasians, but I’ve never written about how racism affects people of other races/ethnicities. African Americans have been hit the hardest by racism in this country not to mention the whole historical aspect of it all, but people of every ethnic group have experienced racism in America in one form or fashion.

Asian Americans are probably one of the most forgotten about ethnic groups in this country. I think there’s an underlying assumption that all Asians are smart, non-aggressive people and do pretty well for themselves once they come into this country. But what about those that already live here or were born & the U.S.? Surely there are stereotypes but are they ever ostracized, or discriminated against? The article below talks about all of this & more from an Asian American perspective.

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The Asian-American Awakening: That Moment when you realize you’re not White
by Connie Zhou

When I was five I was put in a different school because there was an ESL (English as a Second Language) program there. You may be wondering, “what’s wrong with that?” Well, for starters, I was born in Ohio and English was my native tongue. I was reading novels by kindergarten (totally spelled that wrong the first time, fail) and I prided myself on the fact that I had an extensive vocabulary for a toddler. I had been speaking English with exquisite finesse up to that point in my life (okay, that may all be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point). So I didn’t know why I was being put in an ESL program, but I didn’t argue because who’s going to listen to a five year old? At that age, you don’t question things, you just accept. I carried forth with my days throwing raisins at the teacher and drawing cartoon characters on the desks. It wasn’t until later in life I tried to analyze the situation and came to this conclusion: I was put in that program for one reason, I was a shy Asian girl and everyone jumped to the conclusion that I couldn’t speak English. I know I tend to joke about this story, but there’s a lesson to be learned.

As a young child, I didn’t understand race or skin color. I assumed everyone was white, including me. I hope I can speak for most Asian-Americans here, but there is that earth-shatterning moment in our childhood when we realize we’re not white.

You can take it two ways: embrace that you’re not white or try everything in your power to become white.

You start to realize that wearing shoes in the house wasn’t that big of a deal and not everyone ate rice for every meal. That when some people speak slowly to you, it’s not because they’re trying to be articulate, but it’s because they think you don’t understand English (as if speaking English slowly to a non-English speaking person helps). You notice that not every grocery store carries Pocky and not every family speaks a different language at home. You also realize that it’s not that common to call everyone who’s older than you Uncle or Aunt. When you learned about the Civil Rights movement again, you start to wonder what happened to Asians during that time or when people are describing you, the first thing out of their mouth is that you’re “oriental.” (On a side note, I hate being described as oriental. It makes me feel like a spice or dish).

Being Asian-American has always been a difficult part of me. I was (and am) proud of my heritage and how far my parents have come, but I had a hard time feeling as if I belonged somewhere. Experiencing first hand segregation and racism has made me despise my race for many years. I was trapped between two worlds.

Racism isn’t just black and white. In my experience, all my classes about race are taught by a black professor. I remember sitting in one of my media classes discussing race; we had spent weeks on how blacks and whites are portrayed in the media. As my professor went on and on, I sat there wondering when she was going to bring up Asians, Hispanics, or Middle Easterners. Finally, as if God had heard my plea, a thankfully inquisitive student in the front raised his hand, “What about Asians?”

There was five minutes left in class, and all she said was, “Well, they tend to be the ‘model minority,’” and carried forth with the discussion on blacks and whites.

Model minority?!? What about the shocking statistics of 1.3 million Asians that are undocumented or the fact that Southeast Asians have the highest high school drop out rate?

I’m not going to lie, I was flattered in high school when people I’ve never talked to asked me to be part of their group for a project. I felt included and thought they wanted to be friends, but I soon realized that many of them only picked me because I was the “Asian kid,” and instantly categorized as the smart one. My favorite (sarcasm) was when my peers would ask me how I did on a test expecting me to say “A,” or ask me to help them with their math homework… and most of the time I was just as lost as they were. But none of that mattered to me, I liked the attention and appreciated that people thought I was smart. It wasn’t until I couldn’t live up to the stereotype that the pressure truly manifested. I wanted to write stories and make music for a living or design t-shirts and play soccer, not become an engineer, doctor, or lawyer.

Now, I understand why the discussion on race tends to be about blacks and whites. America’s darkest days were about slavery and the civil rights movement. There’s a lot to be said about the resilient nature of the African-American people. Schools teach to let us never forget where America came from and from the mistakes of our past, we can learn justice and tolerance. However, even to this day, as sad as it is, we still struggle with racism among the two.

But if race is such a huge topic in American studies, why is it that I never learned about the Asian & Chinese Exclusion Acts in my classes or the fact that we only briefly touched on the Japanese Internment camps?

Why is it that after the Virginia Tech shooting there was a huge controversy and focus on the shooter’s ethnic heritage. With racists slurs and comments being brought upon Asians in that time. Whereas race wasn’t ever thought about in other horrific school shootings committed by white people?

The very first day of college a young and bright lad who is going to go far in life (sarcasm again) asked me, “Why do Asians always travel in packs?”

Literal face palm. I snapped back with “Because of people like you. Let me ask you, why do white people always travel in packs?”

We’re not friends.

I digress. Let’s shimmy back up to the beginning. How did I respond to that decision I had to make during my life-changing epiphany? Growing up as a child of immigrants I felt trapped between two worlds. I guess for me, I tried both. I ignored the fact for much of my early life, just living life colorblind. But for a brief (let me stress brief) time in middle school I embraced my full on “Asianness.” I hung out with mostly Asians, I watched Asian dramas and listened to Asian music. I got bangs and camera-whored with a peace sign. That quickly ended when I realized the facade of it all. Yes, ethnically I’m Asian, but culturally I’m not. I can squeeze my way into that culture by learning it and copying it, but I’ll never truly be it because I did not grow up in it. Visiting my parents’ homelands was a huge disappointment because people there did not accept me as fully Chinese. They could tell I wasn’t local just by looking at me. I had all the stereotypical facial features, but my composure, dress, and attitude was basically the equivalent of me wrapping myself in an American flag. Even my extended relatives joked about my American accent or lack of cultural respect. I’m Chinese, but I’m not.

After that heart-wrenching revelation, I betrayed that identity and landed myself on the flip side. I stopped speaking in Chinese, tried my hardest to erase my memory of those embarrassing Asian-washing times, and tried my best avoiding all FOBs (for you politically correct people, it’s a slang, and actually somewhat offensive term for immigrants: fresh-off the boat). I would tell my parents to keep quiet in public in attempts to save my face and stray from being different because I was scared their accent or what they say would embarrass me. My dad caught on to this pretty quick. Before I left for college he told me, “Hey, be nice to the international students, I was one of them.” It got to the point where I was making fun of the FOBs (but of course only Asians were allowed to make fun of Asians).

I thought this was all going well for me until one day in college, my friend runs up to me saying, “Connie! I just met the Asian version of you!”

After a few giggles and punchlines, I started to wonder. Why is it that I had to assimilate myself to become “white” in order to make friends and not the other way around? Why do people say “it’s ok, you’re so white-washed” as if it’s a good thing? Why do my friends and I think it’s funny to speak in an Asian accent? Why is it that the “tiger-mom” parenting tactic is so-called “bad”?

I believe that as Americans, we’re scared to accept difference, even in this day and age. We tell ourselves that we are more tolerant and accepting, looking to how far we have come, but in reality, we’re currently stuck in a rut. The ones who fall victim to this hallucination are actually the young people. We think we are America’s next great hope, blaming the intolerant ones on the older generation, when in reality we’re just as foolish as the generations before in relations of race.

All this is so counter-intuitive. America prides itself on being a melting pot (or for those who are really specific, tossed salad). So why is it that the whole image of the “ideal American” is, dare I say, white? I’m tired of taxi drivers asking where I’m “originally” from. If we’re being truly honest here, a white or black person may say they’re from Chicago and that’s the end of that, but I always get the followup question… “but where are your people from?” and then they go on forever about how much they love China. Let me ask, if a foreign European were to walk the streets of America how many times would they be stopped or stared at for being “foreign”? How many “Go back to where you came from”s would they hear? Just because I don’t look Anglo-Saxon or black, I instantly get an extra inquiry: immigrant, foreign, or native?

It’s no wonder Julie Chen felt the need to undergo the knife to advance in her white-male dominated industry. Which, by the way, I totally understand her decision and don’t expect her to have to apologize for it. She did what she had to do and by coming out about it, she opened many more doors to the truth about racism toward the Asian-American culture.

In the end, I’ve decided that being Asian-American is all together another race and culture. We are the ignored minority. We currently don’t have a place in middle school textbooks or in sociology. Not enough people walk on eggshells when talking about the Asian race. I’m not going to apologize for the scent our food makes when we’re cooking (which is heavenly by the way), or that we do get a little overly excited when we interact with our loved ones. On one side, the Asian culture has taught me respect and honor for authority, to be self-less and encounter a holistic approach to life. I have learned to value education and diligence, to be resourceful and never wasteful. On the other hand, the American culture has taught me independence, consideration for even those I don’t know, and the importance of having goals in life. It has introduced me to diversity and faith into my life (but I’m not saying those who aren’t Asian-American haven’t learned this). Being Asian-American, is a world all in itself, and since we are a fairly young race, we’re still figuring things out, I’m just asking for a little acknowledgment from the rest of America.

So to the Asian-American awakening, Let this be the moment when you realize you’re not white nor are you solely Asian, you’re Asian-American (and cue cheesy sap music).

Help Me! I’m White; How Can I Stop Being A Racist?!

I came across this article & thought that it was quite interesting. A White man, a self-proclaimed racist, is seeking advice on how not to be. He claims that he is particularly uncomfortable around African American men even though he can’t quite articulate why.

Perhaps he thinks that most African Americans are dangerous, are loud & mean, or even harbor some ill-will towards him, even though he’s the one harboring ill-will towards us. Perhaps he’s afraid of what he might find by getting to know us individually instead of stereotyping based on what he sees on television or hears on the news. After all, if that’s all you choose to see then that’s all you choose to know. Especially if you don’t take the time to seek out people of a different race/ethnicity to get to know them for yourself.

I wonder how he would feel if the tables were turned. Unlike him, I’ve never had the opportunity to “evade” White folks my whole adult life so I have been forced to interact with all types of people. I wouldn’t dare think that all White people are as messy as the Kardashians or as dumb as President George Bush or as crazy as the Real Housewives of New Jersey, even though that is what’s shown on television. No, I have gotten to know people outside of my own race/ethnicity to see who they were as a person not just treat them a certain way based on what I think they would be like.

How many people do you know who are like this: racist, but unwilling to openly admit it or carry around prejudices against a race or a group of people with little to no merit?   I know quite a few, as I’m sure you probably do too. Sure, statistics may tell us one thing about a group of people but statistics can be skewed, or more importantly, misinterpreted. Take for instance the war on drugs & how it affects the African American community. According to the Sentencing Project, African-Americans make up 12% of the nation’s drug users but represent 34% of those arrested for drug offenses. More than 80% of those sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws were African-American, even though African American drug offenders have a 20% greater chance of being sentenced to prison than Caucasian drug offenders. For many reasons, including from financial to accessibility, the majority of crack users in the U.S. are and always have been white.

Anyhow, read his letter below & the advice that was given to him –

“I’m a racist, and I don’t want to be. I’m a white man in my very early 40s, and for years I’ve been extremely awkward and anxious around African Americans, especially men. At some point in my early teens, I became very self-conscious about the racial divide. And about that time, I moved to a much more homogeneously white area, and I guess gradually black people became abstractions to me or something. When I moved back to a more mixed neighborhood in college, I found I was afraid of them. Horrible thoughts and associations — of crime, violence, whatever — would spring to mind.

“Now it’s reached the point where I can’t encounter any African-American person without these thoughts cropping up, along with this seizure of panic that I’m racist, I’m giving off a funny vibe, I’m making that person feel uncomfortable and he or she can see through me and knows what’s going on. It’s a complex of shame and humiliation and fear that for two-plus decades I haven’t been able to think my way out of, and if anything, it’s only getting worse with age.

“When I look for some suggestions online, they recommend going out and meeting the people I’m afraid of — trying to make the abstract particular, humanizing who I’m imagining, etc. But come on. How is that not just turning people into my little self-betterment project? It’s hard for me to imagine something more condescending and objectifying. Of course, I’m also just flat-out scared of being exposed, of being seen for who I am.

“I have no patience with apologists who would argue that there’s a legitimate justification for being racist. But I also have had no success in eradicating this side of my personality that I find so repellent.” –Ready to Get Rid of Racism

I love this question. But I know from the reactions to my one little tweet seeking an expert on “how a white person can shed his racism” (Summary: “Is this serious? Get over it, jerk”) that some people are going to hate it. So before I get to my advice, I want to make my pitch for why it’s great that you wrote in.

I understand that hearing someone admit to “horrible thoughts and associations” when it comes to black people makes those of us who are sick to death of racism want to vomit a little. I get it.

But aren’t we the same people who believe that white supremacy is deeply ingrained in our society and affects so many people (to say nothing of institutions), from the most hateful and outspoken to the well-meaning but ignorant “accidental racists” and “hipster racists” of the world?

If so, I don’t think we can really be mad at a person who proactively admits — and hates — that he or she has absorbed all that nonsense. Isn’t this exactly the type of question we wish Paula Deen had asked herself back when she was known more for butter than for bigotry? Aren’t these ideas about “crime, violence, whatever” just what we wish George Zimmerman had begged for help eliminating before he shot and killed the “up to no good” Trayvon Martin? Exactly. I thought so.

That’s why I decided to answer this question and to seek the best-possible advice for you.

I spoke to Dr. Mike Likier, a cognitive behavioral psychologist who conducts diversity and anti-racism trainings. His answer to my first question — whether you have some actual phobia of black people and need to get yourself into therapy — was a no (although he said that talking this through with a carefully selected and social-justice-conscious professional wouldn’t hurt).

So, good news: You won’t have to pay a copay to banish your bigotry. Here’s what he suggested you do instead.

The first order of business is to stop freaking out. “Normalize this,” says Likier. What? Racism? Normal? That sounds like a bad idea. But, he explains, “It actually makes perfect sense to have these thoughts, given that you’re 40 years old and grew up in the United States.” He encourages you to “have a little empathy with yourself,” adding that, in a racist society, “we all get gamed,” and whether we’re carrying around internalized oppression or internalized superiority, racism robs all of us of our humanity.

Second, recognize that this anxiety you’re feeling is actually kind of good. It’s healthy to be troubled by the fact that you were socialized against your will to have racist thoughts. “If more people felt as bad about that,” Likier says, “we’d be able to organize and mobilize and deal with these things.”

Third, seize the moment and all the angst you’re experiencing. According to people who study stages of racial-identity development, it means you’re at a critical juncture here. Likier says that most white people experience some kind of crisis when they become aware of racism and even their own role in it — and it’s uncomfortable. You can deal with this cognitive dissonance by pushing it back onto people of color (blaming, hating, demonizing, etc., and all that stuff with which we’re way too familiar), or you can do something different.

Lucky for you, doing something different starts off pretty easy: Read. And then read more. History. White privilege. Black writers. White anti-racism writers. Information about the history and operations of not just individual but also structural racism won’t just make you smarter — it will also help you harness all the energy that’s currently wasted on panic attacks over your own attitudes.

Of course, Likier has advice for where you should redirect all that energy, too. (No, it’s not “make black friends.”) He says that there are plenty of white people out there who are committed to anti-racism. And you need to find them. There are conferences and alliances and everything. In these spaces, “work out some of your own stuff before you try to have meaningful cross-cultural conversations,” he advises.

Chances are what will come naturally from this experience is looking at how racism is operating in the spheres you walk around in every day and what you can do about it, he predicts. You’ll focus less on suppressing your bad feelings and more on how you can take positive actions.

But what about the short term — when you run into a black person tomorrow? Likier says that his advice is similar to what he would offer a client struggling with public speaking or any other unfounded fear: Acknowledge that you’re having negative thoughts, challenge yourself to articulate any real basis for them and let them go. He even offers a simple little mantra — one that could eliminate so much harm if people would embrace it (Can we get this to go viral? Does the Tea Party have a group email list?): “I’m having racist thoughts, but I have an opportunity to do something different. I want to be on the right side of this.”

I, for one, believe that you do want to — and that you will be.

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Why Do Poor Black People Buy Stuff They Can’t Afford?

Some people may wonder why people buy things that can’t afford, particularly people of color. Take for example, Trayon Christian, the 19-year old young African American male who was stopped & questioned for purchasing a $349 belt from Barneys’ Madison Avenue in New York. While any rational person would condemn racial profiling, the question may still linger – what on earth was a 19-year old Black college student doing buying a belt that costs more than he probably earns in a day?

Well, I can answer that in 4 words – NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. Whether or not I agree with his purchase decisions, as an African American (and even as a woman) I understand the occasionally desire to look better, dress better, etc. than what your budget allows. I’m certainly not the type to dress above my means, however, it is very alluring and easy to get “caught up” in what society says I should be wearing or driving. As a woman of color, I compete on a daily basis with people who may have more money than I do and sometimes just to keep up, I sometimes find myself making purchases from places that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Some people dress nicely because it makes them feel better about themselves & I can dig that. But there are other people, and this is where I fit in, who dress nicely because they know that people are judged based on what they wear & how they look, not on who they are. I can be the smartest person in the room or the best driver on the road but if my outfit or my car is raggedy, nobody will take me as seriously as someone who dresses better or drives a fancier car. Is this shallow? Perhaps, but it is the society we live in. Nobody does a double take at a Chevy Cruz but they will check out the driver of a Chevy Camaro. People admire the fashion sense of Kim Kardashian (even though I can’t stand her), but no media outlets will ever report on what Tina Fey wears. So if I know that wearing finer clothes – albeit more costly – will get me noticed by an attractive man or make a lasting impression during a job interview, then yes I will opt for the nicer clothing. First impressions are everything and if I can help my image by looking a certain way then why shouldn’t I do just that?

Now this is not an excuse for people to go out & spend inordinate amounts of money just to create an image they can’t sustain. I just think there needs to be balance. Who knows whether or not that $349 belt was Trayon’s only splurge for this entire year? Maybe he was using his student refund check & not even touching his own bank account? We don’t know. What we do know is that there is nothing wrong with wanting to “look the part”. Notice I did not say I would go into debt for a new pair of shoes or let my electric bill go unpaid so I can have a new handbag. Besides, isn’t that what all the great career coaches say – “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have?” All I’m saying is that buying nice things to make me look better can only help me, not hurt me.

Please read the article below that addresses this very issue from TalkingPointsMemo.com –

Why Do Poor People ‘Waste’ Money On Luxury Goods?
by Tressie Mcmillan Cottom

We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags.

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To be fair, this isn’t about Errol Louis. His is a belief held by many people, including lots of black people, poor people, formerly poor people, etc. It is, I suspect, an honest expression of incredulity. 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.

My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural Southern roots, moved north and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother, and later my grandmother and mother, use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who live mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when they came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a Jim Walter house (pdf). If you were really blessed when a relative died with a paid up insurance policy you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walters used as collateral to secure your home lease. That’s how generational wealth happens where I’m from: lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home.

We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education. We were big readers and we encouraged the girl children, especially, to go to some kind of college. Consequently, my grandmother and mother had a particular set of social resources that helped us navigate mostly white bureaucracies to our benefit. We could, as my grandfather would say, talk like white folks. We loaned that privilege out to folks a lot.

I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn’t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”

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 do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child? I don’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield.

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.

In contrast, “acceptable” is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership. I cannot know exactly how often my presentation of acceptable has helped me but I have enough feedback to know it is not inconsequential. One manager at the apartment complex where I worked while in college told me, repeatedly, that she knew I was “Okay” because my little Nissan was clean. That I had worn a Jones of New York suit to the interview really sealed the deal. She could call the suit by name because she asked me about the label in the interview. Another hiring manager at my first professional job looked me up and down in the waiting room, cataloging my outfit, and later told me that she had decided I was too classy to be on the call center floor. I was hired as a trainer instead. The difference meant no shift work, greater prestige, better pay and a baseline salary for all my future employment.

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.

I sat in on an interview for a new administrative assistant once. My regional vice president was doing the hiring. A long line of mostly black and brown women applied because we were a cosmetology school. Trade schools at the margins of skilled labor in a gendered field are necessarily classed and raced. I found one candidate particularly charming. She was trying to get out of a salon because 10 hours on her feet cutting hair would average out to an hourly rate below minimum wage. A desk job with 40 set hours and medical benefits represented mobility for her. When she left my VP turned to me and said, “did you see that tank top she had on under her blouse?! OMG, you wear a silk shell, not a tank top!” Both of the women were black.

The VP had constructed her job as senior management. She drove a brand new BMW because she, “should treat herself” and liked to tell us that ours was an image business. A girl wearing a cotton tank top as a shell was incompatible with BMW-driving VPs in the image business. Gatekeeping is a complex job of managing boundaries that do not just define others but that also define ourselves. Status symbols — silk shells, designer shoes, luxury handbags — become keys to unlock these gates. If I need a job that will save my lower back and move my baby from medicaid to an HMO, how much should I spend signaling to people like my former VP that I will not compromise her status by opening the door to me? That candidate maybe could not afford a proper shell. I will never know. But I do know that had she gone hungry for two days to pay for it or missed wages for a trip to the store to buy it, she may have been rewarded a job that could have lifted her above minimum wage. Shells aren’t designer handbags, perhaps. But a cosmetology school in a strip mall isn’t a job at Bank of America, either.

At the heart of these incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, died rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.

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