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How to Have Nothing

Class & Culture

How to Have Nothing

Radix Admin

By Sea Thomas '19

***Disclaimer: I purposefully speak to the topic in regards to a closed box of white culture. Class privilege and racial privilege have many intersections and cannot truly be separated; however, I can only talk to my experience as a white person and the subculture of white poorness.


I grew up in a low income family; rather, I grew up poor. My family is still poor. I receive very limited financial support from them -- they can afford to help me pay for usually just a single textbook per semester, and nothing else. I cover my own tuition. When I was eleven I ate eggs a variety of ways for five days because my mom couldn’t afford to buy groceries. The eggs came from our chickens that lived in a lean-to my dad and I had built out of scrap metal and other junk. Things fluctuate. Sometimes, my parents can save up and do something nice for my sister and I so we can feel like we have a normal, middle-class life. Sometimes, the shower breaks and we can’t afford to fix it so we shower at friend’s houses or go a week without. I got my clothes from garbage bags my mom’s friends would give her until I got a job and started buying my own.

The house I grew up in was an old farmhouse -- old wood and white panelling that would come off when the wind blew too hard. Weeds and grass grow up through the cracked gravel driveway. Have you ever mowed your driveway? I have. At one point the ceiling panels in my kitchen fell down. We never put them back up. Things were rusty, dusty, and full of spiders and more often than not, moldy. The basement was always flooded, or, at the least, damp. Most of our furniture was either given to us by family friends or was there when we moved in. There was rat shit in the cupboard. I had bed bugs for three years, until we moved out.

The rust is considered cool, but the rat shit is the less glamorous part of being poor.

I went to Northampton last weekend. Smith College’s proximity to the town (along with the other four in the area) make the town a liberal hipster hotspot. The closeness of academia means a peak in the population of the upper middle class -- the people most likely to attend private colleges, or work within those academic worlds. In the town there are a lot of cafes, niche kitsch shops, and restaurants in the town. There are also a lot of homeless people on the sidewalks. Clusters of people along the main street sit on milk crates or benches with cardboard signs asking for donations and telling their stories in five words or less.

They sit across the new park that recently opened up next to the Academy of Music at the PVTA Bus stop. The decoration of that park could be described as ‘rustic’, ‘quaint’, ‘upcycled’ -- there are metal poles and flower boxes and carts covered in rust. Upon closer inspection, the rust is actually added to the beams on purpose -- the beams aren’t actually old. They’re just made to look that way. This style is incredibly indicative of the social structures that appropriate lower class white culture and feed it to upper middle class white people.

It’s another form of cultural displacement.

Take whatever’s left of poor people and sell it to rich people at eight times the price. Strip the homeless on the streets of Northampton and sell their flannel jackets for $80.00 at the Urban Outfitters down the street.

Originally flannel jackets were a cheap fabric designed to keep the wearer warm in cold weather, often used by the lower class because of its availability. Flannels aren’t the only piece of clothing this is true for -- take distressed jeans, bean boots and ‘work’ boots in general. Then consider the upper middle class white students that shop at Goodwill or the Salvation Army and buy up all the cheap clothes (the ones that the now-stripped homeless might actually be able to afford) even though they have the resources to be able to buy them from somewhere else. This contradiction is hard to displace; flannel itself doesn’t necessarily have a cultural significance. Poor people aren’t the only people entitled to wear flannel jackets and heavy boots. But it’s important to be aware of how our bodies display our privilege.

If actual poor people can actually manage to find a flannel in their price range to keep them warm in the fall, the connotations of them wearing it are still negative. The same cultural items on different people take on a new connotation on their body. When poor people wear a flannel, it’s because they’re lazy druggies who haven’t worked hard for anything in their life -- that’s why they can’t afford to buy a better jacket. When upper middle class white liberals wear flannels, it’s because they’re trendy and look good in plaid. They don’t actually need that specific jacket to keep warm -- they chose to wear the flannel because they wanted to.

It is about agency and necessity. Where there is necessity, there is often a lack of agency -- poor people don’t always get to choose what their bodies look like because they don’t have the resources. However, upper middle class whites almost always have the agency to make decisions about their bodies; and they are praised for their decisions simply because they got to make the choice. Poor people are shamed and invalidated because they do not have the agency of body.

Another trend taken root in liberal upper middle class white culture is minimalism. If a rich person lives in a relatively empty apartment it’s cool, it’s hip, it’s trendy; but if a poor person lives in an empty apartment, because they can’t afford anything to put in it, they are pathetic. It’s not cool to have nothing unless you choose to have nothing. It’s trendy for the upper class to adopt minimalism in their interior design because the insinuation is that they had items to get rid of. You can’t have nothing unless you had things to begin with and choose to get rid of them. In a similar vein, “tiny houses” have become a popular trend with house-seekers; in poor communities we call tiny houses shacks, or we don’t call them anything because the only housing we can afford are tiny apartments or ‘houses’ with two rooms. In the way that some clothing pieces give different connotations on different bodies, housing has a different connotation based on the people inside it.

The connotation of poorness doesn’t just live on people’s bodies or in their apartments. It lives in our social climate. During my latest trip to Northampton, I popped into the Roost, a popular cafe, to try to do some school work. The Roost is one these ‘rustic’ themed places; reclaimed wood floors and pipe shelves and lights that hang down from the ceiling without shades. Essentially, appropriated symbols of working class white families translated into an expensive cafe for upper middle class white liberals. I very quickly found out that in order to access the wifi network, you had to buy something. Being the person I am, I decided not to shelve out $6.50 on a single drink and instead do some of my reading. Some time passed, and I tried to get up to use the bathroom.

Both of the bathrooms were code locked.

Apparently, at the bottom of your Roost receipt there’s a six digit code that can be used to access the bathrooms. Suddenly, this charming, quaint little cafe is inaccessible to poor people. I can’t afford to spend $3.25 on some shitty cider so I no longer deserve to be able to use the bathroom at this facility which takes its decoration and atmosphere from poor culture, a culture I grew up in.

The difference between upper class white people and poor white people is that poor people usually don’t want to be poor. I would love to be middle class. I would love to be upper middle class. I would love to be rich. I have a theory that a lot of rich white liberals would prefer to actually be middle class, because being seen as rich is seen as snobby, undemocratic, and a force to rebel against. In the “we are the 99%” argument, nobody wants to be the 1%. The privilege of the wealthy is overwhelming in this country. People don’t want to be seen as pompous, but they do want to live comfortably; surrounded by a small bubble of monetary protection. Why do people want to be poor so badly? In the United States there’s this cultural idea, perpetuated by capitalism, that the greatest people make themselves out of nothing. That’s why both of the current presidential candidates have told this “American Dream” story. Hillary Clinton’s father was a blue collar worker; Donald Trump’s father gave him a “small” loan of one million dollars. They tell these stories to try to appeal to the common people who are actually blue collar workers; even as they continue to shit on them. How many homeless people are removed from areas around sites of presidential rallies?

But I digress.

Being poor isn’t a fashion trend. Poor people are human; respect them in the same way you respect their clothes and other cultural items. If you are going to adopt poor white culture treat the people you take from with the same respect that you have for their clothes. Poor white people are punished socially for their necessities while upper class white people are rewarded for their unnecessary appropriation. Our bodies will always display our privilege, whether or not we are conscious of it.

What is your body saying?