Oh man, this really resonated with me. After Errol Louis tweeted about not understanding why a poor person would shell out for a $2,500 bag, my Facebook and Twitter feeds went wild – total disagreement over what’s acceptable here.
I didn’t grow up poor poor, but I didn’t grow up wealthy either. And I remember very clearly having friends who had more than me and wanting some of the things that they had. And asking for those things, and receiving the same old “what, do you think money grows on trees?” trope passed down through generations in response. So while, when the author of the afore-linked blog post talks about wanting a sense of belonging, I totally get that.
I know that some of the poor financial decisions I make as an adult absolutely stem from that feeling of object-lust that I experienced so many times as a kid. And it is purely object-lust. My parents never left me wanting. I had enough toys, and as I got older, more than enough clothing. And yet, I would chafe at my mom’s suggestion that I wear Lee jeans because I wanted Gap jeans like the other girls had. A spoiled brat, perhaps, but also acutely aware that the (wonderful, irreverent, independent) choices my parents had made did not match the (conformist) choices that my friends’ parents had made. And while, as I grew older, I grew grateful for that—because it meant incredibly solid parenting and a sense of acceptance of my choices—as a kid and especially as a teenager, I was resentful. And so now, when I feel myself striving for that Cole Haan bag or those $200 boots, I have to check myself: Do I want this because it represents me or because it represents some ingrained ideal from my childhood?
There’s another piece that the author, who is black, hits on that I absolutely understand from experience: That is, the opposite experience. The author talks about how presentation is vital for job interviews, and how race plays into that, and I’ve read, heard, and seen firsthand how this can be true. So, my experience as a white woman is helpful only in that I believe it reinforces the problematic fact that people of color have to work harder on presentation (which is, in case I’m not being very articulate today, totally fucked up).
In 2007, I moved back from Morocco to the US and had a job interview literally the next morning. I’d done a pretty poor job of both packing and planning ahead and so I failed to set aside something presentable for the interview. It was a hot day, and so I figured I could get away with a dress, and so I did what any girl in New Hampshire with a job interview at noon in Boston and no real cash flow to speak of would do: I went to WalMart and bought a $20 dress and some Wet-N-Wild makeup. Then I paired it with a pair of sling-backs (generally a poor choice for an interview), and went off on my merry way.
When I arrived at the somewhat conservative office, I could immediately see my mistake. And so I decided I would be upfront with the women in suits that were interviewing me (they luckily knew that I had arrived home the night before) and tell them the truth and, rather than my outfit working against me, it worked in my favor.
Could this have happened if I were just a girl living in Boston who’d shown up in that outfit, regardless of race? Probably not. It’s true that my story was sort of exceptional. And yet, can white women get away with a few fewer points on presentation? I have no doubt.
When I read the tweet and the blog post, the first thing that came to mind was Kanye West’s All Falls Down from the College Dropout. But for the sake of the hip hop averse, or for those of you who’ve never paid close attention to the lyrics, I’m going to offer you the original, from Kanye’s appearance on Def Poetry.
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