Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – The Power of Coming Out of the Closet as a Poor Person
I and others at the Piedmont Peace Project (PPP) began to see and talk openly about our struggles with poverty. Yet, much of our membership was so uncomfortable talking about it! This is what I called, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” They felt ashamed to discuss our own poverty and would prefer we (or they) didn’t talk about it.
We struggled with what we now know was internalized oppression. We are a proud people. Most of us didn’t start out being ashamed of who we are!
We Begin to Find Our Voices
But as we started to realize we all felt this way, we also began to find a different attitude within ourselves. We could support each other and look at ourselves differently. So, we set up workshops for our members called, “Finding our Voices.” Speaking openly allowed us to bond around our common background and feel able to organize and build power.
Finding our voices helped people understand systemic classism. We had accepted all the messages that poor people were somehow at fault for being poor. We believed them when they said that we were not smart enough or good enough. We heard and saw messages like these everywhere. Television shows were the worst. They depicted poor people – especially those from the South – as dumb. We were often the brunt of jokes.
Even more damaging was when these messages came from our allies.
I remember when a van load of us went to the national SANE/Freeze anti-nuclear conference. Before it began, they were trying to find a name for the newly merged group. Everyone would vote on it at the conference. We learned that one of the names they were considering was “Peace Workers,” but it was rejected before the conference because some thought it would remind people of being “piece workers,” and that folks would be insulted by the reference. Since most of our PPP members worked in the textile mills where they got paid by the piece, and even most of the PPP conference staff had at one time worked in the mills, we were upset that they thought there was something wrong with being called piece workers. We made buttons and all wore them to the conference that said “Piece workers for Peace.”
The conference was just a couple weeks before Easter, and our members pulled out their Sunday best clothes and their special Easter outfits they had saved all year for and dressed up for this event. Most activists wore jeans and t-shirts, so our group stood out. Numerous people remarked to me about our group, “They don’t look poor.” Not only did they assume I was not but that people who were poor couldn’t look nice.
At the workshops we would all share these stories, with usually the trainers/staff sharing our own stories first, until a member was brave enough to start. After that, everyone wanted to share their stories of hurtful messages and comments.
Constantly on Guard
But even with the “Finding Our Voices” workshops, it still wasn’t – and isn’t – easy for us to combat these negative messages bombarding us. We can get “triggered” by one person’s thoughtless comment, a billboard or a commercial that reminds us we’re not accepted or seen for who we really are.
Some of us can “pass” as middle class and can even seem to live a middle-class life, but we still struggle with the shame of what we have seen and heard people say about us. For example, I was always an honor roll student and most often the top of my class. But in the 4th grade my teacher overheard me telling my classmates that I was going to be a teacher. In front of my friends, she said, “Kids like you don’t go to college!”
Much later, one of the hardest things for me as I went around the country speaking, was when people would always ask me, “What is your degree in?” This immediately made me feel bad. I would think of the pain of not being able to stay in college because my expenses were $500 more than my scholarship.
I remember talking about my background and class at a prominent college symposium. The first person to stand to ask a question started crying. She said she was so tired of trying to pretend to be middle class and was “coming out of the closet” as a poor person! Many people followed her to say the same thing.
You Can Manage It and It Takes Work
“Finding Our Voices” was not a one weekend workshop; it became a year-long workshop for PPP! We had to keep revisiting it. Little by little, we began to help people understand they could step into power. It was incredibly empowering to throw aside the negative and disempowering messaging. We began to believe we were the strong and powerful voices for change.
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