What is “wealth?” Money you’ve accumulated over time, right? Well, not necessarily. Nikki Giovanni says that “black love is black wealth,” and this simple statement shines a light not only on how rich the black community is, but also on how fucked up white ideas around wealth and poverty really are.
As white folks, we often think of people of color as “impoverished” because as a group, they don’t have the generational economic wealth that we do. Of course, the reason for this is centuries of racism, genocide, and enslavement, but I’d also argue that the focus on economic wealth is a desperate move on behalf of white folks to cover our own poverty.
When we talk about the poverty of people of color, especially black folks, but also those of all colors in the “developing world,” we use pity as a mask to cover our own longing and poverty. I believe that we constantly need to reaffirm that we are “normal,” that we are on top of the pyramid, because we know in our heart of hearts that we are not–that in fact we are generators of disease, engaging in deeply perverse racist practices, and are as a culture so removed from any ancestral worth that we wouldn’t recognize it if it bit us in the face.
As a writer, blogger, and activist, I think I have a certain responsibility to think about how I express myself. Whether I’m writing a post or an article, having a casual conversation, or replying to a Tweet, it’s easy to use language without thinking about it. We all talk in the feminist and queer communities about how harmful societal norms are–whether it’s the pervasive use of “crazy” as a negative term, the way rape culture is subconsciously taught and accepted, or the societal pressure on women to be thin and “pretty.” A lot of us end up with increased awareness of certain types of language through activist communities, and I love how this happens and very much encourage everyone to blog or just talk about terms you notice people using that support the kyriarchy.
Today, I want to talk about a particular group of words that I find harmful and am working to eliminate from my own speech. The words I’m thinking of are associated with the garbage–from words that describe what we take in (“junk food,” “trashy books”) to words that describe what we are (“trailer trash,” “sloppy seconds”). These words, in my experience, tend to apply primarily or only to things that are associated with poverty or “low” culture. When a middle or upper class person talks about things in the first category, it’s common to speak of guilty pleasures and indulgences–“I know I shouldn’t eat so much junk food; I’m putting trash in my body but it’s just so good.” This kind of language implies that 1) we should be guilty about things that are labelled “trash” and 2) these are a temporary deviation for middle and upper class people, ultimately linked to individual responsibility.
I could go on for days about what’s wrong with the way we talk about individual responsibility in Western capitalist countries, but to stick to my main point, what sucks about this kind of language is that it implies that people who consume such things should be guilty, and further that they are bad people because of what they consume. It’s not a big leap from “junk food” and “trashy magazines” to trailer trash, or from saying someone’s clothes are trashy to saying that she is trashy.
Elitism is easy not to notice when you’re raised to value education, health, etc. and to look down on “guilty” or “nasty” habits. I know I tend to talk a lot about “guilty pleasures” or be embarrassed about certain books or music. So here’s a challenge to those of us who were raised in that environment, or for whatever reason find ourselves boxing habits into “good” and “bad” categories. Let’s try to think about these problems when we’re writing, and especially not to use words like “junk” or “trash” to describe habits or people. Also, let’s try to avoid the trap of talking about how people are “victims of their environments” or using the language of pity when talking about access to education and culture. This kind of language assumes that culture has an innate value, that people who don’t have access to “high” music, literature, food, or clothing are stuck with “low” forms. It ignores the inherent value of these things and ascribes unnecessary guilt to their consumption. Taste is a matter of individual preference, so let’s all make an effort to stop demonizing others’ tastes and start questioning the origins of our own.