When I was younger, there was a period of time that my family was on food stamps (I guess it’s called SNAP now), and since we lived in Illinois, we were issued a Link card, and we would have to call the number to see how much money we had on the Link card. So, I would be up at 10 or 11 at night, and if we didn’t have that much money on the card, I just had to go to bed.
But if we did have money, well that meant that we were going out, and I got to stay up late to go food shopping. And we didn’t just go to our local store, we would go to a Jewel-Osco in the middle of downtown Chicago. It never crossed my mind that many of my peers in my wealthy suburb/village of Oak Park did not have to do this since they were more financially stable than I was, I just loved being able to go out late at night, and drive on the expressway to go downtown and listen to the radio and get lots of food. Food that we would probably eat up in three days, but lots of food.
Being poor in my family led to two very conflicting lifestyles embodied by my parents that I sometimes find myself going back and forth between. I could act like my mom, who was incredibly thrifty and always kept track of the budget, always leaving out the sheet of paper with all of the deductions to the family’s checking account as a reminder that we have nothing. But she also never left the house unless it was absolutely necessary.
Then, I could be like my dad, who was always willing to try to have an adventure and could find something entertaining out of simply taking a train to go downtown and go window shopping at a department store. But he was also impulsive, to the point where he did not like using ATM machines because he didn’t trust himself to take out a small amount of money.
Needless to say, I got a lot of mixed messages about money. I never could do a lot of the clubs and sports and after-school activities my friends did because my family didn’t have money. That meant that there was a lot of social bonding that I missed out on when I was growing up, which I figured made me a stronger individual. But as I got to middle and high school, and I started hanging out with friends who did pay for me whenever we went out, I started to wonder if the guilt I was developing from feeling like a free-loader was the reason that my parents never let me go outside or hang out with friends. I know that I can’t reduce all of this to one reason, but by the time I reached college, my ideas of money were that it can make you feel less guilty, and the more money you have, the less guilt you feel.
Now, that’s not to say that I thought money made you absolutely happy. I had too many wealthy friends who had lots of problems in their families, problems that I could not even imagine having in my family. But I also became aware of how to talk about money depending on who I was with. I had richer, generally white friends who may have been middle class and had never thought of themselves as wealthy. I could make fun of them for being richer than me, but at the same time, we could be united by the fact that there were other people who were richer than all of us. However, I was constantly reminded by my richer friends that I was not them, and as long as I was poor, I could never be.
With poor people, I felt like because of my high-achieving academics and way I spoke I had to prove that I knew what it was like to be poor. I will never forget when a white male acquaintance in my junior year of high school asked me if I was rich. I laughed so hard, and said “No. Not even a bit. Why do you ask?” And he said it was because of the way I carried myself and acted. A lot of things started connecting for me right then and there in terms of understanding the ways I had been bullied and name-called for years.
I had been called white a lot, or an “oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside). I had been called “gay” in derogatory ways before I came out. I had been called a faggot before. But I figured the name-calling wasn’t limited to negatives. I remember how some of my (few) Black friends said I was the smartest person they knew when we were in the 4th grade, which I quickly refused to accept. I knew there were white students in our class who demonstrated more knowledge than I did. But I started to wonder if all of these things were connected to how people perceive my Black body, consciously or unconsciously, and how I was supposed to act. Not even the simple question of “Would they act like this if I was white?” more like, “What would my life be if I was as “Black” as they thought I should be?” Would I be allowed to talk the way I talk? Could I be gay, and be a gay guy that has, due to the luck of the draw, only dated white men and has only had sex with men of color in the dark? Could I think the way I think now? Part of me doubts it.
Because I’m poor, and did well in school, and Black, I got a full ride to an elite college in Ohio. Those are the key identifiers for my scholarship program, so that’s why I wrote it the way I did. Apparently, at Oberlin, which is over 75% white, lots of students are wealthy. But they don’t like to talk about it. For the first time, poor people (or people who tried to act like they were poor) called me “bougie.” The comment made no sense to me, because it was supposed to connote either a wealthier person who was a snob/looked down on poorer people (which I literally couldn’t be) or a poor person who was so ashamed of being poor they took every opportunity to try to leave poverty and all that’s associated with it.
Is the second one a good descriptor of myself? Am I ashamed of being poor, to the point that I hate anything associated with poverty? Can I condense being poor into specific behaviors and actions, and if I don’t perform those behaviors and actions or if I critique those actions, I’m anti-poor? When I think of the word”bougie,” I wonder what not being “bougie” would look like. Would I dress differently? Would I still talk to the friends I talk to now? Would my spending habits change? It reminds me of the questions I had about being an “oreo” and all of that.
Every Winter Term, the period of time in January where Oberlin students can do individual or group projects, I have been destitute. I’m already a scholarship kid, and my dad is too poor to send me money. Whatever I make at Oberlin is mine, and I’ve made some pretty interesting investments over the course of my time at Oberlin (such as financing my braces by myself). Whether it’s because I lost my wallet and my money, or because I overdrew, or because I am in another country with limited funds, I have had an extended period of time in the winter where I find myself anxious about my financial state. And I promise myself that when I get money again and work it out, I will do better. I would ask my old high school counselor for money, up to $500 at times. I started relying on those deposits as a crutch, and at one point she asked how I was budgeting my money, since I never seemed to have any. I thought very deeply about that, because here I was, at this elite college on a full ride, and the people who are supposed to be my peers are having fights about the ability to talk to each other honestly about class. And some people who are poor or pretend to be poor think I’m “bougie” or that I behave in “bougie” ways. And at the end of the day I still couldn’t afford to be here. So money, with all of its problems and evils and issues, was both my worst enemy and the thing that kept me alive to fight it. Isn’t that crazy?
And here I am at UChicago, having not been paid yet, but with bills to pay, waiting on a call to see if I can get my money, just like when I was a little kid. The adventure continues.