Something I’ve really struggled with is being from a family without much money, but ending up in neighborhoods with a lot of material wealth. Of course, I’m grateful for all the perks and privileges that come with this predicament. The property taxes my neighbors have paid have provided amazing schools and libraries. We only had one family car, but my peers had their own so I could carpool when I couldn’t drive. Today, if we can’t buy food, there are food shelves around that are well stocked – one of them in my mom’s suburb gets a lot of donations from the upscale grocery store, including some fancy French cheeses. No Joke.
Every so often, I like to buy a fancy drink from a coffee shop, and then sip it and pretend I have more material wealth than I actually do. Mom and I usually brew our hot beverages at home to save money, but we take a Starbucks trip about every three months to splurge. Sitting among, and pretending that we are, the people who can afford one Starbucks drink every day is a relieving break from our reality.
This is exactly what I did a couple days ago. I’d been trekking through a posh area of Central London for four hours when it started to downpour. I had already eaten the lunch I’d packed from home, and while my hiking boots and rain jacket were keeping me relatively dry, the lovely smell from inside enticed me. So I ducked into a café to order a croissant and a hot chocolate.
Most of the café visitors seemed to have plenty of money to spend by the looks of their clothes, food choices, and gadgets. Most were white. Many had the air of tourists or wealthy businesspeople. Granted, I didn’t carry on any deep conversations, so I am being presumptuous about their socioeconomic status. However, I think it took my “game of pretend” outside U.S. borders to realize how much I really do pretend live up to the American middle class expectation.
About 5 or 6 miles southeast of this cafe is my neighborhood of Peckham, which looks very different from the posh center of London. Many people here are familiar with financial struggles, family dysfunction, and the collective nature of their families at odds with the individualistic values of the powers that be. In Peckham, there is no one way to raise a child, structure a family, make a living, keep a home, dress appropriately, appreciate nature, speak a language, experience autonomy, be a leader, or create beauty. For the first time in my life, I live in a greater community where I’m not expected to hide my family’s dysfunction or lack of money.
It’s not that I don’t miss home – it’s just that the things I miss about home have been missing for a while. I miss having financial stability…well, spending money in general. Parents who are married to each other, one of which would stay home with us kids. A well-stocked kitchen. Having Grandma Jane be alive. I generally have to hide that I am missing these people and things, or else it’ll give it away that I don’t fit neatly into society’s expectations for me.
I know that many people with material wealth are kind and loving (many of you reading my words right now fall into this category, and I deeply care for you.) But there’s a certain empathy that is impossible for me to get from others who can’t relate to my family’s struggles. I can’t say that I can relate to all the stories of my new neighbors either, since I have a lot of privileges – I’m a white, Christian, American woman with a college degree, who grew up speaking a respected form of English. These characteristics gave me an “in” with the high class neighborhoods I mentioned at the very beginning of this post and access to many economic, social and political advantages. But it always felt like I had to hide things about myself to still “deserve” what should be human rights.
Participation in community in which I can experience the extremes of my life without shame, know that my fears will be truly understood, and that people will dance for joy with me as an equal is a blessing to be nurtured.
And that is power.