I guess we all do it. Judge people based on what we think they are supposed to have. You know like all those comments that go something like this “…her priorities are so messed up. She’s got a $2,000 bag and she’s riding the bus.”
What? What if she lives in NYC where everyone takes public transportation? What if she found that bag at a swap meet?
I’ve heard that said a thousand times. In awkward social conversations with 2nd and 3rd generation middle class friends, I try not to comment in the affirmative. I think the material and social restrictions imposed by the “gaze” of respectability politics is particularly stringent on Black people. Particularly poor Black people. Particularly those who people perceive to be both poor and Black. The judgment is so fierce and piercing that it sits with you forever. Your morals and money management skills are being questioned so deeply that you begin to question your decision-making. The people go IN!
I see all the invariably random memes about what wealthy people do vs. what poor people do. As if the very people who advocate for progressive politics are also advocating in their meme postings on Instagram for extreme wealth accumulation through investments that don’t include the purchasing of Michael Jordan shoes. Hun? I don’t get it. I hate to break it to them, but the investment in Michael Jordan shoes does not make one idiotic or financial unstable. Nor does it make a billionaire a financial genius because he or she acquired those billions through investments. There are multiple things at work here; some of which are privilege and generational wealth and poverty, and the acquisition of material things for emotional notoriety.
I’ve become fascinated by the interminable gaze and the never ending questions about what people’s money is supposed to afford them in recent months. As you know, I am a poverty raised, first generation middle class Black woman. On any given day I could be mistaken for a City Council woman, and thus people will think my well-ironed blazer is a Tracy Reese sample sale frock. Or I could be mistaken for a former drug addict, of which people will mistake my wrinkled blazer for a Housing Works dumpster dive special. The politics of our skin, gender, and what that could possibly afford us in society is fierce.
That judgment becomes even fiercer when our peers internalize it. Because to be Black, and young, and female, and in possession of any material, social, or leisure luxury is seen as “doing the most.” Our bodies, if we are not careful, are gazed upon, judged, and seen as “doing the most.” Even our own friends police our activities. Our money is invisibly counted in the heads of the crowds around us, scanning our bags, our shoes, our hair, and our actions. We must be “doing the most.”
And “doing the most”-always means we must be faking it. It says that whatever we are doing, we should not be doing because we somehow don’t belong here. We don’t belong in Bloomingdale’s. We don’t belong on an island 5,000 miles away from home. And if we are there-My god. How on Earth did we get there? They’ll say that we should not have access to those goods, because everything about our body tells them that we are making $6 an hour and therefore stole, robbed, or cheated our way to some said luxury item.
I understand this deeply. I love to travel and I own a luxury pair of shoes or two. As an advocate and organizer by trade, I always am self conscious about the display of anything, material, leisure, etc. that will conclude that I have some level of financial stability that will cause questions. But, I’ve learned it’s inevitable. Just by virtue of being under 35 and a Black woman. I’ve had well-intentioned friends, people who know me somewhat well, raise eyebrows about my facebook postings in Rio or an Instagram picture in Cape Town. The conversation will go something like “…girl, how can ya’ll afford to go there?”
Interesting, I’d think. Knowing full well, that my trip to said country probably cost considerably less than they actually think. But what I would like to say is “I know you as a 2nd or 3rd generation Black woman are used to doing very well for yourself and amongst the best in your social circle. And you’re in my pocket trying to figure out my life because you can only manage to vacation in the Caribbean? Girl bye.”
Let’s just face the facts. Everyone is not struggling. All of us are not Facebook stunting. Some of us (that’d be me) are holding back the joys of our fabulous lives for private moments as to not be policed by you. There are countless of people I am sure, who do not wake up, with the intention of making you think they are “doing the most.” You should meet people at a place of congratulations and assume the best of them. It takes nothing of you to not pass judgment on their abilities or purchasing power or lack thereof. Don’t let the stereotypes of age, skin color, and gender trap your expectations of the very people who consider you a friend.
I hope that we’ve come to a place in our progression to understand that policing people’s money is not okay. No one cares enough about you to mislead you into thinking they are “doing the most.”