Lying in bed in my apartment, nursing my baby, I fall asleep for a few moments. When I awake to the sound of birds, people outside laughing and golden light twinkling on leaves outside my window, I’m jolted back a few decades into a drowsy memory of the neighborhood where I grew up.
There was a time when my childhood summers felt this safe and carefree. But by the time I was eight, the crack epidemic had come to our Philadelphia neighborhood. Two different houses behind us were firebombed. Gunshots became a nightly occurrence in our back alley. Adults in our neighborhood struggled with addiction and got mixed up with the law, and kids around me grew tense. We were the lone white family in a black neighborhood, so we drew a lot of attention—especially from those looking to let off steam. Our front door got forcibly smashed in while I sat beside it; my father spent months repairing it. Kids threw rocks at my baby brother in my mother’s arms.
Our neighborhood didn’t give us safety, but it did give us freedom. My parents could afford to be full-time activists because they owned their own home, bought half-abandoned for a few thousand dollars. They were coming from two very different places: my father from an upper-class, intellectual family and my mother from a working-class family that skirted poverty. He willingly entered into a life without money in order to spend his time on social change. She went to college, but I think she felt far more comfortable living on scarce resources with my dad than she would have been attempting to rise into the middle class, struggling to fit in and being judged by people with money.
Our lifestyle had been my parents’ choice, but my brother and I didn’t really have a say in the fact that we were growing up poor. We had very little money, no health insurance and all secondhand clothes. We craved the foods and toys that other kids had, the stuff we saw in commercials. But our class position wasn’t so straightforward. We had resources: intangibles from my dad, like confidence in my thinking and the belief that I could achieve big things. I think when you grow up with money, as he did, thinking big comes more naturally. Both my parents highly valued learning, and our mom, who worked at home running my dad’s non-profit, was able to fully involve herself in our lives and help us succeed in school.
Being white was something else I had on my side. Through the absurd twists and turns of white privilege and desegregation, I—but not my black neighbors—got to go to school in a wealthier area of the city. Unlike the schools our neighbors had to go to, mine was safe from drug deals and shootings.
But it didn’t feel all that safe to me. I got pushed around physically and verbally; got called ugly and poor. I remember trying to stand out of sight, in corners, where it wouldn’t be so visible that my secondhand clothes fit poorly and emphasized all the awkward places in my body.
All of this gave me an excellent motivation to try to blend in as best as possible with the middle-class people around me. And with my white skin, I had a good chance at it—if I could just figure out what I was supposed to be copying. I remember deciding as a second grader to change my low-class-sounding Philadelphia pronunciation of “water” to sound like the blond midwestern girl who had transferred to our school. I’m still benefiting from my seventh-grade revelation that all it took to look middle class was to match colors in your clothes.
By the time I was out of middle school, I had mastered some parts of fitting in with the middle class. I could pretend, up to a point. But I could never feel at ease. I still couldn’t bring people home with me. Compared to the houses of my middle-class friends, my house seemed broken down and irredeemably dirty. It felt easier for me to avoid knowing people well enough to invite them over, than to risk letting them see inside.
Even though I kept my house out of sight, I didn’t feel clean. For me, being poor felt like I carried with me a layer of grime that I couldn’t ever wash off. On some level, I really believed there was always something dirty about me which other people could see—even if I couldn’t.
Yet every day, when the school bell rang, I went home to a reality that tilted all this upside down. The kids I played with had moms in jail, or were having their first babies by the time I was off to high school. When I had trouble with kids around us, my mother counseled me to try to have compassion for them: I had it so much better than they did; they were bound to be resentful.
In dollar terms, what we had was fairly average for our neighborhood. Yet our racial and cultural privilege and our education made us seem incongruous. Rumors circulated among our neighbors that we were millionaires. To make sense of what we were doing there, people had to picture us as the kind of misers, or do-gooders, who choose to live in poverty versus living off their millions.
And really, I was as confused as they were. At home, I felt rich compared to other kids. When I ventured elsewhere, I felt humiliatingly poor. The reality of who I was changed according to who was seeing me and what context they knew me in.
It took me years to find a place where all my mixed-up pieces fit. Then I got into political activism as a teenager, and suddenly I was just one of a whole community of people who shared my level of education, but had no admiration for material wealth.
The house I moved into after high school was as rickety as the one I grew up in, except none of my housemates felt any shame about it. For many of my middle-class-born friends, poverty was a political issue, not a personal experience. Crack addiction was something people joked about at parties, and installing new drywall was controversial because one of our housemates considered it “bourgeois.” Despite the odd moment in which a comment like this alienated me, this community was amazing for me to be a part of. For the first time, I didn’t have to pretend in order to fit in.
To be around all these middle-class people who didn’t judge me was the beginning of a slow recovery. I gradually started to see certain things in a whole new way. One day in my early twenties, I looked around the home of a wealthier friend and suddenly saw that her house was clean not because she was more civilized than my family, but because the materials in her house were newer, more seamlessly installed, and, by design, easier to wipe down. The materials in my parents’ house, on the other hand, would never be clean, no matter how many times we might scrub. They were old, porous, shot through with crevices that had collected dirt over time which could never be removed. Until that moment, deep inside, I had bought in to the idea that middle-class people were just better than me; that they were somehow inherently cleaner than I was or would ever be. They seemed to know intuitively how to be normal and presentable. They shared a language I just couldn’t speak.
I am still learning how to stop pretending. Every year I feel a little bit bolder about just being who I really am. There’s a lot I cherish about my own class culture. Poor and working-class people—my family included—are incredibly resourceful and creative, out of necessity. We value people. We don’t take friendship lightly. We know how to be there for each other. And compared to my middle-class partner and friends, I’m far less likely to assume authorities are right. After all, how often do people in power have poor people’s best interests at heart? I’m quicker to say what’s on my mind, rather than tiptoe around for politeness’ sake. I’m more willing to take a risk and dive into a new life endeavor with my whole heart, without waiting until conditions are perfect, or staying paralyzed in weighing the pros and cons.
I want to be able to look clearly at the good and bad that I’ve inherited from my dad’s upper-class side, too. But I have found that, coming from a mixed background, it’s hard for me to take a good look at my privileges if I haven’t taken time to deal with the pain that came first.
For me, the worst part about growing up without money has been not feeling safe: not physically safe from the violence around me then and not safe now to be myself around people with more status. But I don’t think middle- and upper-class people really feel safe either. They can buy alarm systems for their homes and send their kids to schools free of violence. But they are still targets when they walk down the street—targets of resentment from people who have less than they do, and targets of crime from people who would do anything to get what they have.
During high school, kids from my neighborhood were in and out of jail. But many of the middle-class kids I went to school with—who should theoretically have had such easier lives—were suicidal, had drug habits or were put in mental institutions by worried parents. More money didn’t give them fewer problems; it just made them turn their problems inward.
The longer I experience many sides of it, the more I can see that the class system we live with is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. But nothing is going to change while the subject of class remains closed. Each of us feels our own fears when we first open up and join the conversation about class. But I can tell you: It feels really, really good to come clean.