On being afraid to admit your poverty

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Recently, I have thought of my life with a critical lens. I have realized some things, such as my role in my family. I, though indirectly, looked after my siblings. I cared for them, and I brought food home when they were hungry — school lunches by roaming the cafeteria after school to pilfer any extra fruits and milks to take home.

Imagine: your bi-weekly trip to the local grocery store is instead replaced with a two-hour wait in a hungry line for bread and expired milk. Ever heard of how to stretch a dollar? This is the reality for some Americans.   

I grew up poor.

Mind the language: poor. This term is different from phrases such as “low-income,” “under-resourced” and even “underprivileged” (in socioeconomic terms). Other terms were created for various reasons, some to translate an experience to the more elite and uninformed, some to linguistically remedy social ills forced upon people against their will by society. In my case, this word and what it connotes — little to no money, inability to become socially mobile on one’s own, broke — most accurately describes my upbringing. Most of my life experiences which have usually only dreamed of in the minds of the more well-off were real to me. Thus, I respectively identify as a ‘poor student’ and often find myself, so to speak, torn between two worlds in such an elite institution as UC Berkeley.

For starters, poverty experienced at any level is inhumane, traumatic and can cause lifelong emotional repercussions. That said, I specifically experienced my poverty primarily as a Black queer-identified femme. It happens in cycles and can seem different regionally, but really is monotonously insidious. I grew up in the Bay Area, arguably identified as a wealthier sector of the United States, and have thus been granted an immense amount of locational privilege which I acknowledge and accept that all experiences are relative in the eye of economical critique.  

I thought that upon coming to college I would experience an emotional nirvana of sorts, that upon stepping my foot into the symbolic door of freedom, all the world’s problems — especially the ones back home — would miraculously solve themselves, and undergraduate graduation would be the happily ever after ending to a good book. Instead, I learned. I learned about myself and my role. I learned through friends that I did not have a limited experience. I learned that every day I am learning, and more importantly, the power of having a voice even when no one is listening.

Poverty, on UC Berkeley’s campus, is feigned to be talked about in a way that is necessary and fluid, even though its presence can disturb an entire room of people. When acknowledged, it is usually grouped into miniature lectures and five-minute sound bits of a professor’s opinion. This is not conducive to producing helpful remedies to wounds. When I say that we should all be proactively thinking about our impoverished kin, I do not mean entering communities and disrupting them. We instead need to think of ways that our positions in society can actively heal people without disturbing them further. For example, my positionality as a poor college student, derived from a poor family, could be used to as a voice for people like me. Those with more privilege can perhaps do things on the side to remedy, such as bringing information to spaces, or learning more about communities they are surrounded by and asking the inhabitants of these communities what to do to help.

Am I writing this for sympathy? Understanding? Guilt? Not in the least. I am writing because I want to own this experience. I want to use it to empower myself and to recognize that the cycles that exist in my chaotic life are not of my own influence. I want to ensure that this piece is being written for the voiceless. For the very friends and family members who tell me to check my privilege, while simultaneously feeling unbothered when appropriating things like ‘hood culture’, when all their lives they grew up on clean sidewalks and mowed lawns.

This is the narrative I want to see in academia. This is what frustrates me about academia.

To be ridiculed and broken down, being called an “assimilater” when all this woman is trying to do is survive. When my only form of survival is to either break into a house or break into the system. When long ago, I had to cut my tongue so that the school would not cut it for me.

E’Niyah Wilson is a sociology and African American studies third-year student at UC Berkeley studying healing narratives for people of color.