“And there I found [in myself] what appalled me; a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.” – C.S. Lewis
As a junior in high school, I moved to a small, Oregon logging community. Right before Thanksgiving, I stumbled upon community service that a new friend of mine, J, was involved in. Student volunteers put boxes together with turkeys, potatoes, etc. for families in town who might otherwise not have a Thanksgiving dinner. At least two people were needed to make the deliveries because the boxes were heavy, and since I also had access to a car, I told J I’d help her deliver a few of the boxes.
I was unprepared for the poverty I encountered. We visited a couple places where small children peered from behind the legs of grateful, beaten-down adults. The houses were little more than shacks. The wintertime rain had already been falling unceasingly for weeks, and I could imagine what it might be like to live through a cold, wet, dark, dreary winter in each home.
The house I remember the most vividly looked as if the rain had saturated it over the course of its lifetime, so soggy did it appear with its patched roof and swollen-looking siding. When we got out of the car, a smell hit our senses though we were easily still 15 yards from the house. The smell, it turned out, came from their source of heat – could it have been a kerosene heater? – which we saw when the front door opened. It was massive, placed smack in the middle of the front room. It poured out heat and a stench I wanted to flee from.
The person who opened the door said, “Hi,” to J. He knew her, and she knew him, from school. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might encounter someone I went to school with. I didn’t know him, I was still new to the school, but he and J said a few awkward words and we passed the box to him.
How did this guy get himself to school every day when this place was his launching pad? How did his clothes not reek? They probably did. H’d never bring friends over after school; he likely tried to not be home himself as much as possible. I wanted to say to him, “I don’t know you. I’ll forget your face so when we have a class together, it’ll be like starting fresh.” I didn’t say that, of course; I just wanted to get out of there.
I did not for a minute wonder if these families deserved this food. They were clearly quite poor, which made them deserving enough.
This was my first brush with what I think of as rural poverty. My next close encounter occurred ten years later when I taught high school on the Oregon coast for a school district so small it served five separate towns. And even so, only 156 students attended the whole high school. A handful of my students wore the same clothes every day; at least one student didn’t have reliable access to a way to bathe. Probably more of them than I knew lived like my former classmate.
Four years after that, I attended my first semester of social work school where I was re-introduced to urban poverty – but that’s a different story. My social policy class was taught by the man who wrote the policy book used by social work schools around the country. We began by charting the course of how American social policy got to where it was in 1991. This meant starting with the British workhouses circa 1576, one of the earliest examples of systematic punishment of people whose primary offense was being poor. Our professor knew by studying another country and an era centuries ago we’d. better understand the attitudes and experiences that shaped the first wave of people who immigrated to America. Because attitudes toward the poor came with them; those attitudes created the waters our American ancestors swam in, and it informed their policy decisions. These eventually trickled down to us.
The importance of recognizing the waters we swim in – the cultural beliefs that influence us – has been brought home to me particularly these past few years as I’ve looked more closely at the history of race in America. I’ve found it both sobering, and strangely grounding, to have someone say, “We’ve grown up in a racist society, so we are all (regardless of our race) racist.” How could we expect to emerge from a biased upbringing (and all of our upbringings were biased, though we often like to call our biases beliefs) without bias? That would be like growing up in the South and not believing in hospitality.
Which is all to say that my reasoning mind understands that someone who’s poor deserves to not starve, deserves to have dignity, deserves to not be consumed with wondering if they’ll starve tomorrow, if they’ll be safe. And yet…
Garth and I currently find ourselves helping to provide food to other Portlanders. One of our tenants works for an organization that for years has received food donations for a range of its clients. The recent shelter-in-place order in Oregon has resulted in some of the other agencies that used donated food closing temporarily, and many of his organization’s clients aren’t coming around as much. This has resulted in an excess of donated food with no identified recipients for it. Thursday, we set our picnic table up where our driveway meets the sidewalk and put out donated food: pizza dough, clamshell containers of green beans, melons, and pineapples; bags of Brussels sprouts, spinach, carrots, celery, arugula; salsa and peanut sauce. All from places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
The whole reason I was doing this was because I understood how the measures our state was taking in order to slow the spread of this virus had created massive food insecurity in my city. As I set the food out on the table, people began to wander over, keeping a six-foot distance. Unquestionably, many people had already been living on the edge, one paycheck away from disaster. Now they were unable to work because their jobs ended in favor of enforced social distancing, leaving them without an income, but with families that still needed food and shelter.
And yet, while one part of me told each person to take what they needed – knowing that only they could know what they needed -, and explained where the food came from, and said, “You’re welcome-” another part of me was thinking things like, “You’re wearing nice clothes; do you truly need this food?” and “Do you really need that many bags of green beans?”
I’m not happy to share these thoughts with you. I wish I hadn’t thought them.
But why would I expect not to think them, growing up as I have in a culture that to this day debates whether or not poor people deserve to be helped? On a personal level, too, I’m trying to dismantle the idea that it’s desirable to be thought of as Good, and that Good means you have only Good Thoughts. Thankfully, Mahzarin Banaji’s 20 years researching implicit bias have made one thing amply clear: none of us has only Good Thoughts.
When asked how she navigates her own implicit bias, Dr. Banaji said that first, she assumes she has bias; secondly, she tries to know as deeply as she can what those biases are, in order to, thirdly, correct for them where she can. For example, if she knows she’s biased in favor of tipping male waiters more generously than female waiters because she assumes males need the tip money more than females, she can plan, instead, to tip according to a fixed percentage every time rather than going with her (biased) gut. (Note: this is my example, not Dr. Banaji’s.)
I do long for the clarity of my 16-year-old self. She had swum for fewer decades than my 58-year-old self in the cultural waters that teem with judgment and mistrust about poor people. What a relief it would be to live in a less nuanced mind again. She knew without reservation that no one should have to live like that, that everyone was as deserving of eating well as she was, and that their humanity wasn’t in question.
But while my 16-year-old self might have felt fiercely about the situation and the people involved, she also wanted to run away. She was overwhelmed by a system she couldn’t even begin to address in the ways she wanted to. This 58-year-old, though, she has more to offer at a time like this. Maybe part of the offering includes an undercurrent of wretched stereotypes and suspicions, but there is also self-awareness that allows me to act in the ways I mean to. I mean to do Good Things in the world, even though they aren’t always informed by exclusively Good Thoughts. That 16-year-old is still in me, and there are times she points me in the right direction. I can follow her lead, dragging my muddled self along with me, still able to navigate the situation until I’ve (sometimes) done some good.