Policing what we do with our money is racist and classist
I checked my bank account yesterday to see if my $1400 stimulus check from the historic $1.9 trillion dollar relief bill arrived. Some friends of mine on social media announced that they received theirs last weekend but my bank chose not to make the money available until yesterday. It’s now sitting in my account, ready to use.
I am privileged in that I don’t need the money to stave off eviction or buy food, but others do. Yet, I’ve come across people on the interwebs who are already shaming others about what they plan to spend their stimulus checks on. According to these people, if you aren’t planning to start a side business, invest it all, pay down your credit card debt or save it all, you’re a fool who deserves to be poor.
We all know by now that the pandemic isn’t affecting everyone equally. Black people are twice as likely to die from COVID than whites. We’re less likely to be employed in jobs that enable us to work from home. We also suffer more economically if we are unemployed because, unlike many white people, we’re less likely to have the resources to stay afloat for a protracted period of joblessness. This means we’re less likely to have savings, less likely to have investments, and so on.
So, the stimulus checks give a sliver of relief to those who are struggling. Yet, if a poor person wants to splurge on a want, some believe that they don’t deserve to enjoy their money, which has racist and classist connotations.
For one thing, there is the long-standing stereotype that all Black people are poor or on welfare. In our society, poverty is regarded as a personal failing instead of as a structural issue. If you’re poor, it’s because of laziness or a bad work ethic, not because of oppression.
The main reason for Black poverty is due to structural racism. We’re blamed for our educational system not preparing us adequately to function in the business world, we’re blamed if employers don’t hire us, we’re shamed if we get paid less than white people for doing the same work and we’re blamed if we aren’t given loans and other capital to start our own businesses.
Black folx who are poor didn’t get that way because they go to Starbucks every day or buy $200 sneakers. Our oppressors deny us the same opportunities afforded to whites yet gaslight us by blaming us for failing to meet their standards. If that isn’t the definition of crazy, I don’t know what is.
Another issue stemming from policing Black joy is that white people have long commodified Black people’s pain and trauma, if the success of such movies as “12 Years a Slave” and “Harriet” is anything to go by. If what they see on screen doesn’t challenge them to confront their complicity in a system that oppresses us, then our pain and trauma can entertain them without guilt. Once the credits roll, whites can forget about how uncomfortable they are and continue their obliviousness as before.
In fact, Black people are depicted as downtrodden so frequently in the media that it’s easy for white people to believe that’s all there is to our existence, to the point that they can’t fathom our joy. Or else, our exuberance threatens them if we don’t behave in a way that they deem acceptable.
Even a fair amount of Black people internalize these racist and classist tropes by engaging in respectability politics. These politics are beliefs where conformity to prescribed mainstream standards of appearance and behavior will protect a marginalized group from prejudice and systemic injustice.
About stimulus checks, a common belief among Black people who believe in respectability politics is that by using them to buy TV’s, clothes or paying for vacations, we’re irresponsible with our money, which cements white folx ideas about how hedonistic we are. From someone who subscribed to respectability politics in her youth, I can see the appeal. And on its face, it’s a simple idea. By fully assimilating to white standards, we should be regarded as equal, shouldn’t we?
It took a while for me to realize that respectability politics are a sham. It made no difference how well I spoke Standard English, if I wore designer clothes or had the latest gadgets. Assimilation never protected me from being followed around in shops. It never protected me from being passed over for job promotions. It never protected me from racism, period.
So if some Black poor people choose to spend their stimulus checks on TV’s, clothes, and vacations, what is it to you? Aren’t the checks supposed to stimulate the economy? Aren’t white people buying TV’s, clothes and paying for vacations too? The issue with privileged folx isn’t so much that people will use the checks to buy material things. Their issue is the kind of people who are doing the spending.
Telling Black poor people that they don’t deserve nice things dehumanizes them. It implies that only those who have a “good” work ethic deserve a reward, which harkens back to our colonizers’ Puritan beliefs. This speaks to how certain jobs are devalued in our society.
Working in retail, fast food. or any other low-paid service job is not a cakewalk. You rarely get to sit down. You are expected to be busy at all times, even during slow periods. Many of those employers are stingy with breaks, don’t give paid time off and micromanage their staff to the point where they have more freedom in jail. Amazon is notorious for not allowing employees to go on bathroom breaks, so they have to wear diapers on the job.
People working those jobs are exploited and abused but are demonized for “not working hard enough,” which is such a privileged mindset. Those people work far harder than I do at an office job, where I sit typing letters and spreadsheets for eight hours a day. When I actually commuted to my office, I’d go on social media during downtime. Since I’ve worked from home for the past year, I use downtime to clean my house, run errands or go on walks. My employer offers flextime, so I log on and off within a 12 hour period during the day. My job is cushy to someone working at Walmart yet society deems it more valuable.
Then there are those folx who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Stigmatizing them for not finding work when there aren’t many jobs available isn’t helpful. Shaming the unemployed and low-wage workers, a lot of whom are Black, about stimulus checks or other windfalls demonizes them further. Saying that they don’t deserve to reward themselves is akin to saying that they shouldn’t exist.
The pandemic exacerbated economic inequality in this country. Instead of shaming certain people about what they choose to do with their stimulus checks, we need to question why over 80% of the people in this country qualified to get them. Because there’s something fundamentally wrong with an economic system that allows a scant few to own several homes while others are homeless.