Every time there is a national news story about a black shopper getting harassed in a store, there is a predictable backlash to the miscarriage of justice. We tend to move quickly from being outraged that it happened to critiquing why a black person was shopping there at all. Much like we interrogate what a woman was wearing when she was raped, we look for ways to assign personal responsibility for structural injustices to bodies we collectively do not value. If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars? One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive.

My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural Southern roots, moved north, and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother and, later, my grandmother and mother use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who lived mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when he came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a Jim Walter house. If you were really blessed, when a relative died with a paid-up insurance policy, you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walter used as collateral to secure your home lease.

That is how generational wealth happens where I am from: Lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right, and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home. We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth, so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education.

We were big readers, and we encouraged the girl children especially to go to some kind of college. Consequently, my grandmother and mother had a particular set of social resources that helped us navigate mostly white bureaucracies to our benefit. We could, as my grandfather would say, talk like white folks. We loaned that privilege out a lot. I remember my mother taking a next-door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. Her denial had come in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross Mahogany outfit: a camel-colored cape with matching slacks and knee-high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. The Vivian, as I called my mother, fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do must do.

There was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging.

It took half a day, but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in more than a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn’t work, but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair, but, as The Vivian always said, “Life isn’t fair, little girl.”

I internalized that lesson, and I think it has worked out for me, if unevenly. A woman at Belk once refused to show me the Dooney & Bourke purse I was interested in buying. The Vivian once made a salesgirl cry after she ignored us in an empty store. I have walked away from many a hotly desired purchase, like the impractical off-white winter coat I desperately wanted, after some bigot at the counter insulted me and my mother. But I have a PhD, and I support myself by aping the white male privileged life of the mind. It’s a mixed bag. Of course, the trick is you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied. Who knows what I was not granted for not enacting the right status behaviors or symbols at the right time for an agreeable authority?

Respectability rewards are a crapshoot, but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power. I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel-colored cape or knee-high boots, but I know that whatever she paid was returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to you because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle-class parents to advocate for her child? I didn’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up, but I am living proof of its investment yield.

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And not just for the psychic rewards, but because belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on Twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable.

Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service, and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It’s the aging white hippie who can cut off the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management, while aging Black Panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative, and, like life, it ain’t fair. In contrast, “acceptable” is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership.

A manager at the apartment complex where I worked while in college told me, repeatedly, that she knew I was “okay” because my little Nissan was clean. That I had worn a Jones New York suit to the interview really sealed the deal. She could call the suit by name because she asked me about the label in the interview. Another hiring manager at my first professional job looked me up and down in the waiting room, cataloging my outfit, and later told me that she had decided I was too classy to be on the call center floor. I was hired as a trainer instead. The difference meant no shift work, greater prestige, better pay, and a baseline salary for all my future employment.

I have about a half-dozen other stories like this. What is remarkable is not that this happened. There is empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by their appearances differently and more harshly than white men are. What is remarkable is that these gatekeepers, in one way or another, actually told me why I was deemed acceptable. They wanted me to know how I had properly signaled that I was not a typical black or a typical woman, two identities that in combination are almost always conflated with being poor.

What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to you because of your mother’s presentation of self?

I once sat in on an interview for a new administrative assistant. My regional vice president was doing the hiring. A long line of mostly black and brown women applied because we were a cosmetology school. Trade schools at the margins of skilled labor in a gendered field are necessarily classed and raced. I found one candidate particularly charming. She was trying to get out of a salon because 10 hours on her feet cutting hair would average out to an hourly rate below minimum wage. A desk job with 40 set hours and medical benefits represented mobility for her. When she left, my VP turned to me and said, “Did you see that tank top she had on under her blouse?! OMG, you wear a silk shell, not a tank top!” Both of the women were black. The VP had constructed her job as senior management. She drove a brand-new BMW because she “should treat herself,” and she liked to tell us that ours was an image business. A girl wearing a cotton tank top as a shell was incompatible with BMW-driving VPs in the image business.

Gatekeeping is a complex job of managing boundaries that define not just others but also ourselves. Status symbols — silk shells, designer shoes, luxury handbags — become keys to unlock these gates. If I need a job that will save my lower back and move my baby from Medicaid to an HMO, how much should I spend signaling to people like my former VP that I will not compromise her status by opening the door to me? Maybe that candidate could not afford a proper shell. I will never know. But I do know that had she gone hungry for two days to pay for it or missed wages for a trip to the store to buy it, she may have been rewarded with a job that could have lifted her above minimum wage. Shells aren’t designer handbags, but a cosmetology school in a strip mall isn’t a job at Bank of America, either.

At the heart of incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we, the hardworking, sensible not-poor, would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, dies rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever knew, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are — that is, not poor.

If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor, and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers, and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.


Excerpted from Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Copyright © 2019 by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Excerpted with permission by the New Press.