Thursday, February 21, 2008

Vegetarianism, Poverty, and Social Identity

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about social class, income, education and becoming a Friend. I'm not done thinking about it and so this does not represent the fullness of my thinking on this topic. What follows is just some stream of consciousness stuff as I work it out in my head. I'm a "Dr." now and I'm finding that it doesn't rest easy on me. Is this really who I am? And when people "look up to me" I feel...well, I don't know how I feel. And when people resent me for this degree or because I eat tofu or because I'm a ecofeminist ("femi-Nazi"), I struggle to understand my ambivalent feelings. While my mother was reared in a family in which college education was the expectation for each child and careers in the sciences and the arts was normal, my father came from a family of factory workers, skilled workers and laborers. All the time I was growing up, my father was in conflict with his family who did not quite understand his liberalism and intellectualism. There were proud of him, I think, as he achieved first an M.Div and then a Ph.D. in history but they also didn't quite get it. His politics and his feminism offended them...or more accurately, they dismissed his politics and feminism as being unnatural, amusing, and a bit delusional. For his part, I realize now that my father was trying to escape from the lifestyle of his childhood. His teachers told him that he wasn't bright enough to graduate from college and his parents expected him to move out and get a job when he was 18. I don't think anyone expected he would become an intellectual. As he took his place among clergy and academics, I know he felt his background keenly. "I can't give you money," he used to say to me, "But I can teach you how to behave so that rich people think you belong with them."

It is kind of funny that while I could have married a college boy from the Ivy League school that neighbored the women's college I attended, I chose to come home to te community college to find my mate. It took my dh a considerably long time to earn his AA and he is just now, after nearly a decade, returning to finish his Bachelor's degree. Until I met him if someone had asked what I was looking for in a spouse, I probably would have said "intelligent" (and would have meant well-educated) every time. Turns out that kindness and steadiness was more important. Weird. Who knew? Being married to this kind-hearted, patient, hard-working but financially-challenged man for twelve years has been its own kind of education.

When my husband worked as a dump truck driver and heavy equipment operator and when he worked plowing the roads for New York State, he had to be really careful in order to avoid injury. You see, he's a vegetarian. Yeah, sure, he had to be vigilant all the time to prevent accidents while working with big, powerful machines. He had to watch for oncoming cars and extreme weather conditions. He got sick with the pollution and the physical stress of the work. But apart from all that stuff, all the danger and fatigue and body-wrecking stress that is a part of a job that requires both heavy manual labor and skill with large machines, he had to watch the men with whom he worked-- because they let him know that they would like to beat the crap out of him for eating tofu.

Eventually, after several years, he was able to leave this line of work and was able to begin working with persons with developmental disability. This was a good move for him and for our entire family. His current job is also stressful and dangerous (especially when working with violently mentally ill clients), but he doesn't have to hide his vegetarianism or his feminism anymore. He gets to be who he is. And we don't have to worry the way we did when he coworkers threatened him with violence or even suggested that they knew where he lived and might threaten his wife and children.

It was never that hard for me to be a vegan. At least no one ever threatened to beat the crap out of me for it. When I decided to give up meat as a teenager, my parents were very supportive and changed the family's diet to accommodate me. My extended family were often amused, but they took it in course and apart from a little teasing, their response was loving and respectful.

When I went away to school after one year at community college, I found that there was often nothing for me to eat unless I was willing to eat steamed vegetables and dry breakfast cereal. For three years I made myself a constant nuisance to the catering service that served my college. By the time I left the school, I had developed a relationship with the managers and cafeteria staff that resulted in change. I was particularly insistent about this change but I was helped by Muslim, Hindu and Jewish students who also were tired of a lack of respect for diverse food needs. Years later when I returned to my Alma Mater, I found that vegetarian and vegan options were included with every meal. So I lost weight and had to bitch and moan and even stomp around a bit when I was a college student--the result was change and respect for those of us who refuse to eat animal products for ethical or religious reasons. With such a result, even the anger I felt at the time, even the hunger I endured for days and weeks takes on a positive meaning in my memory. I am proud of those efforts and grateful that the dining hall management included so many reasonable people willing to educate me about their perspective and their work as I educated them about the needs of vegetarians and vegans. We had tensions, but we also had respect for each other and a sense that we were making progress toward mutual goals.

I do not think I had any real understanding of how difficult change is to achieve until I married my husband and my income was earned not by a man serving a church or seeing clients in a comfortable office but from a guy wearing steel-toed boots with tar stains on his Carhart. My expectation in situations of conflict is that I will apply reason, humor and knowledge to the situation with positive results. I don't hide my position or identity and expect that others will likewise approach me with honesty and respect. I do not tolerate condescension, arrogance, or irrationalism in an other's arguments or approach to me. When I learned that my husband was hiding his identity as a vegetarian, pagan feminist I was pissed. What the hell was wrong with him? When he cringed whenever I told one of his supervisors off, I had a hard time understanding. "No one treats me like his employee!" I said angrily. "No one treats my husband with disrespect." He had to explain to me that the men at work mocked him and told him to keep "his woman" in line. He had to explain that his supervisors would retaliate against him for my behavior.

This reality spun me around backwards. If a doctor treats me with condescension, I make a formal complaint and fire the bastard. If a teacher is incorrect in their analysis, knowledge or assumptions, I correct them. I've been doing it since I was in elementary school. If a policy is inhumane, I protest it and refuse to abide by it. If an administration is corrupt, I march and picket. I always thought that I did these things because I am strong. As it turns out, that was only a part of the story. Turns out that I've always done these things because I am privileged.

When I was living on my husband's working class paycheck and found myself subject to the sometimes violent and often unethical rules that govern these workers' lives, I found myself growing increasingly depressed. I could do nothing to change the fact that his boss would doctor the records so my husband lost his overtime hours or that the men had to pee in bottles because they weren't allowed to take breaks on the job. I could do nothing when the result of my husband becoming a whistle-blower on an issue that was endangering the public as well as breaking the law was a loss of his employment. He worked hard every day and they could still fire him. Nothing I could do about it.

So I began to see doctors to address the depression and found myself immersed in the allopathic nightmare of modern medicine. Weakened by drug therapies, I lost my ability to stand toe to toe with the "body mechanics" and plunged more deeply into a sense of helplessness. Before long, I was deeply depressed to the point where I could barely recognize myself. Where was the fearless young woman who tramped around her college campus in green hair and combat boots? Now I was overwhelmed with maintaining our little house and yard, doing laundry by hand when the machines broke down and doing my best to make a silk purse from a sow's ear. Still fighting to earn my graduate degree while having children, we lived in a trailer and lived day to day off credit cards which we used to pay the rent and buy groceries. Unable to pay our minimum balance on time, we were penalized with higher interest rates. As our debt increased, we were unable to make improvements on our trailer's electrical system which resulted in a small fire and the need to tear it down for scrap leaving us effectively homeless.

During all this, my husband worked. He did not grow bitter or disillusioned. He just kept working. I got my MA and went on for the PhD. He changed jobs and found himself in an environment that appreciated his sense of humor and gentleness, a place where being a feminist vegetarian was at worst a comical quirk of personality. I refused all medication and regained my voice with the body mechanics and found my depression lifted if by magic. We moved into an apartment in my grandmother and parents home where we are quite happy. There are four generations of us living together and helping each other. I can't express what a blessing it is to see my children growing up surrounded by the love and care of their grandparents and 91 year old great-grandmother. My husband and I are able to be there for them when they need the help of younger hands and now my grandmother is able to go on living independently because there are so many of us to ensure her health and safety in her own home. Most importantly, I am again immersed in a family culture of intellectual curiosity, social activism and confidence. None of us has much money but somehow, that all seems less important in this bustling, happy home.

What have I learned from this? I've learned that spunk and grit are products of our cultural setting and that when I was confronted with the realities of my husband's job, our poverty, and the stress of illness, I became a damaged human being. I remember going in to see my doctor after a particularly bad bout of depression and she said how it was hard to believe that I was sick because---get this---I combed my hair! I wanted to slap her. She saw people with depression and people with low incomes as being slobs who can't even manage the most basic level of self-care. I had to deal with this attitude from the social workers who handled our medical coverage and WIC (although I soon rejected both since I would much rather go without at all than deal with such treatment). I learned that the poor are treated reprehensibly and that to survive even two or three years of modest poverty was a giant achievement for me. I learned what it is like to go without food because I've used my credit card for groceries and now we can't buy both groceries and pay the minimum balance...I know what it is like to be in this situation only to hear someone tell me that the reason people are poor is because they buy themselves too many toys. F...that!

So now teaching working class community college students means something to me it could not have meant before. My father's family is solidly working class. In fact, he and his brother were the first to attend college. I was always a little ashamed of that side of the family even to the point of saying that really, only my mother's side counted. They were always so hard on me for being so studious. They maintained that it is a waste for a woman to go to college and that I was driving away the boys. God, how I resented their sexism and their narrow-mindedness! If I had not married a heavy equipment operator, I could not have looked past my resentment of my family's history. I would have judged my students. I would have heard the shaky grammar and noted their missing teeth and dismissed them as beneath me. I would have responded to their suspicion of higher learning as irrelevant with open disgust.

But I did marry a heavy equipment operator. I know about lay-offs and seasonal work. I know about going hungry and going without medical and dental care. I know about living in a ratty old trailer. I know what it is like to have some officious snot sneer at me when I have to ask for help. I've filled out a questionnaire that asked if I understood that alcohol is not good for babies! I think I understand a little better now why my hard-working grandfather would hear grand plans and say, "That's great, but does it put food on the table?" or why my grandmother would say, "Life isn't fair is it?" when as a teenager I squawked against injustice of some kind or another. I used to think they were cowards.

I don't think so anymore.


Friendly Mama said...

Wow. What a wonderfully honest, breathtaking story. Thank you for your willingness to put yourself "out there" for me to learn from your experiences. It seems to me that you have allowed yourself to be open to Divine guidance so that you would learn the compassion you now can have for others. Props to your gentle, vegitarian working-class man and the hard-core feminist who loves him!
Mary Linda

Struggle For Justice said...

I am passionate about
social responsibility.
In theory most religions
demand that their adherents practice
active compassion
on the underprivileged,
while in practice very few actually do.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a working class environment and can identify well with what you've written here. The power of privilege you mention here is worth repeating because I think this is a strong reason why the higher classes erroneously think that poor people choose poverty.

Reality is simply much, much different when you are poor...