I Don’t Understand My Black Middle Class Friends

A more personal take on how my experience with poverty makes me an outsider to those who are Black and of relative means

Donald Earl Collins

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“Outside Looking In” cartoon (cropped), April 22, 2010. (Jack Ohman, The Oregonian).

Since my eleventh birthday in 1980, poverty has been one of the defining features of my life. Between 1988 and 1999, I would go through three periods of significant unemployment, a two-and-a-half-year period of underemployment, and five days of homelessness. Some of this I went through growing up in Mount Vernon, New York. Some of this I experienced while living in Pittsburgh with either a master’s degree or a doctorate to my credit. It wasn’t until six months before I turned 30 before I had broken into the American middle class. Even with this, I have experienced occasional underemployment and wage theft, and will likely be paying on my student loans until my sixtieth birthday. I’ve been keenly aware of my working poverty, welfare poverty, and relative poverty over the years, even once I found my way into a middle-class income. Often because so many in my life couldn’t help but flaunt their wealth and their ways of viewing the world.

With my memories of poverty and debt a constant companion, it has always been difficult to relate to my more materially well-off friends, acquaintances, and professional colleagues, White and of color. It’s hard to make small talk about my personal life when the main themes include domestic violence, misogyny, child abuse, a virtual religious cult, and poverty. It’s doubly-hard when some of them share in the common cause of breaking through despite racial oppression, yet somehow possess no understanding of the poverty with which I have lived and fought against. These days, I generally lead a middle-class lifestyle. But my job’s precariousness and my past experiences leave me in the role of an outsider whenever I interact with more comfortably living Black middle class folk.

My first encounter with this hard truth was a few weeks before the start of eighth grade. I took my older brother and my two toddler brothers on a long walk into the affluent sections of Pelham, Eastchester, Bronxville, and Mount Vernon before leading the way back to our impoverished apartment building.

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Donald Earl Collins

Freelancer via @washingtonpost | @TheAtlantic |@AJEnglish | @Guardian; American Univ. & UMUC history prof. Invite me to write/speak: donaldearlcollins@gmail.com