At times the innocent hubris of helping professionals really gets to me.
"She got an A-minus! She got an A-minus! I can't believe it! It's so great! I'm so proud of her! So happy! So proud!" Joan (not her real name), the thirty something year old director of a women's mentorship program, went on like that all evening, at a dinner meeting of nonprofit directors that had received what was then called the Eureka Fellowship. Joan got the news about the grade on her cell phone as I arrived. She barely said hello, she was so beside herself with joy. "An A-minus!" was her refrain, amazed as she was by the grade. Joan couldn't concentrate on the food because she was so happy for Josephina, a forty-something single mother of three, and a client in her agency's women's group.
While the other executive directors of social service agencies were congratulating her, I was getting a bit ill to my stomach. The woman she was talking about, Josephina, was a Latina, just like my mother. It took a little introspection to arrive at why I became so offended by the big a deal Joan made of this, then it hit me...
Emphasizing the A-minus gave everyone the impression that Josephina must not be very smart at all. That's what people presumed about my mother, because she never bragged and only had a third grade education in Mexico. My mother was as smart as anyone and always thought of herself as capable of more than an A-minus. What if Josephina really had the capacity to get an A+ but Joan never recognized it and treated Josephina as less capable? If Joan acted this way in front of Josephina it would have been a put-down. Wouldn't it have been better to assume that Josephina was a smart, capable, solid A student, who almost got there? That would be a well-placed compliment. This appears to be a minor act, but those who come from more privileged backgrounds often don't understand the continuous and often small negative messages we send to those of lower social status.
Those negative messages accumulate and eat at you, because it isn't just the well intentioned who feed negative messages to the Josephinas of our world. At one end of the political spectrum, the poor are scorned as uneducated, lazy. Even certain presidential candidates portray them as likely criminals and rapists! It is sad when those who want to be helpful make some similar negative assumptions through back-handed compliments.
I didn't criticize Joan, though Mom certainly would have put her in her place. Well, maybe. My mother could deal with the outwardly racist or sexist. She felt they were stupid. But she, like most of us, had trouble confronting the well intended on these tiny incidents. Joan was well intended. But race, gender bias, classism, homophobia, immigration status, and all of the other prejudices that are ingrained and come out innocently need to be confronted. Passing the Civil Rights act or other policies will not rid us of racism, and we must confront our internalized prejudices openly if we are to resolve them. My well-intended colleagues need to recognize the assumptions they have internalized if they are ever to confront all the 'isms. We must get our own house in order. Combatting institutional and internalized racism and sexism means understanding that what we portray about those living around the poverty level either helps break negative stereotypes or feeds them. It is not about intent, or being a nice person. Joan was a very nice person. However, in talking with her, it was clear she never really got to know Josephina.
If we want the world to be a better, more inclusive place, we need to get to know each other better. What we will discover is that those at the bottom of our economic ladder are amazingly resourceful and contribute tremendously to society. They make remarkable decisions within limited options. They are not takers. If anything, they are a population we exploit. We need to begin our interactions as peers, even if our position in society gives us more status or "power."
If American society held a non-paternalistic--or better, a positive, unbiased view--of the working poor, then Joan's "compliment" would not generate this reaction on my part. But if you are from a lower socio-economic class, you not only struggle to live on poverty wages, but also must fight to keep your pride intact when so many, even the well intended, assume you are less capable. Even behavioral economists are getting into the fray by putting out studies purporting that scarcity and stress explain why the poor make, what those of us with money think of, as bad decisions. The data collected by the Family Independence Initiative shows just the opposite. "Bad decisions" are mostly due to loss of control over decisions and lack of options. If anything, 14 years of collecting data show that giving choices and control to families actually reduces stress and leads to better outcomes.
Writing about paternalism, philosophy professor Peter Suber, now with the Harvard Open Access Project, argues, "Paternalism is a temptation in every arena of life where people hold power over others." He continues: "Paternalists advance people's interests (such as life, health, or safety) at the expense of their liberty. In this, paternalists suppose that they can make wiser decisions than the people for whom they act. Sometimes this is based on presumptions about their own wisdom or the foolishness of other people, and can be dismissed as presumptuous. But sometimes it is not." I quote Suber here because I now believe presumptions by my professional colleagues in the social sector have hindered the war on poverty. The fact is many of us control--but do not fully understand--the social and economic experiences that make up the world of those we try to help. Thus, we are in danger of doing more harm than good. The acknowledgment Joan hoped to portray may not have been a bad act in itself, however, if Josephina had been internalizing all of the negative messages society throws at minorities and the poor, it may have damaged Josephina even more. More damaging is the impact society's negative view of low-income parents has on their teenagers and parental authority. But that is a future article.