Monday, November 23, 2015

What the hell is "poverty appropriation"?

I grew up in a relatively poor family that relied on hunting for a lot of our food. As an adult, I've discovered that a lot of what I ate on a daily basis - meats like quail, duck, and venison - have become staples of haute cuisine, served on tiny plates in some of the world's most expensive restaurants. This has always struck me as a sort of mildly interesting curiosity, but little more; it's just what happens when rich people look for novel ways to distinguish themselves from the middle class.

Today, however, I discovered that I am actually a victim of poverty appropriation.

If it seems strange to only discover this after reading an article, bear in mind that when July Westhale worries about The Troubling Trendiness of Poverty Appropriation, what she actually means is "poor-culture appropriation". Bourgeois hipsters are not, that is to say, actually eating up all the deer, or buying up all the tiny houses, or using up all the welfare - things that I, as a poor person, might have noticed. Westhale does touch on a concern that the spoils from trust-fund anarchist dumpster-diving expeditions aren't "going to any folks of color," but there is of course no reason to think of food access in the United States as a scarcity issue. Nor is there any reason to consider the popularity of dive bars and grape soda to be significant drivers of capitalism's actual mechanism of immiseration: the appropriation of labor.

That is obviously the sort of appropriation that poor people universally give a shit about, and there's a reason why: something is actually being appropriated. Similarly, you might be able to piss off some Indians by "culturally appropriating" yoga - but if you really want a sure-fire way to annoy them, try materially appropriating their country for the British empire. There seems to be a direct relationship between the material consequences of appropriation and the odds that you are actually going to cause someone grief and hardship. Maybe that tells us something?

Westhale doesn't seem to appreciate just how subjective and idiosyncratic her grievance is. It's perfectly legitimate for her to experience the irony of hipsters slumming it as a bitter reminder of their privilege, and for her to begrudge them the choices she didn't have. Personally, I was actually less embarrassed about my childhood when I discovered the culinary prestige of wild game - I'm glad that it has been "glamorized", and my experience of poverty would have been worse otherwise. Obviously, these are deeply personal sensitivities, and our politics can't hope to provide universal prescriptions on how to navigate them as a society.

What we can do, however, is try to preempt feelings of resentment or embarrassment about poverty by trying to eliminate poverty itself. This means paying attention to poverty's material causes and fighting for a redistribution of wealth - not just a redistribution of whatever you can find in the dumpster.