Capitalism forces folks to perform poverty in a way that is legible to a world hell-bent on not seeing us.


Every day I’m resentful of capitalism. And when I say capitalism, I don’t mean the binary, often well-meaning but willfully simplistic response of “Well, you have an iphone don’t you?” (I do not, but that’s besides the point). I mean the ways capitalism and its siblings (environmental and medical racism, antiBlackness and state sanctioned violence) and their cousins (scarcity, shame, humiliation) have impacted our relationships, our availability, and our concept of what is possible. 

Gentrification, for instance, isn’t just about how neighborhoods change or how long-term, intentionally neglected spaces become invested in once white folks inhabit them. Gentrification is also about how long it may take to feel at home again. How long it may take to identify or create community again in an unfamiliar place. What we might risk to get closer to, or get a snippet of, the world that existed before implosion, banishment, and rising, inaccessible rent. 

Under capitalism, loss and scarcity are unnaturally constant. 

When I was in elementary school, I was accepted into a gifted scholars program that provided breakfast on campus. The program, which from my perspective at the time was no different from any of the others, did not offer breakfast to students who had not been accepted. This meant that students were publicly warned and encouraged to have their parents fill out free breakfast forms. The cafeteria workers often claimed this would be the “last time” they received the food if the form wasn’t filled out, but besides the regular public humiliation that came along with it, the food was always there and given.

I think about this often, how the only thing that kept me from literally being on the other side of the breakfast line was the myth of meritocracy. I was, because of my test scores, considered special and “worthy” of a free meal. I never believed that story. That worth and money and potential are really all the same thing, or at least, related things. 

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I grew up in a full house. A house that accepted anyone who needed shelter, with a grandmother who knew what to add to a meal to make it stretch in case someone unexpected showed up. But when I got to college, or really when I changed high schools during the last five months of senior year, I learned to be willful in my forgetting of abundance. 

The story is that poor folks never have what they need because they haven’t worked hard enough. The reality is that capitalism, anti-Blackness, and respectability politics create those systems and storylines that embolden (perceptions of) scarcity. These perceptions, whether true or not, strengthen the policies, practices and harmful narrative that Black folks must be constantly producing. 

When I changed schools, I imagined my new friends coming over just like my old friends would.

But after visiting a new friend’s house, I realized that I could never invite her to mine. Her three bathroom, five bedroom home with her two parents and three sisters already in college couldn’t compare to the Section 8 covered, older sibling, one and a half parent household with two bedrooms and one bath I lived in. 

I had gone to her house because I made money on the side braiding and weaving hair. And I remember still, never being offered a snack and knowing that I would not stay for dinner, no matter how hard her invisible parents begged. This was not home for me. I would never feel comfortable in it.  

I think capitalism also played a role in the idea that we should compete or compare in the first place. At first we did this regularly in our AP English class. She’d made fun of the way I spoke and I then, in turn, schooled her (while our white instructor smiled) on what Hamlet was really about. I took a little solace in that but it never stuck. Eventually I confronted her privately and we agreed not to do that to each other again.

The reason why I never knew until then that I grew up poor isn’t because my family shielded me from reality, it’s because I grew up in an abundant household. In a place where my mother and grandmother and aunts and uncles were committed to building a world where there was no lack. 

Every morning we ate eggs and rice, or oatmeal. Every morning my grandmother knead the dough of our lives into something we were always proud of. And I am proud now. I miss it now. The comfort of being in a home comprised of folks who love and believe in you. Of living in a home where I believe in and love every one of its inhabitants, even when they/ we make mistakes. 

I miss the exploration, the house before the fire, my dead uncle’s voice, our neighbors. This is not just a story about how I grew up, but about the lie of scarcity and unworthiness. The ways capitalism and white supremacy normalize Black trauma and harm. The ways it requires Black children to either be completely innocent or irreconcilably guilty.

I am angry still, about the ways capitalism seeps into every corner of our lives. About the ways that it forces folks to perform poverty in a way that is legible to a world hell-bent on not seeing us. I am angry at the books and movies and studies that romanticize poverty and the not so gentle encouragements for those of us who grew up poor and are still broke do the same. I am angry about the fact that our lives are always metaphors, backdrops, and asides to a larger story. 

During this pandemic in particular, conflict feels bigger and more urgent regardless of where it originates. At the same time, the pressure to have the right answer, to be an expert at modeling difficult conversations, and to do it all without having it modeled is in every zoom meeting, in every personal engagement, in our uncertainty.

I, for one, am replaying all the ways I could’ve shown up. All the ways I have disappointed and let folks down. All the times when I could’ve been something other than exhausted. But in that, I’m also realizing how capitalism and ego play a role in these made up selves of “right” and “wrong”. 

The frustration and terror that some of us are navigating by having to face ourselves is the work. The work is committing to remind ourselves especially amidst the sorrow that we are whole, capable and worthy. Even when we harm, when we make mistakes, when we don’t get it right.  

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I am learning that replaying all the ways I could’ve or should’ve done something leads me to the same awful lie of scarcity that capitalism produces. That production relies on interconnected confirmations of unworthiness, anxiety, distrust, and loss. It is the antithesis of community, belonging and mutual support.

Many of us have had individual experiences of bringing something to attention and in turn being gaslit, retaliated against and/or ostracized. These experiences have prevented some of us from trying again. 

But narratives of scarcity do not serve us. 

During this “pandemic”, I want to get more practiced in sharing my commitments, requests and needs. I want to get better at asking and answering vulnerable questions. I want to remember how capitalism always creates the conditions that make it easier to choose into distrusting each other than to explore why that mistrust is there in the first place.

With that recognition, I offer these questions:

  1. What is your relationship to abundance and scarcity? And how has that impacted the way you move or don’t move?
  2. How has your approach impacted your relationships?
  3. How has it impeded your ability to choose?
  4. Has it served you? How?
  5. What story are you telling yourself about yourself?
  6. How does this relate to the conditions and expectations you place on others?
  7. Is the story still true?