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A note on charity and cultural competence

May 10, 2011

One point I meant to make in the last post, but was running long by the point it occurred to me: I was, at least, very glad to see that the New River Community action employee interviewed for that Washington Post piece appeared to be local.* And thus more likely to understand the culture of the people she’s dealing with, and also less likely to look down on them and expect them to grovel and show (a twisted kind of) “gratitude” for charity. You don’t have to come from the culture in question to show some sensitivity, but it helps.

I couldn’t help but remember one incident that demonstrates how not to administer assistance programs. For a number of years while I was in high school and beyond, because my parents were usually disabled and unable to work, we had no health insurance.  This was mitigated somewhat by being able to get basic GP care for like $2 a visit–and a very, very limited formulary of low-price prescriptions–through a program run by Free Clinic of the New River Valley. (Most of the physician time was donated; the copays went toward administrative costs.) That was definitely better than nothing at all, and I’m glad that a lot of doctors were willing to contribute their time. The agency had a near-total staffing change after we’d been going through them for a few years, however–with almost no local people working for them anymore–and the attitude toward people who needed help also changed.

When I was probably 18, my eligibility card needed renewed, and my mom was too sick or busy to go with me to do that. (Nobody, including me, knew then that I really do need help with realtime interactions like that, not being great with either auditory processing or realtime verbal communication.) So, I got to go alone. And it was an absolutely horrible experience.

That was during the time period that my stepdad’s unemployment had run out, neither parent was able to work, and nobody was receiving disability benefits though my stepdad was in application process limbo. We had no income, period, other than what I was earning on the side for things like gas to get to and from a nearby college, and textbooks. (I pitched in what I could, but education-related expenses were given priority there.) None.

Even before writing the last post, it had occurred to me that we were actually very lucky in a way, being downwardly mobile rather than longer-term multigenerationally seriously poor; our extended family was able to provide a lot of cushioning, and make sure our lights weren’t cut off, we were fed, we had heat in the winter, we could get more expensive needed medication, etc. (This became very obvious, reading Scalzi’s Being Poor and a lot of the comments. We never had it that bad, thanks to gadugi.) I am very thankful for that. But, as I pointed out before, this pattern is only to be expected in our culture if there are family members who are able to help. (ETA explicitly: AFAICT, nobody is likely to consider this kind of help “income”, but just the way things work. Though, the way food prices have skyrocketed, I’d hate to think of the price tag that could get put on the average bag of tomatoes and peppers out of Cousin Nancy’s garden–very possibly organically grown, no less! 😐 /ETA)

The woman doing the interview started out with that fixed, condescending smile that was already giving my stomach a sinking feeling when I walked in. When I said that we temporarily had no income, she screeched, “But how are you living? You’re alive, aren’t you?!”–sounding for all the world offended by that–and it went downhill from there. She continued to suggest that I was a big fat liar, and badgered me for a good half hour to pry out any additional sources of “gift income” I had *smirk* “forgotten”. You know, besides my grandmother paying our electric bill. And how the hell is a kid who doesn’t handle the household finances supposed to know these things, anyway?!

The whole point was humiliation, emotional abuse, and proving some obscure point about lazy lying Hillbilly pieces of crap who should get off their asses and work anyway so that other people don’t have to keep bailing said undeserving asses out of messes. (OK, a very commonly perceived point. But based in so many unshared assumptions that it still strikes me as depending on some obscure version of logic/reality.)

I must observe again that any full-grown person who needs to boost their fragile feelings of superiority on a teenager’s or younger kid’s back has a serious problem. And I have run into a lot of them.

I may have very little idea how to deal with a verbal onslaught like that–really not how I was expecting that kind of interview to go–but I at least managed not to give her the satisfaction of crying in the office. That waited until I was safely in the car again.

Even worse, at that time I had no way of understanding how things had gone wrong other than that I’d somehow messed up again in some way I could not recognize, BTW.

And, yes, I suspect that my unapologetic demeanor going in–and refusal to grovel and cry–made her angrier. Because poor people don’t deserve any dignity, and need to show that they appreciate how inferior they are. (I have had problems with this kind of thing in multiple contexts where I was deemed lower on some kind of bullshit hierarchy, since I just don’t do submissive body language. This is another intersection of culture and neurodivergence, AFAICT; nobody outside certain settings like this and school ever expected it out of me. Now I mostly don’t do it out of principle or sheer bloody-mindedness, depending on your perspective.)

I feel sorry for the other people who had to deal with this employee, with the total lack of cultural understanding and delusions of superiority. That was only exascerbated by my own disability, though having dealt with that type in other settings, she’d have probably become very hostile in a different way in response to someone else’s “talking back” to her rather than becoming progressively more stiffly and frostily polite like I defaulted to.

That’s the kind of help that nobody needs.


* Yeah, when you can visually pick out people at 20 yards and determine based on their “wrong” appearance that they’re part of a group you look down on/despise, you’re a racist. On top of being a horrible xenophobe and cultural supremacist. Especially when you’re zooming in on people’s “wrong”–i.e., non-European–features to differentiate–and applying exactly the same freaking dehumanizing set of stereotypes, with added imagined inbreeding–all the while telling yourself that you can’t be a racist because Those People are horrible, backward (and, as Everyone Knows, racist) White Trash that you’re probably doing a favor by showing the Right Way of doing things. They can’t possibly be who they say they are if they try to say they’re not even White, in the first place. (And if they have African features, they can’t be anything but Black Hillbilly Trash, who let all other African-Americans down–when you’re a total outsider to any of the groups in question.) Throwing in that attitude doesn’t mitigate the racism, it only makes it more galling; give me honesty any day.

Yep, ran into a lot of that shit growing up in Radford. I got called “white trash” or just plain “hillbilly trash” (white implied) to my face more than once–even when we we had a middle-class income and standard of living, and identified as Native. I also did not have the knowledge to make sense of the dynamics involved, most of the time, beyond the obvious classism and regional bias.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2011 3:35 pm

    This. So this.

  2. May 11, 2011 7:14 pm

    I feel like the hatred/dislike towards appalachian type people in Radford/Southwest Virginia towns is almost a kind of self hatred. Like they’re so invested in proving that they’re civilized and not like those people out in the rural areas a few hours drive away. I sometimes joke about how backwards it is and I’m happy to be living in a larger city with public transportation etc, but growing up in that area is always going to be a part of me and I don’t really regret that fact.

    I remember being at a camp when I was younger, out in a place that you had to drive past a good number corn fields to get to, and once we had a jug band come in. They tried to sing some Appalachian folk songs that people might be familiar with and tried to involve the audience with singing and such. And the audience did join in with them and were obviously having a good time (although the band declined to sing “Sweet Home Alamaba” when asked) and the group obviously knew what they were doing as musicians. Afterwards, though, everyone (okay, not EVERYONE) was talking about how they were so mature that they were beyond things like singing “Crow Black Chicken” and acting like it was a total affront that a lowly jug band had deigned to encroach upon their presence. I didn’t understand that at all.

    • urocyon permalink
      May 24, 2011 12:29 pm

      Good analysis there. “There but for the grace…”, and all that. 😦

      I sometimes joke about how backwards it is and I’m happy to be living in a larger city with public transportation etc, but growing up in that area is always going to be a part of me and I don’t really regret that fact.

      Same here, actually. There are both good and bad points, living both places, but yeah. BTW, I’m really appreciating having public transport available since I found out I probably have epilepsy and don’t feel safe driving, even if that means dealing with the London crowds and noise. 😉 Lack of investment in the decaying infrastructure in general, back home? Not so great to live with. They’re getting cheaper and privatizing more things here all the time–with the cost-cutting and reduced maintenance and safety inspections you’d expect, and really not want with passenger trains and the like!–but the difference was really striking the last time I was back in VA for months.

      I used to feel like I had to distance myself and act like I was too cool for “hick” things like folk music. Now, that insecure attitude embarrasses me a lot more than jug bands. And I still don’t much like them; give me the Stanley Brothers any day. 🙂

  3. May 20, 2011 3:52 am

    I think that this is pretty true, in general—when we were dealing with San Francisco’s Human Services office, there was this pervasive attitude amongst the public assistance social workers that the people there didn’t deserve to be receiving money from the government. I remember a worker who seemed to be completely incredulous that we were in full-time education, and didn’t have 20 hours a week of work in order to qualify for food stamps, and seemed to totally disregard the fact that we had a disability. She constantly repeated herself, with a tone suggesting YOU INGRATES HOW DARE YOU APPLY FOR THIS.

    The same applied to a case manager who was…incredibly cisprivileged, and misgendered trans people repeatedly, and when called on her privilege, she would insinuate that we should be grateful that she was ‘trying’, and would make all sorts of excuses for herself.

    It seems that a lot of these social workers/nonprofit employees seem to…lack a great deal of empathy for their clients, and are so bound by their own privilege that they can’t communicate effectively with them and end up being more insulting or hurtful than helpful.


    • urocyon permalink
      May 24, 2011 12:11 pm

      Yeah, that seems to be an unfortunately common attitude. The last paragraph, involving empathy and privilege? Exactly. 😦

      Some of the attitude problems just seem to be amplified when there’s a bit of a cultural divide, and/or they think they’re dealing with an (extra) underclass less deserving of respect to begin with. Very similar with the cisprivilege.

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