Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Homeless Dog

The part of town where I work boasts some of the best restaurants my city has to offer, a vibrant arts community, beautiful parks, and a methadone clinic. Nowhere in this city have I seen such a consistent and jarring culture clash than this area. Being that I work here and have white skin, people with little exposure to poverty assume that I come from the same crop as them. Although this is almost entirely untrue,  I often find myself subject to classist and elitist comments which I have to ignore. This is because, unfortunately, their privilege is what gets me paid. They pay, not to have their privilege exposed to them, but for a pleasant experience. 

My complicity with their ignorance both perpetuates the system and my job security. Confusing mess. 

But what about when I’m “off the clock”? Am I truly free to espouse whichever views I choose? It didn’t really feel like that was the case this past month. I was walking along when I ran into one of our clients walking a dog. I made idle chit chat because I know this person from work and I didn’t want to be rude. I asked about the dog and the client then went on to tell me how long the pup takes on walks because it’s so curious, “[The dog] just stops and sniffs everything and then [dog] rolls in it! I’m like, I don’t know what that is! What if it’s a homeless person?” 

I immediately recoiled because I was so confused about what to say next. Keep in mind that not only is this person a client, but I was on my way into work. So, if I tried to get all “social justicey” (as my friends sometimes call it) and this person was offended, I’d then have to do business with them. So I let the moment pass amid the cloud of my nervous giggles. It was cowardly and I recognize that, but as Michelle Alexander says in her book The New Jim Crow, “Every system of control depends for its survival on the tangible and intangible benefits that are provided to those who are responsible for the system’s maintenance and administration” (72). 

I walked into work, disgusted by myself and saddened that I hadn’t seized an invaluable and probably rare moment with this person. Here was an opportunity for me, an ally, to advocate for a disenfranchised group of people. This was my chance to take the burden off of the minority to educate this client and perhaps shift their narrative of homeless people from one that is othering to one that would equip her with tools to combat those stereotypes, if only with herself. In my time at this position, I’ve learned one thing: the only benefit to picking up other people’s sh*t is that it keeps your hands warm. I think, moving forward, I’d rather be cold than complicit.

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