Toothpaste, Katrina and My Recovery from Classism

During my second week living in Boston, I faced one of those frightening moments of choosing whether or not to come out in front of a group that could go against me. I’d been faced with coming out before, but this time it wasn’t coming out as a lesbian, but coming out as poor.

I had been raised with the understanding that nothing, except maybe a paycheck, differentiated me from a person in a homeless shelter. This was something I had been proud to know. But in front of these people, I felt ashamed of my experiences growing up poor and even ashamed of my experiences during Hurricane Katrina a few weeks prior. I felt that I would never belong.

This occurred during one of my first graduate politics classes. A classmate described her experiences working at a homeless shelter where she dispensed toiletry items such as toothpaste, soap and shampoo. She told the class that one woman refused to take the toothpaste offered to her because it didn’t contain baking soda. The student told the class, “She is homeless and getting the toothpaste for free and it’s frustrating that she still asks for something different. We get what we can. I would think she would be grateful for what she gets.”

A few days before, my partner and I met a couple from our neighborhood in the Boston Red Cross. They told us that our street had been inundated by water and that they had to be air lifted out from the post office. Until then, we hadn’t learned much about our neighborhood. The Red Cross gave us a sum of money so we went to Wal-Mart that evening, not only because it was cheap, but also because it was the place we purchased items for our apartment in New Orleans. It was a comfort to choose all of the same products. We found exactly the same dustpan and broom; the same mop bucket, the same colander and so on. We cried right there in the aisles, as we recognized each of the items that had been lost.

For a moment I thought that maybe the woman at the shelter wanted to use baking soda toothpaste during this period in her life simply because it was a familiar comfort. Everyone in the class nodded and agreed with the student that the woman’s class meant whether or not she was allowed a choice of toothpaste. Then I thought about the woman and why she chose baking soda of all things to clean her teeth and my childhood with no dental insurance. Once a month, Mama mixed baking soda with peroxide and brushed our teeth. The mixture removed a lot of the plaque and made our teeth feel smooth and polished, like getting a cleaning at the dentist. This had been something that I thought everybody knew how to do.

Sitting with the class that night, I felt ashamed crying in the Wal-Mart aisles about material things and ashamed about the baking soda toothpaste. I was a nuisance, just like the woman at the shelter. But unlike her, I remained silent.

During the eight years since, I’ve had similar experiences, which made me even more aware of the divisions between classes. I told those stories to friends I met along the way, but only the ones with the same class backgrounds. At the same time I entered a graduate writing program where I wrote personal stories from the perspective of the child me who grew up poor and was forced to move from place to place.

As I grew I became accustomed to not having things that other people had and to also leaving things behind. I felt that I must not be worthy of those things, a belief that I internalized and carried with me through adulthood and to Boston. Only the child inside of me felt safe enough to tell these stories to classmates, so I used her voice. Maybe this is because the child had no choice. She was the victim. She did the virtuous thing, the thing that takes the most endurance. She took what she got and made the best of it.

To some who haven’t been there, this may look like a proud place to be. For the ones who have, it is lonely and confusing. I’ve found that the worst place to be is being viewed as at the mercy of society.

It may seem that being denied a choice in toothpaste isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a human being. But being denied a basic choice puts her into a category of unworthiness. It creates more barriers within her.

Whenever I feel unworthy, which occurs when I pick up a pen to write or apply for a job or walk into a room of highly educated people, I sometimes think of the woman in the shelter. Not because she made the best of what she was given, but because when faced with obstacles, she chose to come out and to use her voice.

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