MIIS Speaks – Poverty Appropriation

By Jacob Dwyer and Pushpa Iyer

Thank you to everyone who participated in the first “MIIS Speaks” poll on the topic of poverty appropriation. Sixty-eight MIIS students, faculty, staff, and alumni filled out this survey. We were encouraged by the level of participation and especially the number of comments that were left at the end of the survey.

We hope your active engagement continues with this issue of the newsletter. To participate in the next survey on the topic of trigger warnings, visit this page.

A majority of the respondents believe poverty appropriation to be real. As seen in the responses to Question 1, 57.4% of respondents marked “Yes,” 10.3% responded “No,” and 32.4% were still unsure about poverty appropriation.

While a majority of our community recognizes the existence of poverty appropriation, they are uncertain about their current actions or their willingness to change. For example, when asked if wearing purposefully distressed clothing is a form of privilege and power, especially on our campus, respondents were more divided: 41.2% answered “Yes,”33.82% answered “No,” and 25% were unsure.

When asked if knowing about poverty appropriation makes the respondent want to change their lifestyle, 47.1% of respondents answered “No,” 28% respondents said “Yes,” while 25% were “Unsure.” When reading the comments, we learnt that some respondents marked “No” because they felt that they are not currently engaging in poverty appropriation. However, some of the other comments made us question if responding as “No” or “Unsure” to this section reflected a full understanding of how we make our choices.

We were not surprised by the level of discomfort that came across. Most respondents were quick to recognize poverty appropriation in shoes held together by duct tape, but did not see the connection to ripped jeans and other purposefully distressed clothes. Even harder for many, was the connection between poverty appropriation and tiny homes — a recent trend promoting minimalism in the face of environmental stress.

Poverty appropriation is not a new concept. Journalist and author Tom Wolfe suggested in his 1970 piece on ‘Radical Chic’ that the rich either “gild themselves in the lilies of aristocracy” or experience the “gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders.” This, he states, stems from the nostalgia de la boue (literally a ‘yearning for the mud’ but connotes an attraction towards “what is crude, depraved, or degrading”, according to Merriam-Webster), which has its roots in the Victorian era of Britain, where aristocrats revelled in the clothes of the downtrodden and acted like degenerates as a way of escaping their high-class social constraints.

In the 1970s with the rise of radical anti-capitalist and anti-materialist movements, people who came from wealthier backgrounds also adopted the styles of the marginalized in order to associate with the ‘revolution’. This came to associate rugged, worn clothing with being ‘cool’, resulting in a fashion industry boom. From the acid-wash jeans of the ‘80s to the holey t-shirts of the ‘90s, these clothes have continually glorified the experience of the poor who have no other option than wearing these clothes.

We wanted to respond to some of the comments made on the poll — the ones we thought would benefit the entire community:

“Buying these clothes, though, does nothing to harm the poor. Doesn’t it create tolerant spaces by making torn and worn clothes more acceptable?”

  • There is a difference between clothes that are distressed purposefully and clothes that become distressed from wear. Clothes that are purposefully distressed are obvious, and have become more and more obvious in recent years. Poverty appropriation is when you wear clothes that are purposefully distressed, not when you wear worn out clothes.  
  • No one who is poor will have the money to spend on ripped clothing. Ripped clothing is a luxury that we can afford because we have the money to spend on clothes that are not cheap, live and work in a building with controlled temperature, and spend little time outside. The poor do not have this choice and are victims to the vagaries of nature in their worn out clothing.
  • The trendiness of distressed clothing may have been born out of cultural movements, but this does not mean it did not and does not continue to have a negative effect on the poor.
  • The poor wearing worn-out clothing are refused entry into many spaces, while those of us who wear purposefully distressed clothing are welcomed into these very same spaces.
  • By glorifying these clothes, we are minimizing the experiences that the poor go through. Engaging in poverty appropriation creates an implicit bias against the poor in both the person engaging in it and onlookers. People begin to think: “If I can live like this, and it even makes me happier, I don’t see where the problem is in being poor.” This creates a view that ‘it can’t be that bad’ since people dress, live, and act that way every day! However, the opposite is true. For those who do not have a choice, each day is a struggle.
  • Acid-washing and sandblasting to get that distressed look can harm, and even kill, the people making the jeans. In the documentary RiverBlue, filmmakers found that workers were spraying jeans with harmful chemicals without masks. François Girbaud, the creator of the distressed look, has since reflected on his creation and says, “If people knew that the spraying of permanganate on your jeans to give you that acid-wash look was killing the guy doing the spraying, would you still want that look?”

“Distressed clothing is problematic but not tiny homes. Tiny homes reflect my desire to live simply and fight this capitalist and consumerist society.”

  • Buying tiny homes actually increases the price of land, increases the price of products that fit these homes, increases the property values – thereby making it even more difficult for the poor and pushing them farther and farther away from urban centers and services.
  • Tiny homes actually don’t decrease housing costs as there are not a myriad of them around. The market needs to be flushed with tiny homes for that to occur, and we are simply not there yet. In the meantime, the poor become further marginalized as items made for smaller spaces become more expensive.
  • The basic law of economics plays a large role — higher demand leads to higher prices. Take mason jars for example. As the integral tool in canning, mason jars emerged in 1858 to allow families to store goods while they were in season and cheaper, thereby helping the poor. However, mason jars have recently become an emblem of hipsters and, subsequently, gentrification, with some selling for upwards of $21 a piece.
  • Here are some stories of people who have come to learn how living in a tiny home isn’t actually as easy as they once thought (see here, here, and here).

“But what about the environment? Living ‘simply’ – downsizing, reusing, recycling, even dumpster diving — is necessary for environmental sustainability.”

  • Large volumes of wasted food in the US have prompted some groups to resort to dumpster diving to raise awareness.   Why are we dumpster diving in the first place? If we are truly losing billions of food to waste, how will dumpster diving solve this? Instead, let’s put action towards enacting policy that redirects that food to those who are in need, rather than glorify the struggle of food insecurity. Besides, those of us who can afford the food are probably taking it away from those who really need to dumpster dive to survive.
  • Professionals choosing whether or not to own a car have a privileged choice. If you choose not to have a car and instead live near public transport, that is a privileged choice. However, there are people who cannot afford a car and who MUST live near public transport. What happens to them when more and more professionals choosing to not own cars move into their neighborhoods? Gentrification begins and they are pushed out (usually further away) from their communities, jobs, etc. Public transit must be built in a way that creates access without pushing the marginalized from their own homes.
  • Environmental sustainability can be achieved without furthering the trauma of marginalized communities.

At the end of the day, discomfort on these issues is real and necessary for learning. July Westhale, the author of the original article penning poverty appropriation, says: “In writing this, and making note of these circumstances, I’m not trying to penalize or call out radical communities of people who are looking for alternative means to capitalism — capitalism is oppressive as hell, and I am all about alternative means. But I do think it’s time to start having conversations about how alternative means aren’t a choice for those who come from poverty.”

In all of our conversations on power and privilege, we return to the idea that in order to create greater equity, we have to give up some of the privilege we own. For this to happen, we need to first identify and acknowledge the privilege we have vis-a-vis others. Environmental, minimalist, or anti-capitalist campaigns we engage in can only be successful if we begin by examining our choices and decisions. Not doing so simply perpetuates trauma towards marginalized communities and continues the status quo. Choices are political and having a choice is the greatest privilege of all. Let’s use it responsibly.

Here are some additional resources if you want to know more about poverty appropriation: