March 22, 2007


Some years ago I was at a party where I was introduced to a banker. We had a conversation that has haunted me ever since.

I had asked him about a study I read that said that minorities have a harder time getting services at banks than white folks. His response shocked me. He said that it wasn't true, but that he knew what they were talking about, and that it was the people's fault and not the bankers. He went on to "explain" how, "when white people come to the bank they have everything they need: ID cards, bank books, tax records, etc. When black people come they never have the right card or the right form, and then they get mad and make a scene as soon as they have to wait. It's their own fault."

I was taken aback by his coarseness and his racism.

Nevertheless, I know what he meant. In religious life I have spent a lot of time working in social relief services; indeed this is a lot of what we do, either performing social services or trying to get someone else (i.e. the civil authorities) to provide them. But often it's hard for poor folks to take advantage of the services that are there because they lack the basic skills needed to use them.

So at times I've shocked myself by questioning the liberal/social service/social justice model I've been brought up in both in my family and my religious order.

I wonder if the whole idea of "social services" or the idea of using them is in itself a bourgeois idea; to take advantage of a social service, whether it be a bank or a food pantry or the unemployment office, requires a very bourgeois skill set: being able to take care of an ID card, not losing your papers, waiting patiently for your turn, being polite in order to smooth over stressful and awkward interactions.

These are skills that good middle class children are taught from an early age, but either because the misery and fatigue of poverty have robbed people of them or because they are not part of the culture of poverty in the first place, often the poor lack these things. And then the problem ceases to be a lack of services for social welfare, but the inability of people, culturally, to take advantage of them.

This reflection really bothers me, to be honest, and I'm not sure what the implications are.


Eleanor Burne-Jones said...

I have this same dilemma in introducing concepts of non-violent or person-centred communication to people. Im so aware that when someone with no church background comes into our home, and the kids are playing, I'm quietly encouraging no name calling, etc etc, and I'm expecting a cultural change in them. LIkewise, if I go into a church congregation and facilitate a church health programme which includes healthy communication, I become a cultural agent in that church basically demanding everyone get on the 'class escalator'. We are used to non-violent communication amongst the professionals around us, but in a church called to be alongside the poor this becomes a real dilemma. We want to bring in conflict reconciliation skills, but how to do it?
Eleanor, Sister under private vows, Penzance

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for your reflections, Eleanor. It's good to hear from you. It's good to have the confirmation that there are other ministers who know what I'm trying to get my head around.

Ladderman said...

I would recommend anything Ruby payne has written on generational poverty as a worthwhile exlanation of the phenomena we discuss here. To some it may seem to be a rehashing of the obvious, but it would likely be a revelation to your banker friend.

myosotis said...

If you put it on a larger scale, it is the same situation that poor countries face with respect to the rich western cultures. The inner turmoil, tribal warfare etc existing in Africa, for example, make it impossible for the citizens of those countries to achieve self determination. More often than not, this suits the rich countries just fine.

Unknown said...

That "banker" would have been cast in the role of the fool were this tale to unfold in a play of Shakespeare's era. His status as such frees him to speak openly without fear of reprisals from the king. The more indelicate truths of life are sometimes given voice by such fools, and we are left to ponder whether the messenger is truly as vile as the words he speaks, or simply a fool. (the fool is left only to ponder where to obtain the best deal on Bukof)

Mike Farley said...

There is an eye-opening article here based on Payne's work that addresses the question of communication among the generationally poor. We must be careful not to make either of the two extreme assumptions here, either the banker's assumption that his world-view is the only correct one (i.e. right) OR that it is entirely incorrect (therefore wrong, and by extension, the world-view of generational poverty is right). It's different. See Feinstein's statement (quoted in the article) about inability to use abstract thought.

There isn't room to do justice to this in a comment, even if I had the background. But the challenge, to me, is to avoid trying forcibly to impose "our" world-view on "them" (the banker) OR trying "ourselves" to adopt "their" world-view - which renders us impotent, and is rightly seen as patronising by the minority. Cf. some of the discussions with, and within, the Black Panther movement in the 60s... were the Panthers more "right" than MLK?

Mike Farley said...

I can't resist adding to my previous comment the conclusion of the Ruby Payne article I linked to earlier. It really opens one's eyes to the immense value of education, and of the duty I feel we have to pray for educators, and for those who are responsible for funding education. She says:

'First of all, students from generational poverty are going to need direct teaching to build cognitive
structures necessary for learning. Secondly, the relationships that will motivate them to learn need to
be established. Third, hidden rules must be taught so they can choose the appropriate response if
they so desire.

This is a beginning to address their learning. Are they less capable or less intelligent? No. They
simply have not been mediated in the strategies or hidden rules that contribute so much to success in
school and then at work.

Will we save all children from generational poverty? No. However, if we would make a difference
for an additional 10 to 20 percent of the students, it would make a significant impact for those
children and for our future as a country. As playwright Noel Coward stated, "Our children are a
living legacy to a time we will not see."'

Brother Charles said...

Thank you everyone, for your comments, and for your thoughtful suggestions and directions to take in a very delicate reflection.