i have the right to claim me
by Elaine J Laberge, Oct 1, 2020
“I am” includes all that has made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact: it is already biographical. (John Berger)1
i am my mother. i ammy great aunty. i amthe generations of women before me. i amshaped by an unknown lineage of women whose lives were erased and discounted before they were born. i amembodied inmy mother’s hands:
A student says, “Aren’t you ashamed of your hands? They look so old!” The only sound her shocked, indrawn breath. The visible signs of her pain and shame is the stiffening of her shoulders, the tightening of her jaw, the infusion of a red slash across her cheekbones, just under her sunken, saddened eyes, and the heat that envelopes her ears surrounded by a close-crop haircut. She clenches her hands into fists so no one can see inside. She didn’t know her hands were weathered and old before their time until she entered onto the higher education landscape.
My red worn hands are symbolic of a life shaped by the violence of colonial classism and enforced generational poverty. How often I despised my mother’s hands. They were beaten red and calloused. They felt like sandpaper. They looked like dried jerky; I have my mother’s hands:
I scrub my skin raw, but I can’t wash away the stain of poverty. It’s deeply embedded in my self-identity. The shame was bearable until university—a place I believed was never meant for people like her. Now, I live in fear of being outed and ousted.
This is part of my story. As a child, I struggled silently against the relentless burn of hunger and uncertainty. I scavenged on my rural childhood landscape to silence the sting of emptiness. I wished school might offer me a place for sanctuary and escape; however, solace was elusive. I sensed there was no space for me in education: I was Other. I was labelled as deficit and not worthy of an education. I was storied as unable and unfit to learn before entering grade one. On many landscapes, I was that girl from that family destined to become another one of those girls. I learned early on not to trust educational spaces. I learned how to work and survive but never thrive. I silently accepted damaging assessments and (mis)recognitions. Today, the transient life i amliving in university continues to be shaped by my experiences of growing up in poverty and relentless class-based discrimination. The challenges I face in this place are daunting—and, often lived silently in the shadows and margins. Yet….
i aman underclass woman who dares—dares to be as popular as a mosquito bite—and, dares to be the elephant in the room. I dare to cross over the wrong side of the social class tracks to access a university education with a culture not meant for people like me. I dare to challenge the eurocentric dogma that poverty-class students’ lived experiences are inconsequential and merely anecdotes. I dare to suggest that the dismissal of ancestral and kinship knowledge of students from a poverty-class heritage is violence. I dare to make the echoes of intergenerational poverty and poverty discrimination reverberate. I dare a lot for those who came before me, those couldn’t come before me, those who were pushed out, those I walk alongside and those who might come after me. I dare to centre social class in intersectional decolonizing work. I dare to make visible how Canadian universities perpetuate class elitism and generational poverty. I dare to push the privileged pillars of Canadian universities. I dare to imagine otherwise for the underclass Other. I dare a lot. i amnot a dare devil; i amafraid, a lot.
i am (mis)recognized by acronyms, shorthand, air quotes, monikers, slurs, binaries and gendered slams: low SES, first gen, SES “disadvantaged,” white trash, dangerous Other, moral outcast, deserving–undeserving poor, and welfare queen. Plus, the breadth of subject-descriptors i amsubjected to: revolting, disgusting, illegitimate, wasteful, pointless, and useless. Simultaneously, i amsupposed to: 1) Erase my not quite white identity2 and my poverty-class heritage, 2) Hide the shameful secret of coming from poverty in the pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ closet, 3) Assimilate into the middle-class higher education culture. Identity erasure, in order to pretend to be the right kind of colonial citizen, worthy of anything including an education, manifests in a multitude of ways that decimates individuals, families and communities across generations.
i am knocking on the door—every door
i am not one-dimensional, a singular story or a classed cliché. This is not the end of my story or the story. Colonial class-based narratives, myths, fairy tales and dogmas must be interrupted—turned inside out and upside down. Every day, I rail (some would say like a mosquito in your ear), “How much longer shall we go on cloaked in the faux security of the myth of the classless society? Unchecked structural inequality and inequity is killing us!” For the most part, I am swatted away; I keep coming back like a pest. You might ask, “Why bother?” Well, classism is one of the central pillars this nation was colonized upon, yet, social class continues to be ignored. So, the individual is blamed and pathologized while ignoring the structural reasons for historic and ongoing poverty discrimination. The result? A swath is cut through the population who thus, remain disenfranchised, neglected, excluded and erased—and, unable to contribute to creating a healthy decolonized society. Further, even though education is crucial to mitigate (generational) poverty, the underclass continue to be excluded and punished in overt, hidden, and insidious ways. Inclusion too often equates to assimilation! Moreover, class-void equity, diversity, inclusion (EDI) and decolonization strategies create social characteristic silos (e.g., gender and race versus sexual orientation and ablebodiedness), thus, homogenizing folks and dividing categories of people. How, without a critical understanding of the intersections of oppression and identity—including social class—can we possibly tackle systemic poverty, racism, sexism and ableism? This is why, before, during and after my MA, I have been knocking on the door—every door—using story, poetry, playwriting, creative non-fiction and in the trenches talks to make visible why we all need to care about poverty and the reverberations of colonial classism. But it’s not enough to reach one person at a time. This knowledge mobilization approach creates ripples, however, an interactive, engaging and accessible broader approach is needed for my doctoral research and knowledge mobilization—digital storytelling.
i am part of creating new stories to live by
i am a collaborator, community-builder, connector, advocate and occasionally a fearless social justice warrior. Concretely put, my research and knowledge mobilization…. Well, it’s got to mean something beyond me. And, just as importantly, there are so many folks waiting to hear stories that help to unpack social class, understand inequality and inequity through a class-based lens and experience how things must be and can be different. Stories of systemic poverty violence must not continue to be ignored, silenced and overshadowed. Canada’s colonial social class hierarchy kills lives, families, communities and hopes and dreams. Yet, in order to create new stories to live by, first, we have to tell and hear the stories of past and present. Digital storytelling holds profound potential to be healing, empowering, evocative and fundamental to combat systemic discrimination and injustice.
i am not a success story or a poster child for anything. I suppose the only adjectives that describe me are tenacious and innovative. i ampart of a burgeoning grassroots underclass sisterhood of solidarity movement in Canada. Through storytelling, we’re audacious. We’re learning to reframe how we’re storied by the centre—by Power. We’re kicking the mis and brackets out of (mis)recognition. We’re (re)discovering and (re)claiming the amazingness of ancestral and kinship knowledge and heritage. But it’s hard. Coming out of the social underclass closet is dangerous and the violence is swift. Unpacking the colonial class-based narratives planted in us is painful. Not all women from a poverty-class heritage have the capacity to tackle any or all of this. I do. I mean, I do, with community and this includes learning alongside fellow students and mentors. My contribution is not to speak for others, appropriate or co-opt stories that are not mine or mine to tell or colonial white-wash, exploit or sensationalize lived experiences. What I will bring to the Digital Storytelling Research Project is simply a critical and relational way of understanding and approaching identity, belonging and hope for an equitable and just society. i am also a whole lot of radical imagination.
Elaine J Laberge is a Phd Candidate/ABD in the Faculty of Education at the Univerity of Victoria. She is a Vanier Scholar (2018-2021) and will be completing her doctorate in August 2021. Her research is at https://echoesofpoverty.com/phd-research/
Thank you to Tara Brabazon, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, who came up with the mascara title, “i have the right to claim me” on the spot
1. Steedman, C. K. (1987). Landscape for a Good Woman. Rutgers University Press.
2. Wray, M. (2006). Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness. Duke University Press.