Every now and then, middle-class white privilege comes flying across the room and smacks me in the face, stunning me with it’s overwhelming contradictions and ignorance. Good old Dr. Phil delivered one of those slaps to me earlier this week. It was, in a single word, infuriating.
Forget for the moment the actual people involved in the show, because their stories are always so much more complicated and nuanced than what is presented in the 45 minutes of the show that their issues occupy. In the end their actual problems are scrubbed, simplified, and then painted into tropes of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, or ‘victim’ and ‘bad guy’ so that the audience can boo and catcall at all the right moments.
Can you tell that I am not a fan of Dr. Phil’s?
Anyway…the show I happened upon featured two older parents who were frantic because their unstable daughter was living on the streets with their two year-old granddaughter. Their daughter, who had a history of substance abuse, financial instability, and relationships with violent men had proven herself to be a frequent liar, which led her parents to distrust anything and everything she told them about how she was providing for their grandchild. The thrust of the show was whether or not the parents should report their daughter to CPS for her inability to care for their grandchild, as evidenced by her homelessness.
When Dr. Phil finally allowed their daughter to speak (shriek and whine, actually) on her own behalf, he questioned who was caring for her toddler while she worked as a stripper. His disdain for her choice of employment was evident in his tone. When she stated that her daughter was in a licensed daycare, Dr. Phil responded “At 10pm at night? You have your daughter at a daycare at 10pm at night?” It was obvious that he did not believe this possible.
How does this whole episode smack of middle-class white privilege?
Let me count the ways.
- Being homeless is not a crime, and being homeless with children does not make you an unfit parent.
We have to stop criminalizing poverty! Not making enough money to have secure housing does not mean that you are a negligent and abusive parent, in the same way that providing a nicely appointed home in a nicely groomed neighborhood does not prevent child neglect, domestic violence, or child abuse. While economic instability does increase parental stress levels, there is not a one-to-one relationship between poverty, homelessness, and child neglect/abuse. The idea that the parents should call CPS on their daughter just because she is homeless is evidence of the myriad ways that we pathologize poverty in this country. We consider the impoverished and especially the homeless to be persons of low character who have failed to successfully become adults, who are incapable of achieving stability without permanent outside assistance, and who obviously have no interest in creating stability for themselves or their family. This is an absolute lie. While I concede that there is an underclass of persons who are chronically homeless (usually due to mental illness and extreme substance abuse), chronic homelessness is a rare situation. The truth is that the majority of homeless people are only temporarily homeless due to unexpected financial challenges. Assistance focused on giving the homeless a chance to re-establish financial stability, improve personal health (often the loss of health becomes the impetus for becoming homeless), and increase skill levels (for more lucrative and stable employment) is the key to long term stability for the entire family.
- We cannot continue to denigrate sex workers.
Conservatives love to complain about unemployed single mothers and the public “handouts” they receive…and yet when that same young mother gets a job as a sex worker (stripper, prostitute, webcam girl, etc) she is labeled a ‘fallen woman’ and considered to be woman of low moral quality and a bad mother.
Let me get this straight: if she can’t provide for her child, she’s a bad mom, and when provides for her child in a job that you disapprove of, she’s a bad mom. You’ve got these women in a very tight bind. A single mother who doesn’t have significant job skills often finds that the best paying job is in the sex industry. That same mother often finds that the job that affords her the most time to be present to her children (while they are awake) is in the sex industry. Jobs in the sex industry often pay far better than unskilled “respectable jobs” like grocery cashier or medical assistant. I once listened to the complaints of a young mother of two whose divorce left her working 12-hour days as a dental assistant just so that she could earn enough money to put a roof over her children’s heads. By the time she got home at 6:30pm, her children would only be awake another hour or two before she had to put them to bed. She realized that returning to her job as a stripper (her job prior to her marriage) would earn her more money while allowing her to be home during the day when her children were awake (thus saving daycare costs). She paid someone to bathe her children and put them to bed and then sleep in the house while she worked from 8pm until 2am. The money she was able to earn was sufficient to pay for her evening childcare, pay off her student loans, and provide for her monthly bills while affording her an entire day to be at home with her children. How amazing that the stripper would have more time to be a good mom than the dental assistant that she used to be! Stop calling sex workers immoral and recognize that good single mothers will do almost anything—including sacrificing their self-esteem and even their bodily safety—to provide for their babies and this is virtue, not a moral failure. Shame on you for thinking otherwise! And no, I do not believe that compromising your morals or bodily safety is preferable to getting more skills, but getting skills costs money and takes time…something single parents rarely have in abundance. And by the way…single fathers struggle just as much as single moms, but often find that a job that risks their physical safety (i.e. traffic construction, high tension wire maintenance, etc) pays best…so they risk their physical integrity for their children as well, but at least the jobs they choose are respectable. Add ‘male’ to the list of privileges that slapped me in the face.
- Why does Dr. Phil not know that there are licensed daycares open 24/7?
Stop for a minute and think about all the places that are open 24 hours a day. Local pharmacies. Gas stations. Certain grocery stores. Police stations. Fire Departments. Every. Single. Hospital. Who do you think is staffing those places? Do you honestly think that every single parent working in those establishments has a parent/partner/friend who can care for their children while they work? What drugs are you ON?
Seriously, people, it stuns me that educated middle-class white Americans like Dr. Phil do not realize that it is normal to have certain licensed daycares be open 24 hours a day to provide for the single mothers and fathers who work the night shift so that they can benefit from the pay differential that you get when you work late night shifts. The tone of disbelief in Dr. Phil’s voice when he asked “10pm? You have your kids in daycare at 10pm?” was stunning to me. It illustrated a level of disconnect from the experience of persons who are not affluent, well educated, married, and WHITE that defies reason. Good Lord, how disconnected are we from the rest of the world when we conveniently forget that Emergency Rooms are fully staffed and open all night and that the people who work there have children, too.
This is what I mean when I say that middle-class, white privilege punched me in the face. I was horrified, not just at how Dr. Phil was treating the young woman he was addressing (because that was disturbing as well) but at the implications his words had to millions of other young parents struggling to care for their children. His caustic tone and thoughtless words condemned hundreds of thousands of women and men who choose to be sex workers so that they can provide for their children; condemned hundreds of thousands of men and women who work all night while their children sleep in day care centers just so that they can get the pay differential to afford fees for the Pop Warner football league and the gymnastics program their children desire; condemned the tens of thousands of homeless parents who struggle to keep their children safe and to provide food and clothing when housing is beyond their reach. **
It would be great if we could all live in an optimal environment, and no one is doubting that truth. It would also be great if we could stop condemning and pathologizing the folks struggling at the fringes; the folks living in the margins who are doing their best to survive every day. Let’s not make their burden any harder than it already is by heaping our scorn and disdain onto them. In fact…how about we do the opposite and offer them a hand? Not a hand-out, but just a hand…a hand of friendship, acceptance, and comaraderie so that they know that we see them and that we are willing to listen. After we’ve done that, and only after we’ve done that, can be begin to know what they really need and how best to help them find that optimal life, the optimal life that we so value. To do anything less is hypocrisy and disdain for the God that created us all.
** On a single night in January 2017:
An estimated 184,661 people in families — or 57,971 family households — were identified as homeless.
Almost 17,000 (16,938) people in families were living on the street, in a car, or in another place not meant for human habitation.
Over the course of 2016, roughly half a million people in families stayed at a homeless shelter or transitional housing program — 292,166 were children, and 144,991 were under the age of six.
Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/who-experiences-homelessness/children-and-families/