Monday, March 11, 2013

On Passing

Passing. Passing counterfeit money, passing for white, passing for hetero, passing the salt, passing as upper-middle-class.

Counterfeiters use fancy paper and ink, nonwhites use their white-looking physical features, gay men and lesbians use heteronormative assumptions, and in our household salt uses a turquoise Vernon Kilns shaker c. 1940.

Twelve uses thrift shop clothing.

I realized this the other day when we got home from sewing machine hunting with a couple of nearly-new name-brand things for her - I think one of the shirts had its original retail tags still attached - and it occurred to me to ask her if she tells her friends that the new clothes she shows up to school in are purchased secondhand.

She gave me that special look that means I know absolutely nothing and used that special tone of voice that means I am the stupidest person on the planet when she told me that, no, she does not tell them.

I was a bit relieved that she does not - I was raised that it's gauche to talk about how much things cost and I am perfectly fine if observers assume that I pay full price for my jeans at Nordstrom - if for no other reason than to avoid giving anyone a chance to tease her about it. I feel confident that if I had told people that my clothes were handed down from my cousin, I would have been teased.

And then I made the connection. Just like lesbians can tap into hetero privilege by pretending to be straight and mothers can avoid discrimination to the extent that they can successfully pretend they don't have kids, Twelve is using secondhand clothes to fit in with her much wealthier peers. She's passing. It helps hugely that her dad has given her so many of the big-ticket items, of course, but it's Twelve's ability to find Nike shirts and Juicy Couture hoodies for a few dollars apiece that allows her to play the role of a much wealthier child. And the orthodontia - oh, the orthodontia.

She's successful in camouflaging our relatively lower income bracket, as far as I can tell. It helps that, if anyone asks what her mother does, the explanation that I'm a graduate student carries quite a bit of cache (in our town at least) without an expectation of a lavish lifestyle. Our car is crappy compared to the other cars in the school parking lot, but I don't feel like it sticks out unreasonably (and at least it isn't a minivan!). Twelve has so far declined all my suggestions that she bring friends home, which saddens me somewhat because I would love to have the home where the teenagers congregate, but I can't blame her because I've been to her friends' houses. Even if the parents agreed with me that our small, rented, century-old house is very cool, the kids probably wouldn't get it. I am getting to know the very nice mother of one of the very nice boys in Twelve's class; she is very down-to-earth and, while I am sure she would not judge us based on the fact that their house is probably five times the size of ours, I think I'd think twice about inviting her here, at least until we've spent more time together.

It's not as if I'm immune to wanting people to think I'm in a higher economic bracket than I really am. I don't go around saying that I buy used jeans or that I get my fancy boots at half price because we have a friend who works for the company.

On the other hand, if my mother could decode the symbols embroidered onto the back pockets of jeans (she can't - hell, I can't either, but I've figured out that it costs fifty bucks for each inseam inch beyond 32, and god knows that after a lifetime of too-short jeans I'll take 36 inches if I can get them), I'd better make sure she knows I paid ten percent of the original retail of those Habituals.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You, brave reader, are invited to commiserate, congratulate, reminisce, and/or respond lovingly in the comments. Nasty comments and negativity of all kinds may be submitted to