Elizabeth Chin, anthropologist
Elizabeth Chin is associate professor of anthropology at Occidental College, where she also is director of the Multicultural Summer Institute. Her recently published book, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture, has been named a finalist for the 2002 C. Wright Mills Award.
My work as an anthropologist is aimed at enlarging our understanding of the ways in which poor and working class kids of color engage with consumption — and to challenge popular stereotypes. But turning the tables is also important. For about six months, I have been working on a journal of my own consumer life, which I’m calling “My Life with Things.” This week, you’ll see five entries from that journal. The project is highly personal, but it has a purpose that goes beyond self-documentation. As someone who has long studied consumption and is deeply critical of it, I’m painfully aware of my own deep ties to the world of consumption. Ultimately, it is my hope that this intensive self-observation can serve as a springboard for further exploring contemporary commodity consumption in all its aspects.
Monday, 15 Jul 2002
LOS ANGELES, Calif.
What is it about American consciousness that makes almost all of us convinced that we’re poor while everyone else is living it up, except for the unworthy poor people, who deserve to be living like rats anyway?
I don’t even believe in those ideas and yet I have them some of the time. Especially the everybody-is-living-better-than-me bit. I drive around Los Angeles (or wherever I’m driving), peering into people’s yards, trying to imagine what living in their houses or neighborhoods is like, sizing up the worth of their real estate, deciding in a self-serving way that though they might have more material wealth than I do, their lives cannot possibly be as rich and rewarding (since as Dickens knew, being poor is so very interesting), and at the same time yearning in the most awful way to have whatever it is they’ve got. A river-rock craftsman front porch. Or Smith and Hawken gardening tools. A space-foam bed. A live-in nanny. Trust funds.
I remember hearing someone on the radio once, describing the United States as the richest country in the world and at any time in history. In Haiti, they call the rich people the “MRE,” which is short for the Morally Repugnant Elite. That’s me. That’s us. As a nation, we are the MRE of the entire world. And of all of history.
I realize how rich I am every time I go to the Third World, which is the only place outside of the U.S. that I’ve ever traveled. (Well, last summer I went to London, my first non-Third-World foreign trip, and thought, this is why people get into tourism; it’s so easy, you can just jump on a subway). What I learn, when I travel, is that I am not just privileged or not-actively-poor; I am rich. It’s a lesson that I appreciate, but it’s a lesson that also leaves me extremely uncomfortable, in part because some part of my psyche is truly dependent upon viewing myself as deprived.
To be an American (and I use that term on purpose, because I usually avoid it) in the Third World is to have the opportunity — even, perhaps, the obligation — to face up to some very big realities about one’s own wealth. Fundamental to this are the kinds of relationships that can exist between Americans and those who live in the Third World, because despite our ever-so-populist pretensions, even for liberals like me, it is simply impossible to get around the fact of our richness and their poverty. We want to somehow pretend that, despite being rich tourists, we can meet “them” just person to person, that our richness, which is invisible to us, shouldn’t matter to “them” either. We’re offended if we feel used. What if they don’t like us for ourselves but rather for our ability to waft in and then out of their lives, leaving a trail of dollar bills for them to follow, Hansel’s trail of breadcrumbs to our candy land of plenty?
I first realized that I was an agent of the MRE when I went to Haiti. In the U.S., the closest I have ever come to an American president was almost running into Bill Clinton when he was on his first campaign, as I was going down the stairs at Grand Central Station and he was on his way up. Someone else actually stopped and talked to him. From 20 feet away, I could feel Bill’s charisma — and it’s not a lie, it’s that moment that made me vote for him. Not that I was going to vote for the other guy anyway, but that moment made it a positive choice, because all of a sudden I felt that I liked Bill.
In Haiti, getting close to the president was so much easier than some chance almost-encounter in a train station. Suddenly, I could do things like: go out to dinner with Fritz Mevs, one of the very richest men in Haiti. Perform in front of the president. Meet the minister of culture. Hang out with the man who is now the leader of the political opposition. Little old me from New Haven, Conn., and it wasn’t because I was politically savvy or especially beautiful or anything like that. (Although having an especially beautiful friend who was the object of Fritz Mevs’s lust was helpful.) Being American, and knowing people who worked for NGOs and USAID meant automatic entree into the highest rungs of society, at least to brush shoulders.
It was slightly exciting, don’t get me wrong, it was like walking into someone else’s life by mistake. But what was disorienting was to realize that this world of luxury and swimming pools, wealthy disaffected playboy sons of philandering wealthy husbands and beautiful tough Creole mothers, humvees and household servants, was somehow “my” world in Haiti, the one to which I “naturally” belonged as if I were born there. (Not that I could exactly be accepted that way, but where else were they going to put me?) I had to actively work my way down to the level of my closest friends in Haiti, or, God forbid, the slums of Cite Soleil. How could this rich self-indulgent world be my world? How could powerful political people be my friends? How could this be really my life and not some drastic mistake?