Man, we loves us some transformations. Makeovers, interventions, whatever you want to call ’em. We love the idea of saviors, too: people who come in and do the transforming/making over/intervening.
This is enshrined on a pretty deep level of our culture, from religious transformers to Home Makeover shows to boot camps to alcoholism interventions to Teach For America to missionaries to Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle and on and on. We’ve drunk deep of the idea that it’s a good thing to have folks roaming around and helping others to fix themselves.
I find it somewhat problematic.
Have a look at this video:
Text from the on-screen slides: “Jim Wolf, United States Army Veteran. For decades, Jim has struggled with poverty, homelessness and alcoholism. In September 2013, he volunteered to go through this physical transformation. Since filming, Jim has taken control of his life. He is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever. Donate to Degage Ministries, a non-profit organization, to help transform the lives of other homeless veterans, inside and out.”
Cool, right? A non-profit that exists to help homeless alcoholic veterans get on their feet again is 100% okay in my book.
But I’m frustrated by some of the other themes I see going on in this video. When we start watching, we see Jim, a nice looking guy with long hair, a big beard, a blue nylon jacket, and a cross. In the end, we see Jim, a nice looking guy with short hair, short beard, sharp-looking blazer, nice shirt, good tie, tie bar, and pocket square.
We’re encouraged to see this physical transformation as evidence–an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace–that Jim has “taken control of his life” and is now on the road to success.
What’s wrong with that?
Appearance as signal
We’re encouraged to see Jim’s situation as filled with problems because of three alleged situations:
- Jim is poor.
- Jim is alcoholic.
- Jim is homeless.
How do we fix those problems? By giving Jim a haircut and sticking him in a nice suit.
By conflating systemic issues of poverty, substance abuse, and lack of housing with appearance, this video encourages us to use physical appearance as a signaling device to see whether people are “taking control of their lives”, i.e., living in an upright and socially acceptable manner and doing okay or “letting themselves go”, i.e., choosing to live on the street and drink cheap vodka for fun all day.
It is so. not. okay. for us to encourage the idea that appearance is a determiner of worth and that changing how you look will make systemic inequality go away.
This is problematic, and I get it that this is a complicated issue, as lots of people have pointed out. (Read “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” for an excellent look at how important appearance can really be when you’re trying to escape poverty.) That’s not what I’m talking about here: Tressie rightly points out in her article that when you’re poor (and especially when you’re poor and black) you’re playing within a system that is stacked against you, so you take whatever advantages you can get.
But that’s not what’s being celebrated in this video about Jim. We’re not talking about celebrating Jim’s discovery that if he can get someone to give him a suit and a haircut, he’ll be more acceptable and will be the recipient of greater privilege (i.e., free housing, free clothing, free publicity, and praise for going to AA meetings). I don’t think this video is really about Jim all that much.
The (white) savior complex and systems of inequality
We’re encouraged to believe that, if we could just find all the Jims out there, give ’em new suits and a good shave, the problems would go away. Politicians teach us to buy into this idea (remember Mitt Romney’s comments about how he would never be able to convince “those people” to take responsibility for their lives?) and encourage it by pointing out that places like Degage Ministries exist–which sets up the expectation that if people remain homeless/alcoholic/poor, they’re doing it by choice.
I have spent twenty years working on a crisis hotline talking to people in situations like Jim’s, and I resent the hell out of the implication that all of them could have a better life if they just looked nicer. I think most people don’t have the first idea of what it’s really like to be poor, or homeless, or alcoholic.
I said this was all problematic, and I mean that in another way: I’m conflicted because I believe that programs like Degage actually do make a difference and help people. It’s the way that they make a difference, and the way we talk about it, that bothers me.
When we say we’re trying for transformation, what we mean is that we’re trying to help people like Jim, people who don’t fit the system, to change themselves and fit in better. We’re addressing the status quo by trying to fix people who don’t belong.
(Again, I have no problem with people in Jim’s situation trying to claw their way up toward privilege. I have a problem with privileged people like those in the video thinking that haircuts and new suits will effect meaningful and broad societal change.)
Notice the huge hug and gratitude that Jim gives to his (young) (white) saviors at the end of the video? We’re encouraged to give money so that we can rank ourselves with them: goodhearted folks who are making the world better. On some level, this video is about them, and us, in the context of not-yet-fixed poor alcoholics without homes.
We can save Jims all day long and not be done yet; even the Bible says “the poor you will always have with you”. But on some level, and sticking with the Christian imagery since we’re talking about Degage Ministries, isn’t this just giving people fish instead of teaching them to fish?
Why do we accept a system where people like Jim, veterans who’ve served their nation, so often fall into poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse? Why do we create a society that discards them, like so many others, and then refuses to let them sit at the big kids table until they undergo transformations to look like us again?
Why do we have so many homeless alcoholic people in this country? Because we’ve decided that the people are the problem, not the systems of inequality that put them there. While we believe that Jim’s life can be turned around just by some savior coming in, giving him a sweet ‘do and some snappy threads, and getting him on the right path, we won’t ask why we have so many Jims waiting in line after him. If the solutions are obvious and easy, why do we still have so many Jims?
Helping Jim is really important. The starfish story is a good one, and “it matters to this one”. But it’s not enough.
Returning to the appearance as signaling thing for a second. Want to make a difference in the world? Don’t find a homeless person and give his appearance a makeover. Work hard, everywhere you go, to make a world where his appearance doesn’t hurt him. Sit next to people like old-Jim on the subway. Make yourself stop judging people based on their appearance. Focus on what people do, not on what they look like or who you think they are or why you think they need to change. Think about the value structures in society that lead combat veterans to become homeless, and work on changing those.
If Jim wants to get a makeover, fine. But don’t insist that he transform himself into a vision of white corporate acceptability as a condition of having his basic human needs met.
The system is the thing that needs a makeover, and focusing too heavily on transforming Jim distracts us from the larger challenge. Until we fix the system, we’ll have to save every Jim out there. We need to build a system where the Jims don’t need saving.
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