I don’t Jeopardy often but when I do I am instantly transported to 1991-1992, when I was about 6 to 7 years old. The game show takes me back to when my mom, my brother’s dad, and I would catch the after-dinner double feature of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune on our wood paneled television. The television, like the plastic covered couch and stalactite prone basement were accoutrements of the creaky old house my great-grandmother left to my mother when she died. I hold tight a handful of childhood memories from the couple of years we spent there, and living out my fantasy of being a high scoring Jeopardy contestant is one of them.
The other day I binged three episodes of Celebrity Jeopardy without a pee break and as I yelled answers at the screen a few things became apparent:
1. Ken Jennings is aiiight. He honors the boxy suits, precise diction, and droll humor that the show’s longtime host, Alex Trebek made iconic.
2. As each of the 9 celebrities explained the charitable cause that their winnings would benefit, the apparent buzz word of the day was “underserved.”
3. I was annoyed.
It was clear that each celebrity had expertly delivered their media trained talking points on “how to speak to a mainstream audience on network television about people who are suffering.” And while I don’t hate the player, I am side-eyeing the game. Not Jeopardy. No, Jeopardy is perfect. Well, nearly perfect. I personally felt LeVar Burton was the superior choice to replace Alex Trebek.
What I’m side-eyeing is the use of the term underserved. Where did it come from? Who does it benefit? Who does it detract from? And who’s two cents were taken into account when deciding that we were going to collectively use “underserved” and words like it as blanket terms for people in need?
And while I’m at it, as I side-eye, I am also steeping in a bit of shame tea at my own past dalliance with these froufrou terms.
Let me explain…
During the last five years I lived in Las Vegas, I sat on countless floors throughout countless sex worker led organizing (or as I like to call it: whoreganzing) meet ups. Topics of these meet ups varied, though mostly circled around staging rallies and protests, raising mutual aid, providing street-based outreach and supply drop offs, hosting community events, and cold calling district representatives in support of or opposition to circulating bills that directly affected sex workers rights.
The experience was incredible. People from various socio-economic, ethnic, race, religious, gender, and sex work experience voluntarily assembled to contribute their knowledge and opinions to the topics at hand in a non-hierarchical format. In spite of how chaotic these forums occasionally felt, or that they always seemed to run over time, the fact that all of us came together to pool our collective resources in hopes of affecting change was no small feat! I am proud to have been a part of it.
But multiple truths can coexist. And thinking about the Celebrity Jeopardy contestants use of the word “underserved” reminded me of a part confusion, part grievance I had back when I organized that I wish I aired sooner.
My regret is that I didn’t speak up when I felt frustrated by our organizations use of a prescribed media safe lexicon when addressing the public. Particularly the non-sex working public from whom we were attempting to mobilize aid and support. When we spoke amongst ourselves we tended to shoot it straight. More often than not we used plain direct language to describe what needed to get done and why. But once we were on camera, or being quoted for an interview, we (myself included) regularly used terms like: marginalized, underserved, under-resourced, and experiencing food/housing insecurity.
It was all very coiffed vernacular that permeates today’s social justice movements and I’m sure was intended to communicate the expertise our organization had on the subject. A thought I now find silly. As if our collective experience of being sex workers who regularly bumped up against the systemic blockades in place to keep us down wasn’t “expertise” enough.
On one hand I felt like a poser. Why had I adopted this reductive language that did not come naturally to me? And on the other hand I let imposter syndrome get the best of me. Who was I to critique this seemingly official language? I don’t have any previous experience in organizing. Nor do I have a college degree which many folks within activism revere as the marker of having good ideas.
While I believe myself to have good ideas, and often times the best ideas, what I tend to lean on to inform my ideas is mostly derived from my experience in the world. And in this case I think about my experience growing up poor.
I know being poor. Poor and I go wayyy back.
I know what it’s like to see your parent break from the insidious stress of constantly being one meal away from not being able to feed a house full of kids. I know what it’s like to have to move every few months because eviction is always nipping at your heels. To occasionally not have electricity in the winter, so you sleep in all your clothes and keep perishables in a crate on the back stoop. I know what it’s like to accompany your parent when they have to ask for help in getting your family’s basic needs met.
And because I know this, when I think about being a mouthpiece for an organization who aids families like mine or in broader terms, people who are suffering, I can’t shake this feeling that the audience is being coddled when we attempt to convey struggle in sanitized terms.
When I say: “families where parents suffer chronic debilitating illness and can not work are disproportionately dealing with hunger and eviction”, it communicates the crisis at hand directly. If I say, “underserved people are experiencing food and housing insecurity” it reduces the urgency of the situation and takes the edge off at a time when the audience really needs to be confronted with the edge.
Let's take it one step further. If I describe my own experience in these terms: “I came from an under-resourced family who regularly experienced food/housing insecurity” it's a great way to completely rob an aspect of my story of it’s color and texture. It minimizes the living breathing experience of my humanity. And for what?! To make other people more comfortable?
Another experience I’m familiar with is witnessing countless people who’ve heard me recant stories about growing up poor nearly lose their bowels. I shit you not. What is spoken about casually and often with wry humor with folks who have shared my experience inspires a palpable discomfort in those who do not.
One mention of food stamps, the OG ones that came in a perforated booklet that we had to tear actual stamps from, and their body stiffens. Double down with details about how most of my meals during the school year came curtesy of the free lunch program and the extra poor kid special: free breakfast (so much mystery meat and cartons of whole milk), and their intestines start rumbling. Top it off with fond memories of looking forward to the church’s food donations for the shear variety it offered, and they’re fleeing to the toilet!
“I’ll take ‘Poor People’ for $400”
The first forty times I encountered this reaction I thought it was because these people, people who did not share my intimate understanding of how hard it can be to survive, felt above it. Eventually I came to understand that nine out of ten times the anal clenching I witnessed was more of a sort of cultural wincing that occurs when people are directly confronted with another’s suffering. It isn’t that they feel above it, it’s that they can’t relate.
But that’s not my problem. Nor is it the problem of anyone representing an organization who’s job it is to raise awareness and support for those in need.
Holding space for another person’s suffering is not about relatability, it’s about looking it directly in the eye without judgement and accepting it for what it is. It’s a really human impulse to want to look away from suffering, or in this case use language that takes the sting away. But when I think about our collective agreement to use media safe language like marginalized, underserved, under-resourced (and the like) in place of saying the exact thing that is occurring, I am concerned that we are only successful in letting people off the hook from directly confronting it.
Sure, it might make for a tighter elevator pitch, but the more we make it easier to look away the harder it becomes to hold space for another persons suffering. And for the audience who is really listening, an opportunity is being missed to engage empathy and actually connect over real human conditions.
How does this help those we are aiming to serve? Why are we putting too much of our already thinly spread energetic resources into cultivating clever words to convey conditions that are really quite simple, when we could be using that energy to connect people in need to what ever it is they need?