The Exotic Underclass
Sometimes a random link on the internet takes you places you never would have discovered on your own. That’s what happened when I was reading an article by Courtney Martin, the author of “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists.” Courtney was writing about the young people who are attracted to complex problems and social change in other countries but fall into the trap of what she calls the “reductive seduction” of being drawn to problems that are urgent, highly visible and seem readily solvable to our best and brightest.
In the middle of the article she linked to an essay by C.Z. Nnaemeka, “The Unexotic Underclass.” The essay was both chilling and challenging. As we are becoming a two-class country of those at the very top and very bottom (read Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart’), the people concentrated in the new upper class tend to think only about the problems of those in the “exotic underclass.” Nnaemeka’s argument goes like this:
“We have clear ideas of what the exotic underclass looks like because everyone is clamoring to help them. The exotic underclass are people who live in the emerging and third world countries that happen to be in fashion now – Kenya, Bangladesh, Brazil, South Africa. The exotic underclass are poor Black and Hispanic children (are there any other kind?) living in America’s urban ghettos. The exotic underclass suffers from diseases that have stricken the rich and famous, and therefore benefit from significant attention and charity.”
Nnaemeka goes on to say that as a result the problems of those in the middle – single mothers, veterans, and older people pushed out of the job market – have become invisible, and while they constitute a significant portion of the country and the world, they are overlooked. She calls them the “unexotic underclass” because they have the misfortune of being insufficiently interesting. Because they don’t get by on $1 a day or are not constantly paraded in front of us as the starving and poorest of the poor we do not see them in our news feeds or social media. Because they tend to be the rural class and the working poor the organizations and ministries that labor among them are not as well known to us. We don’t notice them. We don’t talk about them. We assume large government agencies are responsible for them.
Martin writes, “While thousands of the country’s best and brightest flock to far-flung places to ease unfamiliar suffering and tackle foreign dysfunction, we’ve got plenty of domestic need. There is tremendous need and opportunity in the US that goes unaddressed. There’s a social dimension to this: the ‘likes’ one gets for being an international do-gooder might be greater than for, say, working on homelessness in Indiana. One seems glamorous, while the other reminds people of what they neglect while walking to work.”
I am certain neither author is pitting the unexotic against the exotic. There is no argument being made to pull out of countries and causes addressing enormous needs of clean water, poverty, hunger, violence and medical care. All of these are worthy of our support. However, I am more aware now of two things.
First, it’s easy to let the more compelling and sometimes “glamorous” causes capture our imaginations and overlook what may seem to be more local and even uninteresting. Second, I have become more intentional about discovering and encouraging the people in The Gathering who have been working in their local communities on issues that are not highly visible and extremely complex.
For instance, Elgin Children’s Foundation in Knoxville, Tennessee, has been addressing the educational and health needs of children in Southern Appalachia. Started by the Thompson family, their mission is serving children to encourage the habits of lifetime wellness, educate them to become lifelong learners, and empower communities to proactively create and provide environments where every child will flourish and mature into productive citizens.
The Cardone Family Foundation for many years has focused on the needs of their employees and the charitable organizations that support those families. Even in a significant corporate downsizing they have reaffirmed their commitment to their local community of Philadelphia.
Gathering people have long supported and been involved in ministries addressing the needs of single mothers, the incarcerated, veterans, joblessness, foster care, the homeless and a host of other problems that may not attract people looking for quick solutions. Truly, it is “a long obedience in the same direction” and not a quick fix or saving the world. Still, it’s not an either/or. It’s not one over the other so I am grateful that we have so many who have chosen to commit time and funding to issues that are not those with the best “brands” or that have sophisticated communication plans but are those that faithfully and quietly serve the unexotic.