“We’re camping”

–We’ve been here for a week and haven’t had access to a shower. We’ve gone into town to do laundry. “Do you know if there are public showers anywhere in town?” Angela asks the manager of the laundromat. She looks over at us, a little wary and somewhat disgusted. “We’re camping,” Angela adds. The manager’s face softens, and she nods as if she has just understood something. “I’m not sure,” she says, “but you could ask at the co-op.”

–Days later, I stop at a gas station. I look a little grubby. “Do you have a hose where I can get some water?” I ask the attendant. He frowns and looks at me quizzically. “I’m camping,” I add. “Ah,” he says. “We don’t have a hose, but you can use the sink in the back.”

–A few weeks later I take Riah to storytime at the local library. We haven’t showered in 4 days. His hair is greasy, and there is dirt under his fingernails. His clothes are perpetually dusty. My shirt has a hole in it. I haven’t brushed my hair in a month. I haven’t put on deodorant in 10 days. I can feel the other parents looking at us, wondering. The storytime singer is doing the itsy-bitsy spider, so I can’t say anything, but I wish I had a sign that read, “We’re camping!” so that everyone will understand.

Understand what, exactly? I’ve come to find that those two little words—“we’re camping”—serve to signal our privilege to other people and put them at ease. We’re stinky and dirty because we’re living in the woods. We’re not…poor. We’re not…homeless. You don’t have to feel uncomfortable around us.

As we’ve left the comforts of running water and air conditioning and clean clothes, people’s perceptions of us have changed. They look at us more warily. They’re less friendly. We’ve been experiencing, to a very small degree, the social and psychological toll that actual poor or homeless people face every day.

But we do not feel the same economic toll. We retain our class privilege. We have money in the bank. We can pay our bills. We have a car. We can buy all the food we want. We can pay our medical bills. If we wanted, we could get a hotel room and take long, hot showers.

We can also utter that short phrase—“we’re camping.” We can correct people’s perceptions of us. We can get them to see our humanity again.

We all make snap judgments about people. We make assumptions based on negative stereotypes. If you are poor or homeless or disabled or a person of color or gender nonconforming or Muslim or in any way perceived as “less than” or not “normal,” you face this every day, sometimes with deadly consequences.

So, let’s try not to judge people so quickly. Let’s examine our unconscious biases. This is a personal transformation. And let’s confront the egregious inequality in this country. Let’s spend more money on education and healthcare. Let’s put fewer people in prison. Let’s raise the minimum wage. Let’s make college affordable. Let’s feed people. This is a social transformation.

My family is spending a year in the woods because we have the economic privilege to be able to do so. We are having an awesome time, even if we get some funny looks. All families should have the opportunity to live out their dreams and to not be judged by their appearance. Let’s bring about the personal and social transformations necessary for that to happen.

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