It's Not Unrealistic for Issa on Insecure to Be 30 With Multiple Jobs and Homeless Because I've Been That Too

Illustration for article titled It's Not Unrealistic for Issa on Insecure to Be 30 With Multiple Jobs and Homeless Because I've Been That Too
Photo: HBO

The characters on Insecure sometimes make decisions that make me question if they were born on the same Earth that other earthlings inhabit. (For instance, Lawrence in season 2 bringing Aparna to Tiffany’s birthday dinner from hell.) Also, I agree with Vulture’s Jasmine Sanders in that the writers sometimes seem to be too influenced by how the show is discussed on social media. But one thing I greatly appreciate about Insecure is its depiction of how economic insecurity can dictate social, financial, occupational and even romantic decision making.


It’s especially interesting (and refreshing) to encounter a character like Issa, whose life is filled with markers of middle class. Her friends are middle class, her sensibilities are middle class, and even her job is the type of low-paying nonprofit work that people with liberal arts degrees (also a reliable class marker) often find themselves in. But she is poor. She is not hungry, which I think for many of us is the standard for when deciding whether a person qualifies as poor. But looking middle class and being surrounded by it doesn’t make you it.

Anyway, some of the criticism I’ve seen of the show—this season, particularly—have zeroed in on Issa’s financial predicament, claiming that it’s unrealistic for someone who looks like that and has friends like that and is obviously intelligent and competent to be stuck for so long on the struggle bus. At 30, she should have been had that shit together. And I wonder if these people were born on the same Earth, too.

On the planet I’m from and in the country I live in, there are Issas all around me—men and women with educations and nice clothes and straight teeth and other markers of middle-class-ass-ness who are still stuck in whirlpools of debt and low credit and ceaseless underemployment occasionally interrupted by bouts of joblessness. People who Sunday “brunch” at the free sample station at Whole Foods or are just a delayed paycheck away from doing that.

And, for a stretch of time, if I couldn’t find any Issas around me, I’d just have to look in the mirror.

In October of 2011, my then-girlfriend and I broke up. We lived together, so I made plans to move out. I was receiving $3,000 a month from the August Wilson Center for African American Culture (AWC) to launch a digital magazine and I had supplemental income from freelancing. Plus, I’d just agreed to a job with Ebony Magazine, so I figured I was more than able to get my own place. I even signed a lease for an apartment. But then the AWC was overcome with budget issues and wasn’t able to continue paying me, and the Ebony gig wasn’t supposed to start until January, so I had practically no income and moved in with my parents, where I stayed for four months until my Ebony money began.

If you knew me then, though, you wouldn’t have known that I was, well, homeless. I still had my bone-white Dodge Charger. I still had my clothes. I still had all of my middle-class friends. I still showed up at parties. I still had my blog and I still had my name associated with high-profile jobs. But despite projecting the appearance of a certain lifestyle, my checking account, my savings account, and my credit score definitely didn’t match it.


In the time since then, I’ve learned that, although my brokeness felt singular, there were many more people living like me than I thought, where you’re seemingly middle class but firmly ensconced within the poverty line. Of course, when that’s you—and you believe that everyone else is doing so well (which means something must be wrong with you since you ain’t)—you have many incentives to keep that information secret.

I guess this explains why Issa’s financial situation is considered unrealistic. We all live on the same planet and all in the same country. Which means that we’re all surrounded by the same lies.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


Trini Gyal

I felt this article deep in my bones. I’m 35, have a master’s degree, and have a pretty decent resume. I do social justice education, and the work is incredibly satisfying (and at times infuriating, but I knew what I was getting into), but the money just isn’t there. I’m working on getting a side-hustle because I have too many bills, and student loans are killing me. I have a middle-class vocabulary, drive a Volvo, and work side-by-side with PhDs, but at the end of the day I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m one disaster away from homelessness. I’m a woman of color and a first-gen immigrant and first-gen college student, so identity just exacerbates this whole situation. I really thought this was a singular experience. I appreciate you sharing this. Feeling like a failure, even when you did all the “right” things, is just really crummy.