Persistence doesn’t pay off for everyone. And Americans need to stop assuming that getting an education and a job is all it takes to get ahead.
I’m not a person who typically gets bent out of shape about opinions on social media enough to comment on them. This is due to collective realizations that 1. the poster probably couldn’t care less about my two cents, 2. changing the mind of someone who adamantly disagrees with you in just a few words is next to impossible, and 3. the Internet is enough of a timesuck as it is, making it all the more necessary to choose your battles.
But recently, I had to throw a flag on a play.
To paraphrase a Facebook status that made my blood pressure rise and my fingers attack the keyboard in 0.5 seconds or less: I’m sick of people complaining that their lives are difficult. If you want something, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and go after it. There’s no excuse for being lazy. Get an education and a job. Persistence pays.
I’m betting that you’ve have heard similar sentiments before. Maybe you’ve even expressed them yourself. It’s a grossly popular American idea, born from an individualistic culture that values hard work, competition, and self-sufficiency while writing off a lack of success or stability as a lack of trying.
But it’s an idea that, in the throes of a crippling economic recession, needs revision.
The bootstraps mentality—boundless optimism in the face of unlikely odds—informs American feelings on everything from popular thrillers for adolescents, to the warm fuzzies we get when underdogs win the championship, to our worship of national icons like Rocky Balboa and John Wayne. We enjoy these “grit narratives” because they leave us feeling confident and capable about our own futures.
Grit narratives focusing on women and minorities are especially inspiring because they reassure us that anything is possible no matter our sex or color, and perhaps trick us into thinking that our work in combating discrimination is done.
Uplifting, yes, but entirely unrealistic.
Furman University professor Paul Thomas defines grit narrative logic as “a racialized (and racist) cousin of the rugged individual myth that remains powerful in the U.S.,” noting that “the factual problem with the ‘grit’ narrative and the rugged individual myth can be found in some powerful evidence that success is more strongly connected to systemic conditions than to the content of any individual’s character.”
So in essence, while I’m all for watching Katniss kick some dystopian ass in the Hunger Games arena, the reality we live in is not likewise manufactured by an author out for a happy ending. Greedy banks, irresponsible borrowers, disproportionately concentrated wealth, and worker exploitation impact our daily lives in ways that are well beyond our direct control. And the unconscious benefits of privilege that continue to perpetuate racism, sexism, and heterosexism often lie hidden and unexamined.
Privilege is a word we hear a lot today thanks to Peggy McIntosh’s pioneer 1988 essay on the “invisible knapsack” of privilege in culture, and the basic concepts are easy enough to grasp. One of my former professors illustrated male privilege in this way: “Because I am male, I can expect to walk down the street without being heckled or cat-called. I can walk through a dark parking lot without asking someone to escort me.” White privilege, similarly, means that because I am white, I do not have to work against negative racial stereotypes. People assume that I am innocent until proven guilty, and not the reverse.
While the writer of the aforementioned Facebook status is white and male, he enjoys a more palpable privilege beyond his gender and race. The military financed his tuition in full at an expensive private university, meaning that he did not have to worry about where thousands of dollars came from. In a way, I share this advantage with him because my family was able to finance the tuition dollars that my scholarships did not cover. But understanding privilege is much more than knowing what advantages and disadvantages (earned or not) you have in life: It’s avoiding a one-size-fits-all judgment of those who don’t share your experiences. In other words, the struggle faced by so many young college graduates to pay off student loans does not mean that they were to blame for their financial hardships. It simply means that I, in comparison, was fortunate, and that large-scale problems—like student loan inflation—are a substantial part of the equation.
Renowned surgeon and politician Dr. Ben Carson was recently praised for his mother’s “remarkable” narrative in an issue of Parade. “My mother Sonya refused to be a victim,” he said. “She refused to make excuses and [didn’t] accept them from us. She worked very hard to stay off of public assistance.” And while his mother is to be commended, I have to wonder if Dr. Carson, professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is fully aware of exploitative trends like what Salon calls the “Wal-Mart-ization of higher education”: the current efforts of colleges to slash full-time positions in favor of cheaper, non-tenured adjunct work. Plenty of part-time professors who maintain heavier course loads then their tenured counterparts are paid far less and in many cases, forced to go without health insurance, rely on food stamps, and worry over the student evaluations that will determine their employment in coming semesters. See that? Not everyone who works well over 40 hours a week and holds an advanced degree can enjoy the same income and benefits as the average doctor.
Additionally, as the poor get poorer, the rich are getting richer, inflating the wage gap in America to the highest it’s been since 1928. UC-Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez estimated last year that the top 1% “[receive] nearly 22.5% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90%’s share is below 50% for the first time ever.” Optimism (or, in the case of more privileged citizens, blame) without a grounding in reality is the new opiate of the masses, keeping our increasingly impoverished lower and middle classes at bay while chasing a dream that retreats further and further into the distance.
I love watching the orphan-turned-billionaire Bruce Wayne keep the city he loves safe from harm, and I’ll always root for Rocky to get out of that shitty apartment and make a name for himself. Grit narratives supply us with the inspiration to turn ideas into realities and the courage to be strong leaders. But they never tell the whole story.
I’m not suggesting that when life gets tough, we throw up our hands and stop living. I’m simply advocating for those who enjoy economic advantages like dual income and inherited wealth to exercise the compassion and empathy that we are all capable of. Or as Nick Caraway’s father suggests in The Great Gatsby: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the media. Find her on Twitter.