One example of someone who “made it” against “all odds” is not proof that inequality does not exist

I don’t know how many more movies, articles, columns and blogs I can handle that pitch some comfortably middle-class white person, doing well in hard economic times, as some kind of “underdog” story. You know how it goes: someone who, against all odds manages to secure a good job and a decent, steady paycheck, while the rest of us wonder “How the hell did they do it?”  Some of the most obnoxious examples in this “feel good,” “underdog” genre seem to be about people of colour. Oprah, Dev Patel’s character in Slumdog Millionaire or Will Smith’s character in the film The Pursuit of Happiness, for example. Their stories give the impression anyone can make it by themselves, and we should totally forget class, gender, or racial inequalities.

Huffington Post blogger Staci Huckeba holds herself up as one of these “underdogs” who attributes her success story™ to good old fashion ”hard-work” and “getting off her ass” and doing something about her situation. Staci managed, in just 36 months, to lose a whole pile of weight and transform her life for the better. Staci wrote a “rags to riches” response to my last blog post, Positive Attitude Bullshit: On the dangers of “radical self-love.” She didn’t much like it. Staci, for the most part, disagreed with my belief that “positive thinking” was unlikely to transform your life in profound and magical ways (as so many western self-help gurus promise) despite facing the numerous challenges presented to the rest of us: generational poverty, racial and gender inequality and other barriers to “success” in life. Staci asserts,

Opportunities present themselves to us every day but you have to be able to see them. As long as you think the whole game is rigged against you, you can’t, you just won’t have the mindset to recognize it. And you certainly won’t have the capacity to put yourself through that kind of work if you are convinced that the world is just unfair, you are never going to catch a break, nothing’s your fault, and nothing is ever going to change.

But, what if the system is rigged against you from the start? What if it is not just some collective paranoid delusion of the poor and working class that they are being royally fucking screwed for every penny they don’t have? What if class warfare is actually a “thing,” and not just some excuse used by the political underclass to justify being unable to access upward mobility and snag the “sweet life”?

You have to ignore an awful amount of racial and social history, empirical, and even anecdotal evidence in relation to why the poor remain trapped in the poverty cycle and why so many are struggling to to stay afloat, in order to still believe the soothing myth that everyone has a “fair shot in life.”

Inequality is reaching grotesque and devastating crisis points in countries like the USA, and in Aotearoa New Zealand, as a recent landmark OECD report shows, the divide between rich and poor is becoming more like a gaping chasm – my fair country has never been so unequal when it comes to wealth distribution. We have kids dying from poverty related illnesses, and my government, who is made up of millionaires, refuses to do anything about it. “When inequality reaches extreme and destructive levels, most governments seek not to confront it but to accommodate it,” writes journalist George Monbiot.

Poverty is not inevitable, it is structural – it is by design.

Staci’s advice is even more unhelpful if you are a person of colour in a country where the system is built for white people. In reponse to the Charleston terrorist massacre John Metta, who is a writer, gave a powerful speech called “I, Racist”, on how it feels to be black in a white world, he said:

New York State is one of the most segregated states in the country. Buffalo, New York where my aunt lives, is one of the 10 most segregated school systems in the country. The racial inequality of the area she inhabits is so bad that it has been the subject of reports by the Civil Rights Action Network and the NAACP.

Those, however, are facts that my aunt does not need to know. She does not need to live with the racial segregation and oppression of her home. As a white person with upward mobility, she has continued to improve her situation. She moved out of the area I grew up in- she moved to an area with better schools. She doesn’t have to experience racism, and so it is not real to her.

Structural marginalisation and segregation by race in Aotearoa New Zealand, is clearly visible, especially within our schooling systems. We call it “white flight” in this country, wherein middle-class white families in great numbers avoid local schools that have high rates of our indigenous people, Fijian Indians, and Pacific Islanders in attendance. If they can afford it, wealthier families of European ancestry will send their kids to schools in suburbs  in afulent [white] areas. As John points out: “better schools” exclusively means “whiter schools.” There are many barriers to success and equality  among peoples of differing cultures and one of the biggest is universal access to quality education.

Regardless, Staci believes opportunities are still abound for anyone looking for them. Staci claims she is living proof of this.

Staci states that she created (read: manifested) opportunities for herself and because of this she got to meet lots of famous people. She even managed to hang out with Dolly Parton and her relatives because one time she shot some band photos for free, and Dolly’s cousin just so happened to be there. Staci ended up spending a year with the Parton family, getting paid really well to make a doco about them. Staci writes,

“Not one successful person I know ever just had someone show up and knock on the door one day and hand it to them while they were watching Oprah or bitching about world injustice from the sofa or on the internet.”

Actually, plenty of people just had “success” thrown at them, for example every last one of the Kardashians who were all born into a bed of money, and global superstars such as Taylor Swift, whose success was guaranteed by her father. Just as money makes money, success breeds more success. Taylor didn’t make it to where she is purely out of sheer hard work and talent, but this hasn’t stopped reporters pitching the tale of her life as some “underdog” story. In the New York Times review of her “1989”  tour the word “underdog” was used twice to describe Taylor.

TOKYO, JAPAN - MAY 05: Taylor Swift performs during The 1989 World Tour at Tokyo Dome on May 5, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Jun Sato/Getty Images for TS)

TOKYO, JAPAN – MAY 05: Taylor Swift performs during The 1989 World Tour at Tokyo Dome on May 5, 2015

Taylor isn’t necessarily more motivated or more talented than millions of others, she simply won the genetic lottery, was born into the elite one percent, had really supportive parents who had a nice warm and dry house that wasn’t overcrowded; they ensured Taylor had plenty of time to focus on her music so she could develop her talent. I am not saying Taylor should feel guilty about her success, but we should collectively recognise she got a pretty big “leg-up” in life to get where she is, today. Stephen Jay Gould, a science historian, famously wrote:

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Fame and fortune is often more a genetic accident and a series of lucky breaks than hard worked-for success and triumph; wealth creates opportunity that some of us can only dream of.

Staci believes the power of positive thinking can, in part, help people with serious disabilities and if it doesn’t they have done something wrong. She says of people with a disability: “No matter what your plight, you have to accept the life you’ve been dealt and figure out how to do something remarkable with it.” These were easy words to write for a fully physically able white woman.

Words hurt

Many of my friends who have kids with a disability, or have one themselves, read what Staci said. Ultimately her argument amounts to coded victim blaming, and assumes the issue with people who have a disability is not a lack of state support or a society that continuously marginalises and ignores the needs of those who have a disability, but a lack of inner “resilience.” Once again, by Staci’s logic, we are individually and completely responsible for our success and failure in life. Lisa Davidson said to me in response to Staci’s blog,

I have a disability of my own (not as extreme as the cases used in Staci’s piece) which has left me unable to work since 2012. This is not a situation I like and the very few times a job comes up that has the minimal hours and flexibility that may work for me I do apply and try my hardest to get said job, even though I am not sure I will actually be able to pull it off. So, to read someone who, as far as I can tell has no disability to deal with, telling me to basically “suck it up” and get on with life is pretty damn demeaning and to be honest hurtful.

People’s situations are complicated and difficult and often hearbreaking; you cannot reduce these people’s lives to some pithy bullshit slogan such as, “If they try and work hard enough something remarkable will happen.” There are no easy solutions for the serious economic hardships and ongoing daily struggles people are facing all over the world. There are no quick fixes or positive “one liners” that can eliminate entrenched poverty and alleviate the hardships which are being inflicted on people who, through no fault of their own, are being pushed to within an inch of their lives because greedy neoliberal politicians care more about keeping the rich rich, than pulling people out of poverty.

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives,” wrote the historian Howard Zinn.

One thing we can do right now, today, is to listen to the stories of people who are in struggle. Listen to those who are being segregated based on race, penalised because they have a disability, and/or disadvantaged because they weren’t born into wealth, instead of talking over them, and instead of dismissing their legitimate grievances as “whinging” and “whining.” It isn’t. It never has been.

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This piece was subedited by both Cam Walker, an indigenious rights activist who is studying law at Auckland University, and Julian Wormington, who is a teacher and writer, you can read his blog here

“Positive Attitude” Bullshit: On the dangers of “radical self-love”

There is an endless supply of people who are ready and willing to inform us about what we are doing wrong, and how we can alter our behaviour so we can get ahead and inject magic and happiness into our lives. Between modern day guru Gala Darling who believes “positive thoughts generate positive realities,” and you can “manifest” your own destiny, to capitalist public thinkers such as Oprah Winfrey telling us positive thinking can help us obtain “the sweet life,” it is easy to get misled into a muddle of mistruths.

A recent blog by Gala is entitled “Happiness is simple: why too many choices make us miserable and 5 ways to improve your life!” Yeah? Nah. Too many choices are not the issue for a huge majority of the political underclass; a lack of choice is exactly the problem. Whether it be lack of choice when it comes to quality of education, or lack of access to higher education because you were not born into wealth and privilege, or lack of choice when it comes to nutritious food or warm dry housing because wages are often too low in this country, too often, too much choice is not an issue for the growing majority of the 99 percent; restricted choice is.

Gala and magazines such as Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, tell us:

If you just change your attitude and think more positively over time, your life will get easier. Over time, you will land a job that affords you a contract guaranteeing you some security and a pay-check which does not leave you in poverty. You simply have to manifest what you want. Drink a couple of litres of soda pop, add diamantes to your manicure, wear a fake moustache all day long (as Gala really has suggested as a remedy for the blues), put on a nice pink dress and smile a bit more then BOOM! That suicidal depression over the stresses of life such as being unable to buy food because you are on minimum wage, working depressing precarious jobs, and/or the debilitating anxiety over whether your welfare will be cut this week will suddenly melt away.

Middle or upper class young white women seem to be the demographic of the radical self-love movement. It is all well and good to tell them to “smash that class-ceiling” and just work hard to achieve your dreams and the bling and designer shoes will follow, but as Laurie Penny points out in her book Unspeakable Things, there are a lot of women drowning in the basement. In particular women of colour, trans, and queer women who disproportionality suffer from poverty, depression, feelings of alienation, and are discriminated against in the work-place:


It is hard to “think positive” when treated so negatively based on the colour of skin and/or sexuality, when facing hate crimes, targeted violence, and when there are so many structural hurdles put in your way to success and triumph. Radical self-love gurus do not tend to promote or even really engage in discussions on privilege or the disadvantages people are born into; that shit would undermine the cause of “changing yourself, not the system.”

In a powerful piece for The Guardian, “Oprah Winfrey: one of the world’s best neoliberal capitalist thinkers,” Nicole Aschoff writes,

A stream of self-help gurus have spent time on Oprah’s stage over the past decade and a half, all with the same message. You have choices in life. External conditions don’t determine your life. You do. It’s all inside you, in your head, in your wishes and desires. Thoughts are destiny, so thinking positive thoughts will enable positive things to happen.

I used to watch Oprah when I was unemployed, with no money, and feeling utterly crap about my situation. I even started cycling religiously a few years back because Oprah told me exercise would help to reduce my feelings of worthlessness; my arse got smaller but my anxiety and panic attacks over my future, and how I was ever going to pay back my student loan, did not. I even read O Magazine for a while until I realised I was not an idiot and my situation was not my fault. I saw that there are external factors which can offer some pretty challenging barriers to success which no number of pictures of green meadows and calm beaches and deep breathing and kitchy “nick naks” can elevate.

What Nicole suggests in her piece is that Oprah just reinforces the focus on the “individual,” which hides the role of political, economic, and socio-economic structures in our lives,

O Magazine implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, identifies a range of problems in neoliberal capitalism and suggests ways for readers to adapt themselves to mitigate or overcome these problems.” She advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment.

Changing your attitude is not going to change or help to dismantle structural injustice and a failed and unstainable economic model which serves only the elite rich of this world, and exploits the rest of us, particularly the working class and those living in poverty. As far as I am concerned positive thinking will fucking ruin your life.

“Just think positive” is a precursor to “it gets better,” and the hard reality is it is only going to get much, much worse for our most vulnerable. With social bonds being introduced into our public welfare state, life for those who have a disability or mental health diagnosis who need support from the state is only going to get more grinding and unmanageable.

My friend, who suffers from a generic connective tissue disorder, pointed out to me when I told him I was writing this blog,

“When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how positive I think, my joints are still going to dislocate and I’m still going to be in constant pain. Work will still be hard to find, my options will always be limited and I’ll never have the full capacity and range of freedom in this area as someone healthy.”

Multiple WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand) case-managers have told me to think “positively” over and over again, often in response to my having told them “The reason why I am struggling to find any work is because we have a flooded job market with countless over-qualified graduates.” Often the message to “just think positive” is not only divorced from reality, it is an unhelpful and patronising statement to say to someone who is struggling to secure work and to stay above the poverty line, especially if they have a disability or other barriers that may regularly prevent them from obtaining a job or better quality of life.

“Positive thinking” and “affirmations” are now being used as a form of psychological coercion against beneficiaries. A first research paper by Hubbab titled, Unemployment being rebranded as psychological disorder expands on what exactly this coercion looks like.

The authors documented the physiological toll on beneficiaries in London who are subject to these practices, “from unsolicited emails extolling positive thinking to attitude changing exercises, with people looking for work frequently perceiving such interventions as relentless, humiliating, and meaningless.

Attitude changing exercises and similar strategies that people like Oprah and radical self-love promoters such as Gala Darling use to ‘lift people up’ are now being employed by state workers to harass and demean people who are struggling to find work.

Perhaps this is why I find it so hard to stomach people who tell me to think more “aspirationally” as some kind of solution to a stagnant job market, where any work I can get is underpaid and stressfully precarious. These positive attitude advocates remind me of WINZ case-workers who would phone, without warning, to grill me about what jobs I had applied for, and how many. One in particular spent a good twenty minutes telling me how I needed to “change my attitude” and that I should take any job, even cleaning toilets at minimum wage. I got off the phone crying, not because I think I am above cleaning toilets, but because I felt harassed and humiliated. It was a defeating experience.

I understand people like Gala are trying to help; in fact I know Gala personally. She gave me a job many years ago at Lush Cosmetics. She was, and I am sure still is, a very caring and generally lovely and a kind hearted person. As Gala has said on her own blog site, radical self-love helped her overcome an eating disorder and depression, and she continues to help other women. Some of the help and advice Gala has on offer comes free of charge but she also charges a mint for her “Radical self-love Boot Camps” which cost a staggering $197. Unless you are a high income earner this amount of money is unaffordable.

Gala’s position that she just wants to help women transform their lives does not negate the fact what she and so many others are selling is a flawed ideology which preys on feelings of insecurity and isolation for a lot of women, and especially women who sit a little or a lot lower on the privilege ladder and do not benefit from being in a higher social class. Offering solutions to these feelings of disconnection and discontent, such as looking “inwards,” and changing how you behave, is reductionist, over-simplistic, and problematic.

The disenfranchised, poor, and working class need to collectively band together to restructure the systems, and to expose the neoliberal policies and thinking which has helped create feelings of disconnection and discontent in the first place. Adherence and adaptation will further exasperate the situation, endorsing solutions built on neoliberalism to solve the very problems it has helped to create—which is exactly the thinking that people like Oprah and Gala promote—is truly next level insanity. It doesn’t even make sense!

My spiritual guru advice to you is:

Think revolutionarily. No amount of “positive thinking” can fill the bellies of the 280,000 children living in poverty in this country. I fully support declaring mutiny against governments who pass welfare reforms that push people further into crippling poverty, instead of waging mutiny against ourselves. Radical self-love and positive attitude advocates such as Oprah and Gala are more about adapting to a world “gone mad” and systems that do not serve you, than really improving your life.

It really is your choice: adapt, or disrupt?

Fight for a different paradigm! It might be a tad more productive than trying a green tea diet to purify your body, or rearranging your stationary draw so your pens are in harmony with your paper clips. Fighting for a new paradigm may bring you enemies and some deeply negative reactions but would you not rather seek out that brutal truth than live endlessly on in someone else’s brutal fairy tale? It is a fairy tale which tells you:

If you change your attitude and enough of yourself maybe someone might love you. If you work hard enough and want it badly enough maybe you will land some dream job which pays you enough to afford both rent and food and a bit of financial security. If you just play by the “rules” and adapt to a brutal capitalist system while changing what colour lipstick you wear and your “negative” thought patterns, your life will become easier and better.

If radical self-love and all that glitter and sequins and pink bows and “positive thinking” has worked for you and you have managed to manifest your dream life, then cool, I am stoked for you. But for many of us it is not the answer we are looking for: it part of the problem, not the solution.

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A version of this essay also ran on Open Democracy

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