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.
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.
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.