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“The Myth of Self-Reliance”

February 21, 2012

Image Via Daily Dish

Ta-Nehisi Coates (once again) drops wisdom on race, privilege and the welfare system. I won’t be mucking up the points he makes by summarizing it or excerpting it. Everyone should just go read it for themselves.

He untangled a knotty spot for me about poor people and dependency, one that I have been trying (and usually failing) to make in my conversations with well-meaning friends, foe and family for a long time now.

I have a friend. Let’s call him Robbie. Robbie was born into a single-parent home. He describes his childhood as a time when he “had everything” and by “everything” he means good food, a roof over his head and safety. His mother died of a debilitating disease when he was 18. I won’t go into the complicated details of his life. It’s not important, anyway. Except this. When his mom died, he had absolutely nothing and no one. He left, moved to another state, got a job. He has never seen more than a $1000 in his bank account at one time. He knows the quiet indignity of living in someone’s home, when they do not want him there. He has spent time on the streets. At different times in his life, he has been supported partially and sometimes fully by his romantic partners — he continues to maintain close ties with them, long after the relationship ends. They are his only family.

The steep advance deposit needed for the home that he lives in today was obtained after a series of humiliating fights with his former lover who eventually gave him part of the money needed for the house lease. The rest of it came from his workplace. His employer’s policy allows him to get loans from his company if he agrees to a badly bitten paycheck for the next six months. If he can pay his rent for the month, his gratitude is sharp and sincere. He is 29.

I like talking about how I have been working since I was 15.

And I love discussing how I went to college and worked full-time during both my undergraduate and graduate school years. I waitress-ed for many years. I paid for my tuition from my paychecks, scholarships and tuition benefits from work.

What I usually don’t mention is the two-parent, stable home that I grew up in. I don’t talk about the rent money that my parents would put into my bank account when things got tough. I don’t talk so much about student loans that allowed me a payment plan at a glacial rate, at almost no interest. Teachers who were dedicated and respectful of me was the rule, not the exception.

A patch of unemployment? I don’t mention moving back in with my parents temporarily. It’s an ego-bruiser. It has never occurred to me to be grateful for it. The fact that my social network also includes professionals and academicians who could give me a tip, a recommendation, useful advice or simple support was somehow a result of my hard-work. My access to information and resources about options like writing grants or applying for fellowships also became something I earned.

It has never occurred to me to worry about losing my warm bath, my warm bed or the electricity that fuels my laptop (birthday gift from my family) — except maybe in a politically enlightening and non-urgent way. When I say I have “everything I need”, I mean unfettered internet access and books. Certainly not food. I have known hunger only as delightful anticipation, maybe an inconvenience, but never as something to fear, to be ashamed of. Hunger has never been used to test my courage.

My friend, Robbie, is often described as someone who “depends” on other people too much. People feel no hesitation in counseling him on his need “to stand on his own two feet”.

No one ever talks to me that way. There is no question about my independence — it’s a view I encourage and fully expect.

For most of us, the system works. Whether that system is political, racial, cultural, social, familial or legal — it has been on our side for the most part. The unearned benefit — the welfare — of that truth is usually taken for granted. We make the mistake of erasing our privileges with our ordinary struggles and pain. But privilege isn’t the absence of pain, it’s the existence of a soft, foamy surface to land on when we fall. Ground that isn’t equated with humiliation and defeat.

There’s a lot more to say, but I am not sure it can be contained in some blog post that I will write today. I will end here with the wonderful Dorothy Allison.

From her essay, “The Question of Class”, here’s an excerpt.

The poverty depicted in books and movies was romantic, a kind of backdrop for the story of how it was escaped. The reality of self-hatred and violence was either absent or caricatured. […]

My family’s lives were not on television, not in books, not even comic books. There was a myth of the poor in this country, but it did not include us, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze us in. There was an idea of the good poor — hardworking, ragged but clean, and intrinsically noble. I understood that we were the bad poor, the ungrateful: men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage, who quickly became worn, fat and old from working too many hours and bearing too many children […] My cousins quit school, stole cars, used drugs, and took dead-end jobs. We were not noble, not grateful, not even hopeful. We knew ourselves despised. And in that new country, we were unknown.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2012 5:33 pm

    By far one of my favourite posts. The simplicity and brave truthfulness the post is made of is very real. Thank you.

  2. February 23, 2012 2:12 am

    This is a very wonderful and eloquent post. Thank you.

  3. March 12, 2012 4:24 am

    What an incredible post. I enjoy the conversation this allows, showing the truth without creating adversity: no small feat. And as important as it is for people to be talking about this, dialogue usually descends into argument and hostility. I will be happy to share this because there are many wonderful people who should be thinking about privilege but haven’t because others have not explained it so warmly and with so much personalization. It’s an intimate look at the problem, thank you so much for sharing this with us, the world.


  1. Notes on Deconstructing Privilege « Cellar Door

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