This is part 5 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
Colleen realized that even if everyone in the community had her family’s work ethic, they still might not be able to overcome all the headwinds they were facing. … “What if I had been born black instead of white?” she wondered. What if her grandparents had been black? Colleen asked herself.Dolly Chugh, _The Person You Mean to Be_, pp 71 & 78
… Because fewer of [Colleen’s] hypothetical black family members could access benefits, homes, places in college, and so on, she saw that there were more opportunities for her real white family. They benefited as black Americans subsidized white Americans, through both tax dollars and forgone opportunities. Regardless of her family’s socioeconomic class, they benefited from the tailwinds at their back and the headwinds slowing down others. … “In other words,” Colleen says, “I am the direct beneficiary of those racist systems.”
Last year, I wrote a blog post about the phrase “Good luck,” and why I stopped saying it to people. TL;DR: a lot of good luck is preparation, and I want to respect the work that goes into people’s endeavors.
When someone starts off on the first mile of a marathon (or a 5K!), for instance, I don’t tell them “good luck.” I tell them I hope they have all the fun they want to have. These people have worked hard to train. They don’t deserve to think it’s all down to luck.
When I was younger, I demurred a lot when folks complimented me on my success in what they saw as the fickle world of writing and publishing. “Aw,” I’d say, feeling really embarrassed, “I got lucky.”
But then, at some point, I got to believing that it was better to just own it. I had worked hard. And, it made me feel good to believe and say that I had worked hard. I was deserving, dammit.
Enter the bootstrap narrative.
But I did not have to bootstrap; not really. My parents paid for college. (But I worked at the college newspaper and in the public relations office!) We never wanted for anything at home. (But my parents threatened to withhold tuition if I didn’t study what they wanted me to study.) I could afford an apartment my first year living in New York, and I refused support from my family, even when I was eating free Goldfish crackers off bars for dinner and making $18,000 a year.
You must have noticed all the little protests I keep on throwing up there. Those aren’t there for illustration’s sake. They’re completely reflective of what goes through my head, I promise: Every single admission of how easy I had it comes with a knee-jerk response. And I’m not alone, either: Earlier in the book, Chugh refers to psychologists Taylor Phillips’ and Brian Lowery’s work, which reveals what they term the “hard-knock life” effect: respondents answering a question about their relative comfort in life answered one way or another depending on whether or not they heard about another social group’s struggles in comparison to theirs. Put more frankly, white Americans were more likely to report an easier childhood if they weren’t asked to compare their advantages to those of black Americans.
I think this is related to the idea that society is a meritocracy. I’ll sidestep into a field I’m more familiar with. Let’s look at literature, and publishing. So many writers believe that if you’re just good enough, or talented enough, the “right people” will “find you,” and then you’ll be gold. Life will be good. Cue Oprah and Terry Gross and a movie adaptation by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company.
C’mon. You don’t really believe that, do you? As a writer I was communicating with put it, “I realized that an executive from HarperCollins was not going to suddenly appear as I was scribbling in my notebook in a diner.” No. No she’s not. And if she does, she’s more likely to ask you for your salt shaker than she is to ask you if she can see your notebook. And then be able to pull a narrative thread from your ramblings.
Let’s take that a little further. You’re sitting in a diner? It means you can afford to eat there. You have time to write? It means you’re not working three jobs to make ends meet. You’re within vicinity of a HarperCollins editor? You’re probably hanging out in an okay part of town.
Let’s not even talk about the MFAs. I have one myself, and it netted me a gazillion connections. I currently publish a magazine and run a writers’ retreat with four friends from that same MFA. And I got one of my steadiest writing gigs via an editor I met at the MFA. And I’m sending my next novel to an agent I met there.
MFAs are expensive, man. I got in because I got decent grades at a good college and could afford to hone my craft freelancing over fifteen years or so. I graduated because I could afford an unfunded MFA at a low-residency institution. That is some rarified air, indeed.
Denying my privilege—my luck—would be silly and misguided. And blind.
I’ve covered each end of the spectrum now: I went from from not being able to admit I worked hard to prescribing my success to only hard work.
I’ve walked away from my desk seven times while writing this paragraph, so that must mean that what I want to say next is hard: I need to find a way to both recognize my hard work and acknowledge the invisible help I’ve had in getting me to this point.
- My family is well off. This means that I am more likely to take creative risks, since some part of me is aware I’ll always have someplace to turn if things really hit the skids.
- Both of my parents are college educated, which means they also expected me to get an undergraduate degree, at a minimum. Of course they would pay for it.
- My parents were able to immigrate to America with no real barriers. My father had a job already set up when he arrived, thanks to his extensive network of doctors who had graduated from the same medical school he did.
Of course I can’t deny that my ethnicity, and that presents a set of barriers.
- I was expected to marry.
- I was expected to only become either a doctor or a lawyer.
- I was expected to demure.
- I was expected to fade into the background, or I didn’t fit in.
These expectations came from my parents, certainly. But they also come from the American society I wanted to adopt as my own. The number of times I’ve had to hear “Wow, you’re opinionated for an Asian girl.” Oi.
Now that I see these things written out, I can better balance what I “came with”—what makes me lucky—with what I actually had to work for. I can see more clearly the things that might be useful for me to address when I look at how to better promote equity in my workplaces and social places.
For instance, I can represent minorities working in publishing and media and work to lift others. The publishing industry is 87% white. Minority narratives have not always been in demand, even if they are earning some share of the market now.
My parents have a strange saying that always rankles. But still, it has a tinge of truth to it: “Don’t try to help others until you’re sure you can help yourself.” They’re not wrong: I can do far less good if I’m destitute or starving. What they haven’t quite internalized, though, is that everyone has their own respective measurements of the levels at which we believe we need help. And, I’m not sure they buy the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats argument, but I do.
Last fall, when the election result that I didn’t want to happen happened, I had to sit down and have a long conversation with a white family member about the implications for people who might be impacted, including myself. I’ll never forget what she said:
“But they won’t be targeting you, Yi Shun. Asians have such good work ethics.”
To this day, recalling that conversation makes me go lightheaded. I haven’t pinned down what kind of lightheaded. I’m not angry. I’m a little hurt, still, because I have a terrible work ethic, actually, and this family member knows that. Her lumping me in with this stereotype erased my individuality. I think maybe part of the lightheadedness is a direct reaction to the realization of how far apart this family member and I are from each other in our world views: After a beat during which I saw confused blue spots, what I said to her was this:
“Whenever you see or hear the word ‘minority,’ you should think of me. Black, Latino, Asian–we are all targets. And so are the people who value us and spend time with us.”
Or maybe the lightheadedness is due to the recognition of the fact that she was right. I’m not likely to be as targeted as Black Americans, or Latino Americans, or Muslim Americans.
This, too, I have to credit to luck.