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For some folks, life is a hill

NY Times, November 29, 2013

By Charles M. Blow

I strongly reject the concept of respectability politics, which postulates that a style of dress or speech justifies injustice, and often violence, against particular groups of people or explains away the ravages of their inequality.

Charles M. Blow
Charles M. Blow

I take enormous exception to arguments about the “breakdown of the family,” particularly the black family, that don’t acknowledge that this country for centuries has endeavored, consciously and not, to break it down. Or that family can be defined only one way.

I don’t buy into the mythology that most poor people are willfully and contentedly poor, happy to live with the help of handouts from a benevolent big government that is equally happy to keep them dependent.

These are all arguments based on shame, meant to distance traditional power structures from emerging ones, to allow for draconian policy arguments from supposedly caring people. These arguments require faith in personal failure as justification for calling our fellow citizens feckless or doctrinally disfavored.

Those who espouse such arguments must root for failures so that they’re proved right. They need their worst convictions to be affirmed: that other people’s woes are due solely to their bad choices and bad behaviors; that there are no systematic suppressors at play; that the way to success is wide open to all those who would only choose it.

Any of us in the country who were born poor, or minority, or female, or otherwise different — particularly in terms of gender or sexual identity — know better.

Misogyny and sexism, racism, income inequality, patriarchy, and homophobia and heteronormative ideals course through the culture like a pathogen in the blood, infecting the whole of the being beneath the surface.

So it is to the people with challenges that I would like to speak today. I know your pains and your struggles. I share them. It is incredibly dispiriting when people are dismissive of the barriers we must overcome simply to make it to equal footing. I know. It is infuriating when people offer insanely naïve solutions to our suffering: “Stop whining and being a victim!” I know.

But I also would like to share with you the way I’ve learned to deal with it, hoping that maybe it will offer you some encouragement.

I decided long ago to achieve as an act of defiance — to define my own destiny and refuse to have it defined for me. I fully understand that trying hard doesn’t always guarantee success. Success is often a fluky thing, dependent as much on luck and favor as on hard work. But while hard work may not guarantee success, not working hard almost always guarantees failure.

I frame the argument to myself this way: If you know that you are under assault, recognize it, and defend yourself.

Trying hard and working hard is its own reward. It feeds the soul. It affirms your will and your power. And it radiates from you, lighting the way for all those who see you.

When I am asked to give speeches, I often include this analogy:

For some folks, life is a hill. You can either climb or stay at the bottom.

It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it is so. Some folks are born halfway up the hill and others on the top. The rest of us are not. Life doles out favors in differing measures, often as a result of historical injustice and systematic bias. That’s a hurtful fact, one that must be changed. We should all work toward that change.

In the meantime, until that change is real, what to do if life gives you the hill?

You can curse it. You can work hard to erode it. You can try to find a way around it. Those are all understandable endeavors. Staying at the bottom is not.

You may be born at the bottom, but the bottom was not born in you. You have it within you to be better than you were, to make more of your life than was given to you by life.

This is not to say that we can always correct life’s inequities, but simply that we honor ourselves in the trying.

History is cluttered with instances of the downtrodden lifting themselves up. The spirit and endurance that it requires is not a historical artifact but a living thing that abides in each of us, part of the bloodline, written in the tracks of tears and the sweat of toil.

If life for you is a hill, be a world-class climber.

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