We all know the classic American Dream, the rags-to-riches tale of an average Joe building a business from nothing to the Fortune 500. We love to romanticize the tech start-up in some suburban garage as coming from humble beginnings, but … having a garage is something. Having a computer is something. Having access to education to understand and work with technology is something. That’s not even factoring in networks and social capital.
For all intents and purposes, I am the kind of plucky go-getter from modest upbringing we love to read about. But coming from a lower socioeconomic background, not being born into connections and having to work two jobs in addition to class has all made it difficult for me. In class, my peers argue that education should be very expensive lest people become less motivated – presumably by being forced to interact with the poors like me.
So, let me get this straight. You love people bootstrapping to success but if an OSAP student comes near you you’ll scream? Broke kids like me should just work hard to become successful but you’re determined to make that impossible. When you talk about people who came from nothing, then, what do you really mean by nothing?
I struggled to find my first job in a town hit by the auto industry collapse. It wasn’t until my father found a connection from about twenty years earlier when my mother worked a different minimum wage job that I even got a chance to interview at a fast food restaurant. I had anxiety for much of high school because I was so willing — nay, desperate — to work but couldn’t find a job no matter how great my grades were or how much volunteer work I had done. After that it became easier to find work because I had experience. The first and most important reason I’ve gotten what few opportunities I have was that rare moment in which my dad knew someone. That was a luxury for me that afforded me the luxury of a minimum wage job.
In a group project, one of my peers boasted throughout the term about how his dad was a CEO and he had a guaranteed job as soon as he graduated. He kicked his feet up on a table in the library (gross) and somehow managed to interrupt me and talk over me regularly for nearly four months without saying anything of value even once. His ultimate contribution was a two-sentence paragraph that had to be scrapped because of its poor quality and general inaccuracy. The same man ripped into me for suggesting we employ a twist on a strategy he thought was ridiculous — that I had read about in the assigned readings for class the week before. When told that this was something we were genuinely expected to know, he then snapped at me, because why should he read the textbook?
I worked my tail off, doing more than a lion’s share of the work. Then, because I experienced a flare-up of my disability, I couldn’t make the final presentation and we got a low mark, a heavy blow to my G.P.A.
How am I, our plucky broke protagonist, supposed to make my way to the top through grit and hard work when people like that classmate (and there are so many of them) block my path? How am I supposed to pull myself up by my bootstraps when I can’t get a job because the boss hired his slacker son who puts his feet all over the furniture and refuses to do the bare minimum? How do I shake off my humble beginnings when I can’t earn the marks I worked for because so few people are willing in any way to accommodate my disability?
More importantly, how is anyone supposed to live a genuine rags-to-riches story when they face obstacles that I don’t? Racial discrimination, transphobia, different heads of the hydra-like beast that is ableism … It’s almost like the rich know it isn’t plausible for most people to succeed.
It’s almost like that is by design.
There is so much privilege in most rags-to-riches American dream stories I’ve heard, glamorizing a notion of “poverty” that amounts to someone growing up with just one summer home and three, not four sports cars with gluttonous zeal. When your idea of living in rags is buying your Kate Spade purses and Gucci slides on sale, I don’t trust you to tell me anything about success in this world, because what you have earned will always be tainted to me by factors you have never had to consider.