Here in the United States we have this thing called the “American Dream,” that no matter who you are if you work hard enough, you can work your way out of poverty, from rags to riches. Many Americans have bought into this idea even with countless evidence proving that wealth hardly moves and that structural inequalities such as race, gender, and national origin disproportionately hinder certain people while advantaging others in this rat race we call life. What’s wrong with the American Dream is not only is it a big fat LIE! but it also romanticizes the struggle, so to speak.
A few weeks ago, my co-workers at GGE and I were having a conversation when one of them used the phrase “romanticizing the struggle” to describe society’s expectation of people in dire situations to miraculously overcome all obstacles and achieve monetary success (which is the paramount definition of success in our society). This phrase really resonated with me because I feel that’s what many people do in order to make excuses for why they have privilege over others. “Well, my great-grandfather was an Irish immigrant so even though I’m now a rich white kid that goes to Duke, my family and I are somehow exempt from white privilege.” Yes, on a conscious level we may acknowledge all the oppression and inequality in the world, but deep inside we use our own experiences as proof that “I made it! So anyone should be able to!” Which is the definition of romanticizing the struggle. This tactic also serves to end any conversation about ending the systemic inequalities that still exist today. “How can I get rid of my privilege if I technically don’t have any?”
I never understood how this logic was so ingrained in people’s understanding of American history and systemic inequality until after the seminar the Moxies had on Friday. We were discussing some of these issues and many people felt it necessary to share anecdote after anecdote about their families’ struggles to get to America, to climb out of poverty, blah, blah blah. That was really surprising to me, how ingrained these narratives of struggle were for each individual, as if they themselves had lived through the experiences they were describing. It seemed to me that no wonder some of these same people (other people, not necessarily the Moxies) could not understand their privilege when they had been taught their whole lives to think themselves quite UN-privileged and to internalize a narrative of struggle they had never themselves experienced.
How can you tell someone that “Yeah, your Irish great-grandfather fought in WWII and was able to use the GI Bill to go to college and buy a home, but many people of color who also fought in WWII were systematically denied the benefits of the GI Bill and therefore excluded from the white middle class America built in the 1950s?” Or, “Yes, you’re family had to flee their country as refugees and come to America with nothing, but imagine the many people who have fled their countries just to arrive in America and realize that they were going to face even more discrimination based on the color of their skin.” Yeah, people don’t take that well.
It seems as if we as Americans have internalized the American dream narrative as well as this idea of our own exceptionalism, and we’ve also internalized this hierarchy of suffering that we each have somehow won, that we and our families have suffered exceptionally. But everyone’s families have suffered and been through stuff. That’s all that history is, people going through stuff.
What many Americans don’t realize is that it’s a privilege to even remember. To even know your family history and who you are. Many people in the world have no memories of the trauma they’ve experienced. No museums, monuments, or chapters in history textbooks devoted to the trauma we’ve lived through and continue to carry as a tribe, as a people, as a nation. Our history is written by our conquerors, who distort the facts to hide the brutality and violence that they’ve enacted on us. They don’t want us to remember, to know the truth so that we can never resolve our trauma. We continue to live with it as we continue to live in a world that devalues our culture, our history, and us as a people.
All we have is disillusioned grandmothers and stoic fathers and pessimistic mothers as the proof that we definitely have it better now than they did when they were our age. They don’t romanticize their struggle. “It was rough. It sucked. Now, we’re past it.” is usually the brief summary I get whenever I try to squeeze personal stories about historical events out of any relative or family friend. “Why do you want to know about something like that? You should just be happy you know nothing about that” is another response I usually get.
Many people I know don’t romanticize their struggle because they realize there’s nothing glamorous or exceptional about it. And it doesn’t excuse the suffering that their people and many other people all over the world continue to suffer through till this day. They haven’t internalized this ideal of American “exceptionalism” that, when you think about it only serves to further an imperialist, racist, and oppressive ideology by convincing a bunch of privileged Americans that they actually have it pretty bad (when they don’t) and therefore do not need to care much about the wellbeing of others.
So, stop romanticizing your struggle. Acknowledge your privilege and move on so that the rest of us can move on, too.