Disclaimer: This essay was written and was first published on Wattpad in 2020 from my “A Black Opinion” blog. Therefore, it will not acknowledge the current state of the world. Regardless, this essay has an important message that could be a logical step forward for the world to make the changes needed to address the issue of racism. The same issue that has stained our world for far too long.
America, glorious America. The former number one country was where every immigrant dreamed of living. Liberty, democracy and success were the promises given under the red, white and blue banner. In recent years though, the nation has lost its charm, making Canada the most appealing nation, not just to immigrants but also Americans.
While I would love to talk about the politics that led to the US crashing and burning for all the world to see, the “American Dream” always had cracks. It is only now have they become apparent. It is the crack of a lack of “personal responsibility” that I would like to discuss today. This is why I think the American Dream ideal is flawed and has become more of a nightmare than a dream.
According to Political Science Professor Courtney Jung, “personal responsibility” can be described as citizens being responsible for the outcome of their livelihoods. It is when the fact a person succeeds or fails is dependent on how hard a person works. This means those who succeed deserve their success since they worked hard to get to where they are now. This also means those who are unsuccessful can only blame themselves for their “failures”.
As a concept, I do believe that a person should work hard to gain success, but blaming another for their failures does not sit well with me, especially when there are many factors that result in the “success” or “failure” of an individual.
First of all, the concept of “personal responsibility” assumes that everyone is equal. Everyone has the same amount of opportunities, exposure as the next person, all it takes to be successful is hard work. This is when the idea of “equality of opportunities” starts to crumble.
Realistically, no one is born into the same opportunities, there will always be certain groups who have the advantage while others are constantly disadvantaged. For instance, let’s compare the opportunities of a Black student versus a White student in their aspirations to get into a top university. I will be using Canadian universities, because that is what I am familiar with, and this “American concept”, sadly, is present in Canada and elsewhere as well.
The average White student is born into an environment that fosters education. They are likely to have parents who had a post-secondary education, and have a lot of time and money on their hands to attend extra-curricular activities such as school clubs, music or tutoring helping them prepare for post-secondary education. The reason I mention extra-curricular activities is that top colleges and universities rarely focus on grade averages, because everyone who applies is already getting high marks. Instead, they focus on what a student can add to their college or university by looking at what they do in their spare time.
In contrast, the average Black student’s opportunities are limited. If they come from humble beginnings, there is a possibility they would be attending a secondary school in their area. These schools are usually not top schools and are not encouraging graduates to go after post-secondary education. A Black student may feel pressured just to follow the trend and low expectations so typically they are more interested in having fun that being studious. Some students have a family to support and do not have the luxury of having extra-curricular activities. Even if they had good grades and did participate in clubs, the last barrier is tuition fees.
At the University of Toronto, the tuition last year was 6 thousand, this year it is 8 thousand.
Let that sink in for a bit.
Now if that student was living in residence, that’s another 3 to 4 thousand. Even if they were commuting by train, which costs about 5 bucks, that’s about 400 dollars a year. Then there are the textbooks which can cost from 200 dollars or more.
In total (excluding the potential grants or loans they may receive) that’s $18,600 dollars.
Wow. Just wow.
Now that’s for a top university, but even if they decided to attend a cheaper one, they would still be spending a lot of money and would be saddled with student debt. While White students may experience debt as well, Black students are more likely to not pursue post-secondary education because of this insurmountable fact. This is why universities like Queens are limiting their acceptances to some programs to blacks and aboriginal students only this year.
Personal responsibility not only has a faulty assumption of equality of opportunity, it also puts the blame on the individual rather than on the system. In 2015, Professor Jung published a book called Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy. In one of her lectures, she explained a problem she noticed when studying breastfeeding. From the late 1990s to even today, everyone was pressuring mothers to breastfeed their babies. That baby formula would cause autism, cancer, and a lot of medical problems. As a result, whenever there was a child diagnosed with one of these ailments, everyone blamed the mother for not breastfeeding as it was her responsibility. This was the same case for mothers who did not have a natural birth.
Professor Jung then argued that the problem was not the lack of responsibility of the mother, rather the lack of responsibility of the state. When it comes to maternity leave, mothers used to not be paid. So they were expected to come back to work if they wanted to support their family. As a result, the baby was always left in the care of some other family relative, who could not breastfeed the baby. Here enters the baby formula, the same thing that mothers were encouraged not to feed their baby, so that the infant could be fed.
Here you can see the problem. Because the system (being the workplace) was unwilling to pay mothers maternity leave, they hyped up this myth that baby formula was bad for babies. “Breast is Best’’ as the WHO would say was, according to them, because baby formula is not sterile, and needs to be prepared before it’s served. However, that does not stop mothers from relying on it due to their need to keep working. Now if only mothers were given paid maternity leave, they wouldn’t have to rely on baby formula and this issue would be solved.
This is an analogy for why the “American Dream” is more of a nightmare. The system’s refusal to acknowledge differences in experiences and to fully support groups, by pinning the blame on the individuals for their lack of responsibility that should have been theirs to bear.
I do believe that we should work hard to fulfill our potential for success. However, I do not believe when it comes to certain things like trying to get a post-secondary education or paid maternity-leave, we should allow the system to blame us for our failures when it was the system that prevented us from having the same opportunities in the first place.
This mentality of “personal responsibility” is what causes this vicious cycle of poverty to be perpetuated, and for instance, the false concept that getting vaccine causes autism.
We need to wake up from this nightmare and stop pretending it’s a sweet dream, or we will never make change.
So is systemic failure of the underprivileged and women the cause for the present nightmare of the American demise.
There is the state of the US political and socioeconomic realities for so many. But as in the case of any crisis in society, those with an already underprivileged state will suffer the most. A study conducted by the Canadian government stated:
The economic lockdown triggered by COVID-19 has led so far to disproportionate employment losses among lower-paid workers and young workers. Its impact on visible minorities is currently less known. Since visible minorities often have lower incomes and more precarious employment than the White population (Block et al. 2019; Lightman and Gingrich 2018), their ability to buffer the income losses due to work interruptions is likely more limited.
So now to open up the demise of the poor and of white privilege these certainly have to be unveiled because when explaining the failures of personal responsibility one has to unearth neglected areas not considered to find true solutions. There are systemic reasons explaining low pay for maternity leave and other women’s issues as well as the mention of the vaccination causing autism myths. Public education and communication through the media has a hand in this issue. Corporate greed has a hand in it too. The cause for failure of the American dream is not a simple one. But from where I sit as a black woman in a postsecondary institution, I can see how education plays a huge role in hitting the system and fixing some issues.
So students in poor neighborhoods do not have the same opportunities as their richer counterparts, and there are lower expectations for many to attend higher education. Fixing this is first a people issue. How we think and what we say and do. How we treat others. People build systems, so blaming systems really means laying blame to layers and layers of thought and deed and words and many layers of how we treat each other.
The American dream is still possible if the opportunities are there for all and the environment to be tooled for success is also provided for all equally. If equity is not realistic because of our history of mistakes and misjudgment and basic greed, if they are not repented from, they are likely to repeat itself. This is where education comes in to change the systems you change the minds and thinking of a generation with the hope that they will fight through the nightmare and recover the dream for themselves and for each other whether privileged or not simply because you are my neighbour.
And I am “personally responsible “.