Ask the Hoydenizens: How to respond to the bootstrappers?


Sabina wrote:

A few days ago I was having a conversation with one of my noob-to-feminism friends about feminism and intersectionality. At one point in the conversation he said something that was pretty much the equivalent of, “In my experience [as an upper-middle-class, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, heterosexual male], people just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they really want to succeed in life.” and invoked prominent men of colour and women to emphasize his point.

It’s been bothering me ever since.

So, how do I even begin to try to counter that assertion (beyond shouting, “emWHAT!?/em” in his face, which was what I really wanted to do)? Is it even worth it to try? Are there any FAQ-type pages I could point him to? I looked through the Feminism 101 blog but couldn’t find anything that was really relevant.

Thank you!

Over to you, Hoydenizens…

Categories: gender & feminism, social justice

Tags: , , , ,

19 replies

  1. Hit them with a cast iron frypan would be my suggestion. My mother keeps telling me I’m not “trying hard enough” to master my disability and it’s only the fact she lives in Australia that has so far saved her life.

  2. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have boots.
    Kirstens last blog post..Quote of the day.

  3. I must apologise to Sabina, I really don’t know. And while I know that just shaking my head sadly and walking away from the poor privileged person doesn’t help … I’m pretty sure screaming “HELLO? PRIVILEGE CALLING” doesn’t either, so I settle for the less confrontational option.

  4. If it’s someone you’re interested in taking the time to educate, I’d suggest talking about their life with them, about the choices they’ve made, and how much the culture they’ve been raised in has enabled them (or compelled them) to make those choices. Then I’d ask them to imagine being raised without those expectations, or the knowledge, or the social network, and still discover that those choices were even there.
    It’s very time consuming, but I don’t think people really get how and why other people are cut off from “good choices”. As Kirsten says, you have to have boots, you have to know what boots are, and you have to know what bootstraps are. It isn’t, for example, enough to go to school and work hard. You need to have learned first that language, and books, are important and valuable. You need to know that working hard at school has a reasonable possibility of paying off. For most people of colour, and most women, the idea that all the hard work will pay off is not a given.

  5. Gently console them on their lack of life experience and sincerely wish them the luck that their opinions will never change…
    I think Sabina met one of my former bosses. One thing that really negates this argument for me is when you look at these prominent people that have come from the slums, overcome hardships or whatever, that are in media spotlight, and then you ask, “Where are their brothers and sisters?”
    And, of course, realise that any difference in their fate had nothing to do with ‘bootstraps’.
    I’ve been used as the example to emphasize this point – hence, this is a button pusher for me, because it feels like what I’ve come from is being made nothing – as if the past has no influence. And secondly, all my peers, anyone who’s in a difficult situation, is judged against me as if I achieve success on my own merit and without ever having any of the advantages of luck, opportunity, privilege – all of which I’ve had and the others who dare show a depressed face or fail to climb the career ladder… may well not have had.
    It shouldn’t take a long speech to explain. I’d suggest book-swapping (autobiographies), but I know from experience that boot-strap believers don’t want to be challenged and are likely to deflect attempts to challenge their theory. It’s called denial.

  6. I actually just had an interesting conversational exchange on a related topic in one of my classes. We were reading an article drawing on Bordieu,and a section of it dealt with how segments of a group that are structurally disadvantaged by the group’s norms can still internalize and legitimize them, and as an example cited how “bootstrapping” mentality has a strong hold in conversations about race in American culture, and that it’s not coming from one direction only. Someone else (who happens to be a man of color, and I happen to be a woman not of color) pointed out that blanketly denying individual agency was patriarchal, too. Still thinking on it.
    MatildaZQs last blog post..The Rock Loves Pie: Alton Brown’s "Super Apple Pie"

  7. I’d point to the current US president as an example of how privilege works. George W Bush’s main criterion for becoming president was “well, my daddy did it, so I deserve to”[0]. His academic, business, and social service records are far from sterling, and he’s performed with an almost spectacular level of incompetence in the position. Indeed, the only reason he has made it thus far is purely because he is white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, and from a family which falls into the “upper-class” category[1] – it’s not what he knows, or what he can do, but *who* he knows, and how much money he can pay them to stay friends with him.
    By contrast, the candidates in the presidential race (on the Democratic side, at least) have had to prove repeatedly that they have far better qualifications for the job than he does merely to be considered in the running. Shakesville has been running a (non-comprehensive) listing of stories which imply Barack Obama isn’t competent for the job of running the United States of America purely due to his skin colour; they also had a similar list of articles which implied Hilary Clinton wasn’t an appropriate candidate due to her gender[3]. In the case of John McCain, he hasn’t had anyone implying he should not be a candidate for reasons related to his gender or his skin colour (indeed, these are regarded as positive recommendations) – instead issues like policy matters, physical health, and similar are being raised as possible arguments against him.
    “Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps”, when properly examined, is generally a multi-generational process at the very least, and involves standing on the shoulders of a great many of one’s ancestors and relations.
    [0]This has not been widely regarded as a valid qualification for the active political leadership of most English-speaking nations since approximately 1649.
    [1] Or at least, it would if the USAliens had social classes. Since so many USAlien conservatives are insistent there are no class barriers in the US (and let’s face it, surely they’d know[2]), such Marxist criteria clearly don’t apply to assessing people in that great nation[2].
    [2] [/sarcasm]


    [/sarcasm, damnit!]
    [3] They’re also accumulating a listing of stories regarding Sarah Palin which imply her gender (rather than, for example, her prior record, her lack of understanding of wider events and situations, her involvment in some rather shady dealings in her current position, and her ties to some rather frightening fundamentalist Christian groups) should be suitable grounds to object to her candidacy for VP.

  8. This is totally my brother the neo-con’s argument about anything (and here in the US we have a fine tradition of this sort of thing…) so I’ll have to chew on it as nothing has ever broken through to him yet.
    But yeah, the lack of agency is important–emphasizing the additional hoops that all of us outside the kyriarchy have to jump through to get the same thing.

  9. Public transportation is a bootstrap.
    Health insurance is a bootstrap.
    Low-cost housing is a bootstrap.
    Assistance buying food for your children is a bootstrap.
    Everything a privileged person has and can take for granted is a bootstrap.
    People can’t pull themselves up by these proverbial bootstraps if you take away all their bootstraps.
    nightgigjos last blog post..a gratitude list

  10. I think proportional facts tend to be the best evidence. Take a group that is disadvantaged, measure them in proportion to the population, now count the number of members of that group in positions of privilege. The society that is at least nearing proportional representation of this group in positions of privilege is the society that paved highways for people rather than waiting for them to ‘bootstrap’
    Grendels last blog post..Travel

  11. The achieving of sucess/ riches/ fame against overwhelming odds is the Hollywood dream writ large, so perhaps it’s not surprising it colours the expectations of so many.
    It’s also the standard ordinary people are increasingly held to and considered wanting if they don’t win the day.
    Sabina, perhaphs try pointing out to your friend that yes there are exceptional people, but they are usually just that. He needs to look to the average, and at groups rather than exeptions. For example I’m a white Australian; Cathy Freeman may be better off than me but that says nothing about the general conditions for indigenous people in this country.

  12. Ejem,
    ”A consequence of the third law of motion is that an isolated body cannot exert a force upon itself”
    So, it is physically impossible to pull oneself by the bootstraps.
    Even Newton himself said once:
    “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.
    I don’t have anything better to say. In my personal experience, talking to people who believe the “bootstrapping” myth so strongly is an utter waste of time.
    Mary Tracy9s last blog post..Feminism By Any Other Name

  13. No person is an island.
    people just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they really want to succeed in life.
    I’d ask questions about the assumptions behind that statement, to make your friend realize what assumptions he’s making and whether or not they’re valid. It might or might not work:
    -So, are you saying that POC/women/whichever group you were talking about are lazy? That they just don’t work hard enough? Sounds racist/sexist/etc. to me.
    -So, are you saying that they just don’t want it enough? Sounds prejudiced to me.
    -What about people that are poor? Say they work as hard as they can, but they’re still making minimum wage. What if the cost of living is too high for them to build up savings? What if they spend all their time working, just to get by, and so they don’t have the free time or resources to move up the class ladder? Poverty is expensive.
    -Do you think you’re successful? How did you attain that success? Did you ever have to worry about having a roof over your head and food on the table or could you go about your childhood enjoying life and not thinking about that? Did you go to school? Did you go to a good school with good teachers, enough textbooks, and funding for science labs, sports facilities, music programs, and all those other extras? Did that help you get rec letters for college? Did you go to college? Did you have to spend all your free time working in order to pay for tuition, or did you have free time to study and do extracurriculars that buffed up your resume and party?
    Privilege is most often invisible to those who have it, but sometimes constant questioning of the assumptions behind privileged statements will break through.
    Pizza Diavolas last blog post..I Write Letters: $700Bn Bailout Proposal

  14. While I don’t find either of these framings particularly compelling myself, they are the two that I’ve had the most success with in talking to people unaware of how privilege works:
    * If they’re American, calling the Wall Street bail-out “welfare” and speaking of the “welfare mentality” of people in power — who can get away with shirking their responsibilities because they know that if they just fuck up enough, the government will step in and give them hand-outs — has been setting off unexpected lightbulbs for people lately.
    * I’ve tried in the past to switch the argument from “you vs. Michael Jordan” to “you vs. black-you” or “you vs. female-you” or “you vs. growing-up-in-poverty you” or “you vs. disabled-you.” A couple people have gotten it once I’ve explained that I’m not positing that they have it better than every single minority/disabled/female/etc. person (which apparently they assumed “privilege” meant), but simply that they, personally, would have had a harder time in life had they not been white/middle-class/male/able-bodied/etc.
    It’s shifting the question, I guess, from “How are you different from Oprah?” to “How would your life be different if you were X?”
    It does sometimes require a lot of follow-up questions driving the point home a bit, but they should be undertaken in a spirit of inquiry rather than judgment, if possible. “What if your parents couldn’t have afforded private school?” “What if your school couldn’t have accommodated your disabilities in a regular classroom?” etc.
    The most lightbulb-moments, I’ve found, tend to pop up when you talk about all the advantages someone had as a child, due to their parents’ status, because it’s a bit harder to hold up “I was able to go to a good pre-school” as some sort of *personal* achievement.

  15. I always approach this issue very systematically. The first thing I ask, is if this person believes that to be successful at University a person needs to have acquired a certain skill set and knowledge. If they agree I explain how the difference in the education system between ghetto schools and suburban schools means that some children even graduating top of their class arrive at university unprepared and unable to do the work. They played by the rules and yet the system still let them down.
    I might then ask something along the line of if they believe that someone who works two jobs is a harder worker? Well if you have to work two jobs to pay your bills and the cost of living keeps rising, how can you pull your boots up so to speak? The very nature of the capitalist system means that it will pay workers as little as possible and therefore even though this person is working two jobs they cannot pull themselves up.I would also point out that the majority of jobs these days are contract labour jobs with no benefits and no status, therefore it is much easier for an employer to terminate and with such a low union density a person cannot fight back. The labour market is not set up to enrich anyone. It is only set up to give you just enough to forestall starvation and a few creation comforts for those that have been born with certain privileges. In this case whiteness. You see if white employees value whiteness over and above economic advancement they will not join with POC to demand change. It is a divisive tactic that employers have been using against unions since unions existed. They are meant not to have sympathy for those that have less than because then the white employee would recognize the ways in which they are beng wronged as well.
    Renees last blog post..My Kingdom For An Orange

  16. “Even Newton himself said once:
    “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.”
    Yeah, except that he was being sarcastic at Robert Hooke. I’ve read several biographies of Newton. He was a Very.Odd.Man.

  17. I think I have managed to get lightbulbs into people’s minds on this subject by simple persistence.
    Not quite on topic, but I think repeatedly posting things on my blog about how “But Things Are Much Better Now” related to queer politics, with various quotes, posts, pictures, and “ex-gay movements” may have convinced some of the more stubborn that things are Only Better For Some and not everyone.
    It may be just simply talking about this a lot may get through.
    (I also know from talking to people about accessibility that they’re more likely to notice how unaccessible their workplace/home is now than they would have been a year ago.)

  18. Like Kirsten @2, I’d ask why they’d assume that a person could afford boots. Or that they were able to bend down far enough to reach their bootstraps, if they were able to afford them. Or that they had the strength to pull themselves up, assuming they had boots and could reach the straps.
    If that was met with blank incomprehension I’d pack my pearls and piss off. It’s not up to me to educate anyone. No-one educated me – I read a bit and listened a bit and thought a bit and read and listened a bit more. I took a few risks. I was and am still very privileged in many ways, but that didn’t stop me figuring privilege out.
    I think it’s patronising to assume that we are the saviour of someone who doesn’t want to see what’s under their nose..

  19. If somebody asked me that, I’d ask back why they (the speaker) aren’t a multi-millionaire. If it only required conviction and hard work to overcome the odds, why aren’t *they* themselves doing it? I bet they would come up with reasons/excuses why they haven’t “succeeded in life” yet all by themselves.

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