Meritocracy and other lies my mother told me

When I was younger I was fascinated by the size of my mother’s hands. They always seemed so large when she was ready to give me a smack but so delicate and lady like whenever she painted her nails the blood red she favoured. I wondered then how such a dichotomy could exist in one person. Those hands are different now, no longer warmed and ready for errant children and no longer painted, red or any other colour. And while I do not want to force my mother to reconsider her feelings that I am too old for her silence inducing, hysteria stopping smacks, I must be honest and call her out for being a liar. Not about everything, not even close, but about some very important things. It would be callous and unfair to all the silly anecdotes and crazy things that my mother has said to me sum up her philosophies into three main points, but I’ll have to take some liberties and at least try for the sake of brevity, you’ll forgive me, of course. If there were to be three main points that all my mother’s teachings pivoted around, it would be: treat others as you would be treated, work hard and you’ll get rewarded and don’t feel sorry for yourself because no one else will. Now, I have no qualms with the first of those, in fact I wish more of us thought this way. The third point, well, in my latter years I’ve realised that the fact that no one else will feel sorry for you is the reason why you should allow yourself some self-pity, but I can’t fault the teaching or deny that it is the way I live my life. Where I really take issue is with the second point, the fairy tale that every parent wants their child to believe, the fairy tale of meritocracy. It’s a fairy tale because the concept necessitates a world where reward and merit are undeniably linked, where reward is borne from the womb of merit. But that is not the world we live in, in this world reward and merit aren’t even kissing cousins let alone related. I think about the fact that my last domestic worker was my age and I remember how hard working she was, how deserving she was for a life beyond the one she had. I think about the fact that in our country, for many, huddles replace opportunities and I wonder if their parents did not promise them success through hard work as well. I wonder how many of those who live in poverty, or close to it, were also raised with myth that working hard and merit were the basis for reward.

Now this blog is not a plea for laziness or for us to all just abruptly abandon our belief in working hard. In fact, it’s likely that some people will think I’ve lost my mind because they can attest to the fact that hard work has brought them success. I don’t want to challenge that, I don’t want to take away from the energy, drive and passion that people have harnessed to achieve success, and nor do I want to belittle the sacrifices. What I do want to write about is that fact, that hard work alone is not enough. If you believe that it is, then you, like me, are privileged enough for that to be true. Something that frustrates me is the notion amongst many brown skinned people, like myself, that we earned our successes through hard work alone. That we rose from the clutches of the apartheid because we were crafty, we were wily, we were dogged in our determination to succeed. While that may be true, it is only part of the truth. What irks me about this “truth” that we tell ourselves and our children is that in it lies deep prejudice and a self-serving myth relating to those who have less than we do, those who will not see the same success we do. Flip this hard work myth on its head and you get lazy people who simply do not make the most of what is given to them. Flip it on its head and it’s a neat way to call Black people lazy while looking down your nose at them. It’s easy to sell the myth that hard work is what earns you success when opportunities are open to you, but what happens when your access to those opportunities vanish? I write not only of the opportunities that are available to us, I write also of our ability to see an opportunity and to craft opportunities. I shall never forget the story I read and cried over while doing my masters research. It was the true account of a young Black boy struggling at school. His teachers were frustrated with him, he was always shabbily dressed, he didn’t bathe often, and he often fell asleep in class. His teacher had dismissed him as a useless case, he failed to grasp the most basic of concepts no matter what she did. The boy was on his way to becoming a horrific statistic that characterises our education system. You can read it what I’ve just written and ask yourself, why didn’t he try harder? He had access to both primary and secondary education for free, all he had to do was show up and try, right? It’s easy to see it that way when hunger does not claw at your belly, when you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep in a warm comfortable bed instead of having to clamber for a warm dry place to sleep because your shack is flooded. For this boy, it was hard work just to get to school, for this boy he tried his hardest only to be cast aside by a society that has no place for him. This boy was trying to survive, he’d have to work a lot harder than I would have ever had to, probably than you’d ever had to either, just for shot in dark. A shot at being the exception, maybe making it out of school only to find his path thwarted with the structural injustices of our past, littered with the failures of so many before him. Hard work doesn’t even come close to what this boy would need to live the life that I do in this country.

Where does this leave us? I hope it leaves you aware that you owe your success to something beyond your hard work, it’s a hard pill to swallow and I’m not trying to take away from your greatness, you’re awesome. But we live in a world where other things are at play, often invisible and sometimes insidious for everyone apart from the benefactor. We can call it luck but, in our country, we know that it may have something to do with the colour of your skin, or even something as silly as the sound of your accent or what gender you identify with. Maybe your merit is somewhere hidden behind the “blackness” of your voice or buried beneath your breasts. We need to be cognisant of where merit hides or how we chose to define merit if we want to talk of our journeys to success or how hard work got us there. I’m not saying don’t claim your victories, life is too short for anything else, but let us stop claiming them in isolation, let us be aware of our privilege and the doors it opens. Hard work is nothing without opportunity and in a country where were it’s still bitterly relevant and true that white is right, it’s hardly surprising that we are not colour blind when it comes to recognising merit or dispensing rewards.

I have no doubt that there are people who have worked harder than I have, who will continue to do so and who are probably more deserving than I am, but who will live their lives without any of the rewards that I enjoy, material or otherwise. Meritocracy, it seems to me, is just a self serving fairy tale to inspire hope in the privileged and to replace understanding with arrogance. Maybe it’s a fairy tale we stop telling our children, choosing instead to remind them that their privilege isn’t the norm.