Monday, September 3, 2012

Who gets to claim a painful past? Hardship and political discourse

I admit it. I watched some of the Republican National Convention. It might be surprising that even as a political scientist I am not necessarily drawn to doing such—for a number of reasons. Primarily, I find the pageantry of such events distracting and annoying and I also see them as more symbolic than substantive. However, I love rhetoric. For some reason, I find myself drawn to words and symbols and how they are used not only politically but also culturally. Needless to say, I was intrigued by the symbolic acts used by the various speakers. 

Primarily, I was intrigued by how some folk invoked the notion of a painful/difficult past in their narratives. These narratives of pain and hardship are designed, I guess, to show us that they are “regular” folk. Well, I’m not buying it.

Take Ann Romney’s claim for example, 

“We were very young. Both still in college. There were many reasons to delay marriage, and you know? We just didn't care. We got married and moved into a basement apartment. We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, and ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen. Those were very special days.” 

Paul Ryan said,

“Mom was 50 when my Dad died. She got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison. She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business. It wasn't just a new livelihood. It was a new life. And it transformed my Mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn't just in the past. Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my Mom is my role model.”

Both assertions drew considerable applause. As I listened to the applause, I stopped and wondered whose “hardships” are celebrated? And who is even allowed to speak about their hardships?

Welfare Rights Movement:
Could an average Black woman, a woman with the net wealth of $1.00 get up and speak of her hardships? Or are Black women only allowed to speak of hardships in terms of overcoming welfare and slavery (as was the case of Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's story of overcoming racism)?

I do believe that all of us at some point in time, regardless of social location, face challenges. I don’t take lightly the death of Ryan’s dad and the challenges this family more than likely faced in the aftermath. Neither do I negate Mrs. Ryan’s reinvention. What I find problematic is the use of these challenges to claim a form of “humble beginnings.” What rings false to me is the use of these stories to suggest that “I’m just like you.” No you are not. Both individuals were and are privileged and it is through this privilege that they were able to overcome these challenges. 

According to Ralph Vartabedian, Richard A. Serranoand Ken Bensinger, of the Los Angeles Time,

“Ryan, 42, was born into one of the most prominent families in Janesville, Wis., the son of a successful attorney and the grandson of the top federal prosecutor for the western region of the state. Ryan grew up in a big Colonial house on a wooded lot, and his extended clan includes investment managers, corporate executives and owners of major construction companies.”

Can Ryan claim that he did not benefit, directly or indirectly, from this privilege?

Regarding Ann Romney, she said,

I am the granddaughter of a Welsh coal miner who was determined that his kids get out of the mines. My dad got his first job when he was six years old, in a little village in Wales called Nantyffyllon, cleaning bottles at the Colliers Arms.
 When he was 15, dad came to America. In our country, he saw hope and an opportunity to escape from poverty. He moved to a small town in the great state of Michigan. There, he started a business — one he built himself, by the way.
He raised a family. And he became mayor of our town.” (emphasis added)

Did she and Mitt not benefit from the fact they were part of a political power elite?

Why is it that these privileged individuals can’t humbly claim their privilege? Why can’t they simply say that yes, we hit some rough patches, but because of our parents and our lineage, we were able to overcome. Yes, we also had to work hard to overcome, but because of access—to education, to wealth, to connections, etc. we made it. This is part of your story. 

I wanted to say to both individuals, “Just tell the whole truth.” Please don’t tell me half of a story and then expect me to applaud and think that you are just like me. Also, please don’t use your privilege to mute others’ stories of hardship. 

As I listened to Paul Ryan’s story of his mom riding the bus, the story of my grandmother and countless other Black women came to mind. First, when is riding the bus in and of itself a hardship? Indeed doing such is a hardship from many poor Black women or those who live in particularly poor communities. Yet, these folks get no applause.

In 1991, seventeen year old Cynthia Wiggins was killed because a private mall did not allow public transportation from the inner-city onto its property.

“According to regional transit officials, the mall's developers refused to allow it on their property, which meant anyone coming from central Buffalo had to disembark 300 yards away, on the other side of seven-lane Walden Avenue, a highway feeding into the New York State Thruway without a sidewalk or crossing. Then, just before Christmas, a young, single mother from Buffalo was killed by a dump truck as she walked from the No. 6 bus stop to her job at the mall.”

I have a student, who often came to class with a candy bar. I asked her, “why are you always eating candy bars?” She replied, “It’s what I can afford. When I don’t have money this is what I eat.” Tuna fish would have been a luxury to her. 

Is there room on the platform for these stories? If not, we have to ask why. 

These stories of these women are left out of this narrative. There are also other elements left out the Ryan and Romney’s narratives. For one, Mrs. Romney does not explain how they overcame these hardships in their marriage? Let’s stop a moment and unpack the spoken and the unspoken. 

We have to differentiate choice from suffering. I’m not suggesting that our choices cannot lead to suffering. Because God knows that I’ve made some choices that have led to suffering. But in deed there is a difference. I admit that I know nothing about the Romney’s except what Ann told “us” the night of her speech. She admitted that she and Mitt were of two different faiths and that they choose to get married young. Reading between the lines, they choose to get married without the blessings of their parents. Choice! Both grew up in wealthy families, yet opted to leave that behind (temporarily) and build a life together. Choice! Mitt had completed his undergraduate degree and was working on his law and business degrees. Choice, and access! Additionally, left out of the narrative is that at least one family allowed them back into the fold and that they were financially taken care of—there goes the days of eating tuna. Regardless of how they walked away from their parents’ money, they still had privilege. So Ann, yes you had to eat tuna, but you had a choice.

Some of us don’t have that choice. We are not born into privilege.

My 80 plus year old grandmother takes the bus to work (don’t ask why she still works at her age). In fact, she takes the bus and the train. My grandmother tells a story of working from about the age of eight. Hard labor, working on a plantation is what allowed her to survive. She had NO CHOICE. This is a woman who was motherless at the age of three and found a way, she and my grandfather, to successfully raise two daughters, three grand children and six great-grand children; all of this with little formal education. Wait, here’s your cue to applaud her sacrifices. Very few people will hear her story, because women like her tend to be muted because their stories challenge race, gender, and class hierarchies.

What about the mother of the 12 year old boy who died from complication of an abscessed tooth.  The problem was not necessarily the tooth; it was that he lacked access to dental insurance. Does she get to tell her story?

This is not about whose story is worse? I’m more concerned about who gets to tell their story and how stories are used, politically, to include or exclude some of us. When Black women tell their stories of hardship, we are told to be quiet and stop acting angry. There is no legitimacy afforded to us. 

Will we be invited to speak at any of these conventions? Will anyone listen to us or will they attempt to silence us with their stares and comments that “it’s bad, but it could be worse?” Is there space to hear Black women’s stories of hardship?

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