From the Classroom: Troubling the Myth of the “Bootstrap”

The Myth of the Bootstrap

USF Course: Whiteness, Power, & Privilege
Assignment: Craft a reading response to the assigned article (“The Possessive Investment in Whiteness” by George Lipsitz). The purpose of these is to use writing as a way to reflect upon the issues you found most salient, challenging, disturbing, intriguing, as well as to consider how these texts inform your work as a researcher and educator. These are thinking papers and not intended as refined essays.

In the first chapter of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, George Lipsitz illuminates the ways people of color have been exploited, abused ethically and physically, and essentially sabotaged by a system of racial oppression in the U.S, from its founding to modern times

I most appreciated the examples provided in this reading—the facts. In my experience, most white Americans are resistant to the belief that they are recipients of white privilege.

While this refusal to see the existence of privilege seems unfathomable for people of color, I have to admit that I have not always been armed with many tangible examples beyond my own lived experiences. Often, personal examples are easily written off as subjective or “just one experience.” However, this reading left me questioning what could happen if the examples Lipsitz shared were common knowledge in America. It reminded me of a meaningful experience I had last year, after attending an equity conference for work.

One of the conference facilitators, Dr. Schmidt, shared her story of awakening into her privilege as a white American. She described the pride her family had in her grandfather, a WWII veteran from Texas who had “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps” to provide for his family after the war. It was only through her own investigations that Dr. Schmidt found that her grandfather’s “bootstraps” had actually been the G.I. Bill of 1944. It was with those U.S. government funds that he went to college, obtained a loan to buy land and build a home, and started his own business—all with funding that had been flat out denied to veterans of color.

Dr. Schmidt marveled at the fact that nowhere in her education had this truth been explained; she was one of many white Americans raised to believe a divisive fairy tale in which hard work and determination alone could produce “the American Dream.” Armed with this new knowledge, Dr. Schmidt went on to make sharing this story her life’s work. She did her doctoral research on systems of oppression, and today continues pointing out white privilege to those who may otherwise never awaken to its centrality in their lives.

I continue to believe that educating white people on racism, oppression, and the role white Americans continue to play in an oppressive system (even if they ideologically oppose racism), are key elements that will ultimately make the greatest impact in breaking down oppressive systems in our country.

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