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A Vestigial Belief In A Meritocracy

January 27, 2008
Over at Heart’s place, Funnie talks about some women growing up with a “vestigial belief in a meritocracy” and how when it does not work out it brings disappointment. I hate to sound like the never-ending poor little me victim, but I was not raised to believe in a meritocracy. Maybe in a way, I am ahead of the game because I do not have to step back and deconstruct a false construction. Shrug. Somewhere along the way, I was told, shown, taught that I would never get anywhere on talent or working hard. Life sucks and is unfair and that is that. We were not from the clean shiny-hair, straight teeth and educated lot with money. So that’s that, move on. Move on, move on, move on…..you don’t have to go home, just move away from here……move on, move on…….without a map or compass no less.

After reading Funnie, I thought long and hard about why I think the way I do. How is it that I’ve never bought into this meritocracy? Perhaps it is as she says about some, that there were no males around who were rewarded by the system, therefore I did not see the system in action. How can I believe in something that I have not witnessed? We had no male success stories. The men in my family (and we had a lot of them), whether by their fault or not, never amounted to much. At least not what society would consider much. I do have a brother who I think is a very good and decent human being (he happens to be my daughter’s favourite uncle as well) though. Nevertheless, within a sexist society, thus, a sexist family, if the men are nothing then what are the women expected to achieve? Nothing I presume. It probably explains why my family of all people placed so many unnecessary obstacles in front of me. A lone female could not be successful if there were no successful males; they had to see to that in order for it all to make sense.

Outside of my family, the closest I can remember to being rewarded with meritocracy was when I was a junior in high school. I was in NJROTC. The commander needed volunteers to work at the ROTC building during the summer, preparing it for the school term. No one would volunteer besides my younger brother and me. To be honest we only did it to get away from our house, and, we were fed lunch. We both worked hard. I cannot say what job he was given but I’m sure he did it well, probably painting around the flagpole or cutting the grass. I was always put in the uniform supply room. Uniforms needed to be sorted by size and type and then stored in a way that the item could be easily retrieved during issue time. It was hot and lonely work but I did it and was always told that I did an excellent job.

One time a visit from an admiral was scheduled and the commander called for volunteers because he wanted to make a big show. Again, no one came but my brother and me. For that visit, we both received special awards. Awards were given in the form of a ribbon for our uniforms. The more ribbons the more bragging rights. People, mostly boys, were so livid that I had a ribbon that they did not have (I don’t remember my brother taking heat for it, then again, he was younger and in a different grade) and could not get. I was always reported, criticised, scrutinised, and diminished. There was even a rumour started that I was having sex with the commander.

The beginning of senior year meant that the commander would announce who the new student battalion commander would be. I was not the new student battalion commander, but instead the executive officer, second in charge. Even though I thought I was superior to the boy who was selected I was happy enough being second because I did not believe I would get that far. Nevertheless, within a week, the students (including the new student commander) held a kangaroo court and the demand to fire me were laid at the commander’s feet. It was he who called it a kangaroo court, at the time, I had never heard of that term. He told the all-boy firing squad that his decision was final and they had to live with it. That is where the fun began. Instead of living with it, they decided to undermine my authority, spread rumours, not participate as a team, etc, etc, some even quit. Moreover, we were all just 15, 16, 17, and 18 years old. I learned early that being rewarded as a female was a pipe dream. When I would almost fall for it, all I had to do was look around and there would be evidence right in front of my face that men was not going to let women be anything as long as they could prevent it. And if it was not men it would be some self-hating female ready and willing to knock another woman down in order to score a few points from the men.

12 Comments
  1. Chris permalink
    January 27, 2008 4:00 pm

    Thank god ya’ll weren’t doing live fire exercises…..I would hate to think how far they would have taken it!

    I was reading briefly about ‘groupthink’ yesterday and it seems these little boys were group-cowards. Kind of like what drives gangs.

  2. Professor Zero permalink
    January 27, 2008 6:14 pm

    Gangs – and professors! You’re right though: if one doesn’t believe in meritocracy, on is relieved of wondering, what did I do wrong? Great story and great post.

  3. Kitty Glendower permalink
    January 27, 2008 8:23 pm

    Thanks Chris. What is amazing is, a few of the boys were deserving to some respect, but not more deserving than I felt like I was. I could be wrong of course, but I had put my heart and soul in that joint for three years. Yes, I started out for other reasons, like it gave me something to wear twice a week, when I had little to wear, it gave me food on field trips, and the adults treated me like I had something to add, to create. These boys did very little if not anything. I know the one boy who flat out quit, had never been to any functions, no after school work, no foot ball color guard, no nothing. I was amazed by his thoughts that he was worthy of the position that I earned. Two other boys were big on the drill team (rifle), one more than the other, but again, they were not open to cover it all, just what they were interested in. Yet they felt superior and deserving for the position than they thought I was.

    Professor, it relieves wondering but it makes for a level of defeatism, I think.

  4. Anna permalink
    January 27, 2008 10:50 pm

    Wow, Kitty. What an experience that must have been. It hurts doesn’t it? To be denied simply not due to lack of merit but due to our gender. Sadly, I am not surprised by your tale. Many of us have similar tales – again, sadly. It’s where the chip on my shoulder comes from – bequeathed to me from such a male-centered system.

    You are a strong, gutsy woman, Kitty.

  5. Heart permalink
    January 28, 2008 12:49 am

    Great post, Kitty. I think funnie exempted poor families from her thoughts about meritocracy for the reasons you list there. My experience with funnie is, she is always thinking about class issues, even when she isn’t explicit about it.

    This kind of fits in with that GREAT class privilege post Maggie’s Metawatershed put up a while back, gosh I thought that was great (of course now there are all these knock-offs circulating in the blogosphere that are really crappy by comparison and nobody will admit they first thought about all of this stuff because of what Maggie posted. I hate most people. Just kidding. Maybe.). Anyway, Maggie developed all of these fine materials to do workshops about class issues (having grown up very poor). She said that in poor families there is often a lot of ongoing commentary along the lines of telling children (or adults) that they are stupid, they will never amount to anything, etc., and sometimes it’s meant to be a “joke”, other times it’s a punishment of sorts, but it reflects the comparative powerlessness of poverty and an intention to remind children (and each other) to keep the expectations LOW. Power is about being able to make things happen in the world. If you have no money and you are very poor, things don’t just happen for you.

    funnie’s other point that I thought was good was, most women who grow up in middle class/affluent white families identify more with their fathers than their mothers (kids having a tendency to identify more with the more powerful parent) and assume the system is going to work for them the way it works for their dads. But it doesn’t, because they are female, a very hard pill to swallow when the realization finally hits (which for many, of course, it never does.)

  6. Kitty Glendower permalink
    January 28, 2008 1:36 am

    Yes Heart I caught that Funnie took deliberate care to differentiate between women. I appreciate that, and it was her distinction that triggered my thoughts. Thoughts that helped me understand why the myth was very visible in my world. Nevertheless, when I was writing this I realised that once again I am creating a “story” that separates one woman from all those other women. For example, I am afraid to look like I am creating a judgment, such as, the women who fell for meritocracy are big dummies and I am not. That was not my intent. I hope it does not look like it is. Funnie’s comments are often very astute and fair, imo.

    Yeah, that whole identifying with the father but insulated with the mother is a weird dynamic. In a way, when the child grows up believing this, she is inadvertently reinforcing the gender role of a mother. The mother, the female is the one who protects the little child (including the females) until she/he is ready to fly out in the world and become their father. But since her mother is female and she identifies with her father I wonder who she thought was going to be the mothers that she was still perpetuating a needed existence for.

  7. Kitty Glendower permalink
    January 28, 2008 1:37 am

    or maybe she becomes like the young men that were in my writing class. Several of them complained about their mothers doing nothing. Now that they were in college and trying to make it in the world they complain about mom. Were they complaining about mom when mom was taking care of them? Amazing.

  8. Heart permalink
    January 28, 2008 2:38 am

    Yeah, kitty. I think a lot of times when it dawns on women that they’re never going to make it the way their dads were, and now there’s no mom to take care of them, they lash out at other women, older women, especially, something like punishing the messengers who bear the sad tidings and remind them of their likely futures.

    Nevertheless, when I was writing this I realised that once again I am creating a “story” that separates one woman from all those other women. For example, I am afraid to look like I am creating a judgment, such as, the women who fell for meritocracy are big dummies and I am not.

    So good and so true, this propensity we have, or this attraction there is somehow, to make ourselves better than other women, or like you say, less stupid, or whatever.

    There’s a writer known to intellectuals on the fringes of my old world (and in academia, as well, but this guy is a Christian), Rene Girard, whose work I have been intrigued by off and on. He theorizes that human sacrifice in various forms has been humanity’s solution to violence between rivals and competitors. He gets into this idea of “mimetic desire,” which he theorizes is the inception, the seed, of rivalries which ultimately spiral into antagonisms, violence, and finally “sacred violence”, i.e., scapegoating and human sacrifice. Once someone has been sacrificed, the tensions of the conflict are relieved, but ultimately the cycle starts up again.

    I thought of this reading what you were saying about the beginnings of that process of othering, where we begin or are tempted to distinguish ourselves as better than another woman for some reason, and the way the conflicts that result can escalate to the point that a sacrifice, a scapegoat in the form of a third, expendable, is required in order to restore (a temporary) peace.

    If only this kind of theorizing, which has helped me to make peace with a lot of what I’ve gone through in my life, led more often to finding ways to stop, end, this dynamic, nip it in the bud.

  9. Heart permalink
    January 28, 2008 2:43 am

    “make it the way their dads did

    “third, expendable person

    Sorry for the mistakes!

  10. January 28, 2008 1:10 pm

    I looked up that article at maggies metawatershed:

    http://maggiesmetawatershed.blogspot.com/2007/09/primer-on-unlearning-classism.html

    I dont know whether I was raised to believe in meritocracy or not. Yes and no. Yes it was promoted to me, No I never really believed in it.

    Thanks for the post and the story Kitty Glendower. It’s all very familiar.

  11. Kitty Glendower permalink
    January 28, 2008 8:16 pm

    You are welcome, V. I always have time for a story! LOL!

    and the way the conflicts that result can escalate to the point that a sacrifice, a scapegoat in the form of a third, expendable, is required in order to restore (a temporary) peace.

    What sucks about this being a possibility is, it is the same line of thinking used by military rapists and murderers. Such as at My Lai. I read Four Hours in My Lai at least three times, and each time I walked away thinking the men in charge knew exactly what they were doing when they turned a blind eye. “Those men needed that relief.” It makes me sick because it shows the worse side of humans. Or not just shows, but proves.

  12. Rent Party permalink
    January 29, 2008 4:34 am

    “relieves wondering but it makes for a level of defeatism”

    Yes.

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