May 30 2024

Having Our Own Backs

by Melissa M. Wilcox, Whitman College

The Olympics are airing as I write this, and there’s one ad I particularly detest. It features a slick, fifty-something, white man standing next to an opulent backyard pool overlooking a walled yard backed by palm trees. Over the course of the ad, this apparently successful businessman walks through an equally opulent and pristine house complete with very brief cameos (blink and you miss them) of two young, white girls and an attractive, predictably younger-appearing, white woman. The ad concludes with the man changing with lightning speed from expensive leisure clothing to an equally expensive business suit, walking out of his front door, removing the electric charger from his Cadillac, and stepping inside the car. While the visual aspect of the ad emphasizes that oddly white, male, heteronormative, and increasingly homonormative version of the American dream—wealth, a wife and kids to show off, and no one else interfering in your life—the script presents stunningly arrogant claims about how industrious “we” (read: “Americans,” that is, certain sectors of the US population) are, as opposed to the laid-back nature of “other countries” who “take August off. Off.” The rewards of being “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believers” are evidenced in an odd and at times appropriative list of US standouts that includes the Wright brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul, and “Ali” (presumably Muhammad). The punch line of the ad comes at the end. Getting into his electric Caddy, our hero declares: “It’s pretty simple: You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff—that’s the up side of taking only two weeks off in August.”

Invisible in this ad are the true hard workers, who know that privilege is neither self-created nor the result of simple luck: those who keep the house and lawn pristine, those who put in twelve-hour days (with no three-hour golf lunch) for minimum wage in order to build the company’s profits that provided the Christmas bonuses that paid for the house, those who care for the children when Dad (and perhaps Mom) is at work. In a world where economic inequality is increasing at a horrifying rate, this ad borrows the language of (in Michael Kimmel’s words) the American “self-made man” from its usual home in pickup truck commercials and country songs in order to justify wealth and offer it, yet again, as something we all can attain if we only can manage to be “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believers.”

This unbalanced valuing of workaholism, and its misleading and erroneous tie to forms of “success” that in fact stem from white, male, citizen, and class privilege, have increasingly become the bar that is held out for faculty in a corporatizing education system run, at the top, by trustees and overseers who all too often look and sound much like the man in the Cadillac commercial. The expectation of workaholism underlies the ever-increasing disparagement of tenure and sabbatical systems, and the rapid expansion of the exploited classes of adjunct and graduate instructors. These expectations affect teachers disproportionately, based on ranking factors such as seniority, permanence of appointment, and student status. They also affect us disproportionately based on our socially expected roles at work and at home—most importantly, gendered roles—and based on those identities that intersect the fault lines of social power.

W. E. B. Du Bois warned a century ago that African Americans would have to work far harder than whites to make the same gains; in many ways, nothing has changed, and his words have proven prophetic for other groups underrepresented in academia. Plus, most faculty members from such groups put in hours of additional service each year in informal mentoring of both students and colleagues. While this time is often freely and willingly given, it is officially unacknowledged and makes those of us in such roles appear insufficiently “crazy driven.”

For some of us, unions offer protection from the direct and unspoken demands of our administrators, who are under their own pressures from the Cadillac men at whose pleasure they serve. For some, department chairs can play that role. But all of us eventually find ourselves in a place where no one has our backs—no one, that is, but ourselves. And this is where things get particularly tricky. Many of us are trained from childhood—by gender expectations, cultural norms, religious values, or other influences—to work communally, to take on more burdens when our friends and colleagues are barely holding up under their own, not to throw our coworkers under the bus. So when everyone has too much work, how should we respond? If we save ourselves by refusing to take on unreasonable burdens, and thereby hand those burdens off to our already overworked colleagues, we (especially women faculty and faculty of color) are accused of being selfish, power-hungry, focused on climbing the ladder alone at the expense of everyone around us. If we save our reputations and perhaps our self-image, we end up putting in sixteen-hour days, six or seven days a week. How many senior scholars belonging to academically underrepresented groups have developed stress-related chronic illnesses over the course of their careers? I suspect there is more pattern than chance here.

We often talk about work-life balance as though it’s an individual talent, yet another skill for scholars from underrepresented groups to master in order to succeed in the academy. But work-life balance is not a self-made trait, or an elusive ability that we can somehow grasp—like salvation—if we just believe, or if we just work hard enough. It is evidence of a deep structural problem. And until we can see this problem for what it is, and perhaps begin to address it at its roots, I fear we will all continue striving for and falling short of the illusory status of “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believer” with an electric Caddy out front.

Melissa M. Wilcox is an associate professor of religion and gender studies at Whitman College.