Of privilege and the myth of meritocracy

We always hear people say that as long as you work hard, you will be successful. That you can do anything as long as you put your mind to it. But in the wisdom of comic artist Toby Morris, success and quality are not always connected and being successful depends on privilege we may or may not have.

This issue was further highlighted in the video “What is Privilege?” posted on buzzfeed.com which added race, sexuality, and religion as factors affecting the perception of being privileged.

So as much as we don’t want to discount hard work leading to the road to success, with rags to riches stories to support that, there are things beyond our control – family background, discrimination, and life circumstances that somehow take a role in shaping who we are. Meritocracy doesn’t always apply.

This got me thinking and I must admit a jumble of thoughts started playing around in my head.

The rich become richer; the poor poorer; the middle class, stagnant. That’s how this society driven by capitalism and self-interest operates.

We tell young kids that education can get them further, give them more options in life. But a school diploma wouldn’t guarantee employment.

Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” But this kind of genius is not always recognized. Because the sexy, the attractive, the scandalous are usually at the forefront.

In other words, life is unfair.

Is it the fault of the rich and the poor that they were born as they are? No, but for me, what matters is how they deal with that advantage or disadvantage. In a perfect world, the rich remain humble and seek for ways to help the less fortunate. The poor, on the other hand, don’t wallow in their own misfortune but strive to work hard and appreciate every achievement no matter how small they are.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” said Reinhold Niebuhr. I breathe and repeat that to myself.

Superheroes

Today’s generation would know X-Men from the superhero film series. For a 90s kid like me, though, I was introduced to these awesome superheroes through X-Men: The Animated Series.

Once the theme song starts, you can’t help but be pumped up through its adrenaline-rising mix of dramatic music and explosion of action-packed graphics that make you imagine of being a superhero yourself – flying, fighting with the bad guys, and doing cool stuff with whatever superpower you may have.

Originating from Stan Lee’s comics in the 1960s, X-Men is a showcase of well-written storylines expanding to alternate universes, the past, the future, and worlds beyond imagination. The characters, each with anything but simplistic backstory, have amazing God-like abilities of extraordinary strength, flying, teleportation, invisibility, shape-shifting, mental telepathy, telekinesis, energy-absorbing, energy-blasting, and an endless list of superpowers you can think of.

Beyond the glitz and the glamour, however, is a clear message of acceptance and anti-bigotry. Comic Book Girl 19 and Tyson Wheeler in their documentary, “Epic History: X-Men Volume I: The 60s Era” explained how social and political movements in the 60s became the inspiration for the backdrop of X-Men stories.

There’s the Civil Rights Movement, Second-wave Feminism, and Gay Liberation. X-Men’s “No more mutants!” and “Mutants are demons!” gave a glimpse of protests against what was deemed as unnatural or an abomination.

Martin Luther King dreamed of racial equality as Professor X dreamed of equality between humans and mutants. Malcolm X didn’t believe in Martin Luther King’s advocacy as Magneto opposed Professor X’s idea. Mutants claim they are born this way as gay people are, with a lot of them going into hiding for the fear of persecution and stigma. These are but a few of the real-life transitions.

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The X-Men #1 (Sept. 1963) is the debut of the X-Men, Professor X, and Magneto. Art by Jack Kirby.

The success of X-Men or any superhero for that matter is the hope that they present. We have the tendency of seeing the world at the beginning of its tragic decent towards destruction despite the fact that it’s actually getting better. The superhero fantasy can be a sort of an escape or is a reflection of our desire to evolve from being a loser to a kickass hero with well-chiseled abs. Plus, you get to wear your underwear on the outside and wear a cape, too, if you’re lucky.

Also, in a classic good vs evil conflict found in superhero storylines, we root for the good prevailing over evil. So we are not naturally evil after all.

Above all, what draws us to superheroes, beyond the mask, the colorful, crazy costumes, the fantastic powers, is their humanity. Their struggles, vulnerability, and the ever-persistent dream of a better world.