Life’s not fair; get on with it

Some years ago at my women’s writing group I had an aha! moment while bemoaning the lack of women authors among the ranks of the literary elite. My friend Vanessa commented that, as a black woman, she isn’t surprised when the publishing industry ignores her. Of course she wants her work to be visible, and is a strong advocate for herself. But I don’t expect them to accept me, she said.

Well I do! I spouted. I’m as white as those white men and I do expect them to pay attention to me.

Expectations and entitlements. I’m entitled to my moment in the sun, provided I work “hard enough”. Being white sets me up to think that I can belong to that club at the top…and that I get to shout and stomp my foot when I’m denied.

I’m thinking about expectations today because I was just slapped down and put in my place.

The problem? My writing is not “at the graduate level”. I need to work harder to earn a grade higher than a C. Topic of my paper? Women’s ordination (or the lack of it) in the Christian church.

It was hard not to feel paranoid that it was my topic rather than my writing that earned me a C grade, but I pushed onward. I reread my paper and could see where it needed work. Maybe the instructor was going to push me to work harder. That could be a good thing. I cheered up, challenged.

Until this morning, when the participation points for last week were awarded and I got an F. Since my online class postings met the requirements for an “A” as outlined in the syllabus, I emailed the instructor in confusion, not assuming (just kidding – of course I was assuming – but I didn’t say so). He adjusted my grade without explanation from an F to a C. Finally we got on the phone and he granted me an A “as a gesture of goodwill” which I accepted through (invisible) gritted teeth.

Of course, you are only hearing my side of the story. The fact that the instructor teaches at a “biblically sound” seminary and was educated by a college which ordains only men are facts which should not influence your opinion. (I actually do kinda think that the instructor maybe made a honest mistake.)

But what I’m curious about is that feeling of outrage, fury and helplessness I felt when I looked at my grade. Why did I think I was entitled to a “fair” grade? Because “everyone” is? Do I expect the system to be fair, and by fair, do I mean non-discriminatory against me as a liberal lesbian woman? Of course I do.

But Life Isn’t Fair. I know this. So, at a practical level, what resources do I have for getting on with it, for finding some inner peace and equilibrium (while also fighting like hell)? I suspect that white people have far less resources for dealing with “it’s not fair” than people of color (and, of course, have the luxury of far less practice in having to cope). White people are trained in expectation, in entitlement, but not in making-do-while-speaking-up.

And here’s the thing: in order for us to find some measure of racial justice in our society, white people are going to have to be okay with getting less than we’re used to. Because, on many levels, what white people are used to experiencing as “fair” is really injustice…white privilege over and against people of color.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t fight for equitable standards, equal pay, justice. But we (we women, we people of color, we queers) won’t be able to resist – and overcome – oppression if we crumble every time we get smacked down. And we (we men, we white people, we straight people) won’t be able to ally with our sisters and brothers if we can’t give up what we have come to take for granted.

What about you…how do you deal when life isn’t fair? Where’s the line for you between coping and settling?


  1. I absolutely agree. If I had a type, it would be a White Whiner. When life isn’t fair, I get incredibly mad, recognize the injustice, and silently (to all but my wife) swallow my rage. I feel that my choices are flight or fight, so I fight internally and flight publicly.

    I remember a great book called Exit, Voice, Loyalty which outlines the three options a consumer has when dissatisfied. Of course it has wider application: if something is injust, I can exit (I won’t play your silly game, I’m outta here), voice (you bad people I’m going to let you know what you’ve done), or loyalty (I know it’s a silly game but right now it’s not important). Too often, I choose exit or loyalty which means I’m strengthening injustice and allowing it to build deeper roots, not only in the world, but in myself.

    Great post, thank you!

  2. I rant & rave in a safe environment (at home or on the phone with a trusted friend), threatening fights AND flight. Then, when I’m back in my right mind, I determine whether there’s anything I can do. If so, I do it. If not, I make every effort to move on. Often, I determine that it’s the “system” that is flawed. So I shrug my shoulders and walk away–except for the system that I’m working to change, understanding that my energy is limited, and hoping that it’s someone else’s work to change the system that just jumped on me…..

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