'Hard Work' That Looks Like Mike Rowe and Me

Dear Mike Rowe,

Hi, I'm a fan of your show. Although the mindless-reality-watching genre of television tends to irritate me for its shallowness and pride in ridiculous antics, your program is quite wonderful. I feel I learn something about the shit various occupations encounter (sometimes, literally). It makes me grateful for their efforts and more empathetic.

Last week, Melissa Harris-Perry warned on her program that we should be careful when using the phrase "hard worker" because the term has become a conservative buzzword for dismissing, for one example, single moms who do work hard but are characterized as lazy and entitled. She told viewers that she keeps a photo of slaves working cotton fields on her office wall to remind her of the relative nature of the term "hard worker."

When one of your followers asked for a response (given that you're something of an expert on occupational variety), you seemed to dismiss MHP's comments by saying "To me, it sounds as though Melissa is displaying images of slavery or drudgery in her office to remind herself of what hard work really and truly looks like. That's a bit like hanging images of rape and bondage to better illustrate the true nature of human sexuality."

You also said, "I suspect this is because Melissa believes - as do many others - that success today is mostly a function of what she calls, "relative privilege." This is fancy talk for the simple fact that life is unfair, and some people are born with more advantages than others. It's also a fine way to prepare the unsuspecting viewer for the extraordinary suggestion that slavery is proof-positive that hard work doesn't pay off."

I really want to believe that you're earnest in this assessment, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and walk you through a few reminders.

When MHP talks about "relative privilege," she's alluding to how people have very different life experiences not just based on class and occupation but also race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.

You seem to think she's only talking about occupation, but it's far more complex than that.

From what I can tell, although you don't really align with a political party, you believe in the conservative "bootstraps" theory: that people just need to put their shoulder into a task, have good ole American gumption, and they'll be alright. Work hard, work hard, work hard, and the rest will come in due time.

Or maybe you believe in a slightly more realistic version: work hard, despite the world being unfair. Even if things don't work out, you have the moral claim that you gave it your all. And that the end result has little to do with race or gender or sexuality.

Although I disagree with these, I don't think they're out of left field. I get it. You were raised to believe that you can do just about anything with hard work. So was I.

We were both born as white males, and like it or not, we enjoy a lot of privileges that others don't. Studies have shown that even though we may face economic inequality, our race and gender (and sexuality) make it a lot harder to get into poverty and a lot easier to get out of poverty. Moreover, they make it far easier for us to achieve success.

This has the unfortunate side effect of making us believe that if everyone else just works as hard as we do, they'll have a similar likelihood of succeeding. Notice: I'm not saying success is guaranteed but that the probability of success is the same for everyone, regardless of our race and gender and sexuality, etc.

And that's just not true. To say nothing of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and our generally misogynistic, homophobic, Judeo-Christian history, what has been demonstrated time and time again is that folks will struggle more to succeed if they are not white, not male, not heterosexual, not cisgender, and not some form of Christianity (and often, Judaism).

I could offer you a never-ending list of horrific statistics that reflect how much the odds are stacked against anyone who isn't born like us, who isn't born a white, straight male.

With that in mind, let's go back to the "relative privilege" argument MHP makes. She's talking about how Republicans, for a long time, have used coded terms like "welfare mothers" and "entitlement programs" and linked them directly to this awful, slanderous image of the American black woman as lazy, entitled, and leaching off the government. They don't publicly come out and say "lazy black woman" (maybe behind closed doors) but they do everything short of it.

MHP was trying to make a point -- and a rather good one -- that the term "hard worker" is a way of othering people of color but especially women of color and especially women of color whose way of life may not reflect the "wholesome" dinner table of a Norman Rockwell painting. It is a vicious -- and violent -- judgement based on racist views.

I don't think you mean any harm when you wade into these issues, but I am concerned, at times, with your 1) lack of awareness about your white privilege, male privilege, etc. and 2) your need to "stay above the fray" by offering something resembling wisdom that supposedly stays away from all things controversial, yet obviously supports viewpoints that reflect the minds of the average white American on controversial issues.

And it's a really neat trick, even if done unconsciously. You can paint yourself as "not wanting anything to do with politics" while clearly offering opinions that will resonate with a fanbase that tends to have white privilege, male privilege, votes conservative, etc.

But wait, you say, I have black fans and women fans and feminist fans and liberal fans.

I'm sure you do! Because as it turns out, lots of people are interested in the jobs you profile and what "hard work" means across the spectrum of occupations.

But I also think viewers approach your show with different motivations, regardless of it not being your intention. You have a large fan demographic of conservative white males who tune-in to see a manly man do good, honest work because this country is going to hell in a hand basket, and your persona (which is quite charming and genuine) resonates with their vision of America from a simpler time.

It's an understandable sentiment (well, kinda), but it willfully ignores the reality of poverty and race and gender in America: the millions of women of color in this country who DO work hard in minimum wage jobs (jobs American needs to get done) but can't seem to get ahead, let alone keep their head above water, and yet, remain the only demographic that constantly serves as a whipping post for conservative politicians.

And more than that, it ignores how the pictures MHP has on her wall depict an historical injustice that is directly linked to the plight of people of color, women, and other groups, today.

So, that term "hard worker" doesn't just mean someone who works hard; it's chock full of implications that are harmful and degrading to so many Americans who deserve our respect and assistance, not our derision based on racist, sexist stereotypes.

Just food for thought. I'd love to see you feature this dynamic on your show and in your online commentary.

Best,
Charles