Malcolm Gladwell, as I’ve noted in previous blogs here and here, makes the case in his book Outliers that success is not totally the result of individual initiative or ability. It is inextricably wrapped up in our background and historical circumstances. This doesn’t mean that individual responsibility is a myth.
On the contrary, in Gladwell’s epilogue he tells a story about his mother, Joyce, who was born in Jamaica of mixed parentage. In the culture of Jamaica as she was growing up, which was only ten percent White, this worked to her advantage. This was because social status was strictly determined by the shade of one’s skin–the darker the shade, the lower the status; the lighter the shade, the higher the status.
Before Malcolm was born, his parents were looking for an apartment in London. After a long search, his father (a young British mathematician) found one in a suburb. After they moved in, however, the landlady angrily ordered them to move out. “You didn’t tell me your wife was Jamacian,” she raged against his father.
Later Joyce wrote a book for InterVarsity Press in England, published in 1969, entitled Brown Face, Big Master, in which she tells the story. There she wrote:
I complained to God in so many words, “Here I was, the wounded representative of the negro race in our struggle to be accounted free and equal with the dominating whites!” And God was amused; my prayer did not ring true with him.
I would try again. And then God said, “Have you not done the same thing? Remember this one and that one, people whom you have slighted or avoided or treated less considerately than others because they were different superficially, and you were ashamed to be identified with them. Have you not been glad that you are not more colored than you are? Grateful that you are not black? My anger and hate against the landlady melted. I was no better than she was, nor worse for that matter . . . . We were both guilty of the sin of self-regard, the pride and exclusiveness by which we cut some people off from ourselves. (Brown Face, Big Master; pp 110-11; also quoted in Outliers, p. 284)
It is very human to see the wrong that others do more easily than our own failings and faults. Yet Joyce took individual responsibility. She did not simply blame others or her circumstances or God.
Nonetheless it was her circumstances and background that allowed her to go to London in the first place to experience both love and racism. And so it is that life is both our own choices and conditions over which we have little control.
When our social setting tips the balance in favor of one group or another, we still have a responsibility, however. Will we respond to those circumstances, individually and corporately, by accepting things as they are, or will we act on behalf of those who don’t have things tipped in their favor?