Circumstances and race are no excuse

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

What’s interesting from reading about success is the sheer number of people who have risen from nothing. The universal stories of people lifting themselves from humble circumstances, in all sectors, at different times and of all different skin colours, is so common that it’s almost banal.

Yet young people, particularly minorities, are continually sold a picture of despair. A few years ago I attended Indigenous Australian cultural awareness training that presented a circular diagram called ‘the poverty wheel.’ This unbreakable and frustrating loop, garnished by references to historical and cultural considerations, laid out the setbacks that young black Australians face. ‘Why bother?’ it seemed to ask – the cycle simply couldn’t be broken.

I wondered what Booker T Washington or Frederick Douglass – Americans who had risen from slavery to statesmen – would think of the poverty wheel. Or George Washington Carver, the great American inventor, also born a slave. I wondered what America’s first female black astronaut, Mae Jemison, would think of it. Or Colin Powell, going from sweeping floors in a bottling factory to a four star general and US Secretary of State.

Ironically, just after the cultural ‘training’ session, I went straight to the library and read the biography of Australia’s Neville Bonner. Here was an Indigenous Australian – born under a tree in the early 1900s, enduring countless rounds of real discrimination and hardship – who reviled self-pity and resentment to become Australia’s first black federal parliamentarian.

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