“Work hard, No excuses” rhetoric is supposed to stand in contrast to the racist and classist belief that has dominated U.S. Schools for centuries: the belief that poor children of color can’t/shouldn’t learn and therefore we mustn’t put forth effort or resources to educate them. It also stands in contrast to the racist and classist belief that poor children of color have very difficult lives and, therefore, it would be cruel of us to expect much from them. To oppose these unjust racist/classist beliefs that widen the achievement gap, many schools have adopted the mantra WORK HARD and show GRIT.
When we teach that “Hard Work = Success” (i.e. hard work is the most important ingredient for success), we also inadvertently teach that not being successful is always the result of NOT working hard (i.e. being lazy). This is a very dangerous, and untrue message, particularly for people of color. It is this kind of rhetoric that puts all the blame for “failure to achieve” on the individual (and her/his teacher). No blame is assigned to (and no resources are provided to combat) the systemic and pervasive racism in the U.S. Johnson (2006) explains the frustration and disillusionment that people of color feel when they believe in the myth of hard work in America. He writes, “It especially galls middle-class black who believed what whites told them, that if they did everything right–if they went to school and worked hard and made something of themselves–race would no longer be an issue. But they soon discovered, and they learn anew every day, that nothing seems to protect them from their vulnerability to white racism.” Institutionalized racism can block success and achievement even when people work hard and be nice.
Since the “Achievement Gap” in U.S. schools is a result of racism and classism, it should not and cannot be undone by merely forcing kids to “work hard.” Demanding that the only solution is for students to pull themselves up by their boot straps when systemic racism and classism makes their boots so impossibly heavy while, at the same time, makes other children’s boots extremely light is unjust. Instead, we–as educators– should also be working very hard to lighten the boots of the oppressed and challenge the status quo.
Please read the following pieces to understand what’s wrong with grit:
Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, oppression, and difference. Power, privilege and difference,, 12-40.