To my surprise, I have been referred to as “lucky” on several occasions since beginning my job last August. I am “lucky” to even have a job, a tenure-track job, particularly immediately following graduate school. I am “lucky” to have published anything during my first year on the job. I am “lucky” to have a partner while on the tenure-track.
Well, I do not feel lucky. Considering all that I compromised in order to be lucky in the ways that I supposedly am, and the ways in which I am not lucky — disadvantaged, really — I would suggest luck is a gift shared only by the privileged.
What Is Luck, Anyhow?
Let’s go right to the dictionary definition: the things that happen to a person because of chance; or, the accidental way things happen without being planned. There is no systemic or predictable way in which something occurred. Also, it is important to note that said “lucky” event occurred outside of the lucky individual’s control. Instantly, as a sociologist, I balk at the notion that events occur randomly (outside of the influence of social forces) and unintentionally (outside of individual agency). I cannot say that sociological theories of structure and agency have ever attempted to explain every event, as some things probably are unpredictable and are not regulated by social forces. However, a good deal of what we consider “luck” certainly can be explained by an individuals’ behaviors, thoughts, feelings, interactions, and resources within various social systems.
I do not invoke sociological theory for the sheer purposes of being a party-pooper. I often call upon luck for some favorable outcome, and regularly wish friends, family, colleagues, and students “good luck!” for evaluations and competitions in which success is not guaranteed. I have, indeed, lost a couple hundred dollars in my lifetime to casinos and raffles. Luck can be fun, but it is a poor explanation for getting a job, publishing an article, finding a partner, and other events that are largely explained by social forces and (to a less extent) individual effort.
Rejecting The “Lucky” Explanation For My Success And Well-Being
I am particularly resentful toward accusations of “luck” as a fat Black queer person living in a fatphobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic society. I will admit, given these identities coupled with my scholarship, I initially felt that securing a job wasn’t merely luck, but a frickin’ miracle. And, I partially attributed the success of publishing an article in my first year to the editor’s favorable view of the topic. And, I allowed myself to feel fortunate in having a partner when other assistant professors begin the journey toward tenure without the support of a partner.
But, two things have led me to reject the “lucky” hypothesis. First, a good friend of mine called me out on Facebook for ignoring all of the hard work, perseverance, talent, and support that went into my dissertation and subsequent job offers by buying into the “lucky” explanation. I unintentionally reinforced the notion that marginalized people cannot succeed in academia on their own merit; those who are not so lucky, then, obviously have no hope for the kind of success I have seen in the past couple of years. This also erases the ways in which white middle-class heterosexual men are systematically advantaged in academia, including their ease of finding mentors, minimal concerns about their pregnancy or parental status, no questions about why they were hired (e.g., spousal hire, diversity hire), and little concern about the narrowness of their research because they study themselves. How can I be “lucky” when I would probably have had to stay in graduate school an additional 2 years to achieve the publication records of white heterosexual counterparts who didn’t waste the first two years on misery and self-doubt? Fuck lucky. I earned my degree and this job, albeit with the support of mentors, friends, and family.
The other reason I have grown increasingly wary of the “lucky” thesis is the insistence with which it is applied. I have heard “you’re so lucky” on multiple occasions from the same people. By the second, third, fourth times and beyond, I began to question why I kept hearing it. Should I see myself as somehow privileged because I “beat the odds” in this increasingly adjunctified era of academia? Should I see myself as privileged because I am in a long-term same-gender relationship? Should I feel guilty? Eventually, I learned to see the accusation of luck as a reflection of the lives and conditions of the people saying it. There may even be an element of envy or resentment behind “you’re so lucky.”
I suspect that the core problem is making assumptions about my life and how it has unfolded without knowing me very well, and without the respect of finding out. Knowing only the outcome, the individual jumps to the conclusion that it is the product of luck. Really, we know what happens when you ass-u-me. “Lucky” erases my own efforts, survivorship, aspirations, and the support I have received from others. “Lucky” overlooks that I sacrificed so much along the way, and still live with the emotional scars of graduate training. “Lucky” somehow ignores that my partner and I just gained the right to marry in this state a few weeks ago, and still face other challenges as an interracial queer couple in the South. “Lucky” does not know that I am the sole breadwinner because, after struggling to find a job most of last year, my partner is now back in school.
Sure, we can talk about the ways in which I am privileged as a man, as a person from a middle-class family (albeit upwardly mobile from their working-class roots), as a person without disabilities, as a US citizen, and, really, even as the son of a white (Jewish) heterosexual man. And, we can certainly talk about what I have lost out on as a queer person, a (multiracial) Black person, as a fat person, and the intersections among these identities. But, I refuse to have a serious conversation about the role of “luck” in my career and my life. Lucky doesn’t live here.