Updated: Jul 26, 2020
The famous Oprah quote below has been floating around lately regarding how we should respond to discrimination as marginalized groups.
While like so many I love me some Oprah and lessons from her experiences, this particular one I have to DISAGREE with and here is why.
A good friend of mine, Tafadzwa Muguwe, penned an heartfelt and powerful account of his experiences with racism throughout his career, including professors doubting his intellect amongst his Harvard classmates and patients refusing to be attended to by a black man. More than all who appreciated his candid sharing, I was struck by those aghast by his account. How could this be happening to a Harvard and Oxford educated doctor.
You see by the “standards” of success that we all have been brought up to believe in, black and white people alike, Tafadzwa has done everything right. He has worked hard, climbing the proverbial success ladder, including getting educated at the best institutions in the world and carving out a career in medicine for himself as a black man. This should earn him some respect right? Turns out no. But why do we believe in this narrative so much?
I realized, my personal conditioning to this idea goes back to the legacy of colonization, where the justification of the heinous acts committed by Europeans in Africa was painted as a bid to “civilize” us from our “savage” ways. They introduced their institutions such as schools, purporting education as one of the means of delivery to this righteous world. We then all grew up fighting for access to these institutions, measuring our success against the standards set by them and deeming recognition from them as a form of validation of our humanity. What it was though was essentially aspiring to whiteness, and it's a helluva drug.
You see, with it comes a conscious or unconscious air of superiority over other less privileged black people. We are all too familiar with the narrative of making it out of the “ghetto,” and while there is nothing wrong with working your way out of poor circumstances, it creates a polarizing view of the black experience. More dangerously, when brought up against police brutality, it paints a picture of whose black life is worthy and whose is not. Most of us in the black community have been participating in this charade for long and it is time to examine our bias and unlearn some of these ideas of what success means that we internalized from entrenched white supremacist ideals. I am looking at you Kanye!
The irony for most black professionals is realizing that even after doing all that work to get their foot through the door of these institutions, it is still not enough. This is evident in the lack of representation of people of color in leadership positions and in the microaggressions and bias that follows our success. Obama, the epitome of black excellence, became the leader of the free world and, still it was not enough to humanize him as a black man in the eyes of his racist opponents. Serena Williams is the queen of the tennis world and racists will not let her live.
The tea is really that excellence does NOT deter discrimination. It might even make it worse, again, cue the white rage that was triggered by the Obama presidency leading to the Trump election. Going back to colonization, you realize it was actually never about “civilizing” us, but rather just a strong belief in the inferiority of black people simply because of the color of our skin.
The quote from Oprah says this is how “she was raised”, and probably so were all of us, the black folks engaged in upward mobility. We need to do better and retire the idea that our success somehow should make us impenetrable to racism.
At the end of the day we are all black, and when we say black lives matter, we mean ALL OF THEM, not just the doctors and lawyers but also the pregnant black teens and “thugs” on the street corners. Nomatter what social class you belong to, nobody deserves to be treated inhumanely and everyone absolutely deserves a chance at achieving their full potential.
As for black excellence, let's keep reaching for it and achieving but for US and on OUR standards, nobody else’s!
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