Two young Black girls take turns walking up to the stage of their middle school auditorium and accepting awards in succession. Sometimes their names are called for the same award, and they accept them together with comical smiles of recognition. They wind their way from their seats, excusing themselves politely to neighbors cheering and applauding, at first. As the ceremony continues, it becomes painfully obvious that they are the only two being recognized for merit, scholarship, or leadership in various subjects. The teachers of those subjects shake their hands proudly, knowing what sacrifices their students have made, and how hard they have worked to deserve those results.
The cheering and clapping dies down. Snickering begins. Jeering starts. Someone tries to trip one of them. Their classmates and friends begin heckling them. As the event drags on, only one other student receives an award, for perfect attendance. As for the other two, both of the young ladies’ delighted enthusiasm eventually gives way to a shocked-numb neutrality. By the time the last certificate of achievement was doled out, one of the girls became confused and embarrassed, almost apologetic in her acceptance. She shrugged her shoulders to no one and everyone, shook her head like shooing away a fly, shook hands, took the paper, and trudged back to her seat, bewildered.
She had no idea, in all of her daily reckoning, struggling, figuring, studying, planning, arguing, and fighting to maintain the standards set for her, that she would be one of only two people doing so in every single subject. Even more shocking was how uncomfortable it made her feel. It was not the first time she had done well, but it was the first time her success was of such singular and prominent nature. Her teachers were disappointed in her shame. Their disappointment was cutting and reproving. She simply could not win either way, it seemed. Yet she won? Had she not always tried to encourage her friends and classmates? Was she not the first person to tell someone they could accomplish whatever they wanted, if they just applied themselves? Wasn’t she the first to congratulate someone else on their successes? Yet, she did not feel like a winner that day.
I used to be that young girl, but I am not ashamed anymore.
Let us take a moment and reflect on what it means to be a human. We have almost limitless true capacity. We think intelligently, we speak eloquently, we act dynamically. We err, we love, we forgive, and we co-exist.
The problem comes when one forgets any of these attributes or characteristics as individual to the human experience. When one ceases thinking from a higher place, and reverts to animalistic traits or thinking, that individual sacrifices his or her humanity in some way.
Nevertheless, the substitution happens daily, repeatedly, and often without unprompted apology.
As a diverse individual myself, and a person that supports diversity, I have stood head-to-toe with people who would have themselves known as the opposite. What still surprises, or is perhaps less discussed, is how prevalent this attitude remains in the African-American community at large.
Speaking from personal experience, fellow African-Americans do not always like to see their ‘own people’ succeed. They are not always open-minded. They are certainly not always accepting. This may be true of all races of people, but it is the more tragic in our community, because of what we have been through at the hands of intolerance, and therefore less forgivable because of that.
This is not news. What makes the headlines in a country with a sitting African-American president, is when an African-American commentator characterizes an athlete as ‘less black’ because of some odd, antiquated, and arguably misanthropic tendency of our culture toward schadenfreude, perpetuated by blacks, and likely originated by slave owners. So in centuries-long pervasive attempts to subjugate their ‘property’, the slave-owner mentality still wins out? This is how we reward ourselves decades after the Civil Rights Movement? Are we still judging and crippling one another after over a century of freedom and accomplishment? We still have not learned any better? Any Black person that behaves differently than the accepted status quo as subjectively unwritten and re-written at whim is ostracized? Do we not have our full share of that to succeed against as it is, without doing it to one another?
One wonders how many times this conversation will be had before African-American people grow past it.
From a larger viewpoint, it is staggering how easily it is forgotten that love characterizes humans at their most humane. Therefore it is inhumane to criticize anyone for who they have chosen to spend their time with, or who they are, based solely on their outward appearance or characteristics. Intolerance goes beyond mere racism and reaches to the core of individual motivation. It says, ‘I will not tolerate you, I will not accept you, I reject you as a human being of shared experience, because you are doing something I did not expect.’ Well guess what?
Raise your expectations…of yourself.