Growing up I’d always been told that I had to be twice as good as white people to be seen as just as good at what they do. This was the rule, simply because I was a black girl. Being raised in Chicago and attending a diverse elementary and high school for gifted students, this never proved true. We seemed to each be held by our own merits. We were all smart, and if we applied ourselves accordingly, then we achieved greatness, accordingly.
As I ventured through undergrad at Western Michigan University, I still didn’t see it. I mean I worked hard, but my own productivity and those around me seemed to equal the work we put into it. Working hard equaled success like As and Bs. Doing less proved attaining less, such as probation for poor grades. Seemed simple.
This trend continued with graduate work and ultimately with my doctorate. I really had begun to believe that the rule I’d been given about working twice as hard was false. Everyone around me seemed to be working just as hard and we were on equal footing.
But the truth was unveiled in one of the most unlikely places, academia.
I remember these events like they happened yesterday. I’d applied for a tenure-track position at the same institution…three times. Even though I was more qualified because I’d been in an academic position for two years, and even though he didn’t have the specific type of degree they’d asked for, they hired him instead. The following year, they hired me as visiting prof. This not only meant that he ranked higher, but that he also made about $12,000 more than I did.
He was a charismatic, white male, whose six-foot stature commanded attention every time he entered the room. He was a talker. You know the kind who has a story for every situation? The guy who’s like, “Yeah that reminds me of the time that…”
He was perfect in every way, except he didn’t know what he was doing. And as it turns out, he had a story for that as well.
He fondly remembered a time during his graduate career when he had no idea what the professor was talking about. He recounted this story to the program coordinator and me. She sat in her comfortable chair, glancing every so often at her Mac, then up at him, and back to me, where she offered an eye roll.
“So, the professor kept talking about some theory that he thought I should know. And, you know. I had no idea what he was talking about. I just nodded along and you know…I was just faking it ‘til I made it. You know? That’s how I got through.”
I didn’t know.
Remember, I’d spent twelve years working hard to attain everything thus far. I had no idea what he meant when he said he faked it ‘til he made it. Did he mean he faked it to here, where we stood…side-by-side? Surely that couldn’t be true.
He knocked on my door.
“Got a minute?” he asked.
He pulled up a chair. The difference in our stature was obvious, even while sitting. We faced one another, feigning a position of equality.
“How do you teach this?” he asked.
Jesus Christ, I thought. He really had no idea, and he wanted me to teach him how to do his job. He had a PhD, just like me. But he needed me to demonstrate how to teach the class because he lacked background knowledge and experience.
So, I explained it to him.
I seethed with resentment for several months. But once I calmed down, I learned something valuable. Systemic racism exists and structural inequality is real. White privilege is not just a theory or hashtag and the patriarchy is alive.
But what can any of us do?
I believe a first step is to be transparent about our experiences and situations. Maybe speaking candidly will open a space for change to occur among those of us who care about such issues. Because one thing’s for sure…raising another generation who’s taught to work harder than them to make it where they are seems like a disservice to everyone.
Thoughts are always welcomed.