One of things I remember learning from my father at a young age is that I was going to have to work harder to achieve what others had because of my race. That my performance would be judged alongside a whole bunch of racist baggage over which I had no control. Now that I am in the professional realm, it’s hard for me to say whether or not he was right in my own case (if my race has been a serious impediment to my achievement, I’ve never noticed), but I do know that it is generally true.
W.E.B. Dubois, one of America’s first prominent black intellectuals, espoused a concept called the “talented tenth”. His conjecture was that in a population of black folks, there were an ‘elite’ group at the top that could succeed despite racist handicapping. Dubois suggested that this elite group had a duty to ensure that, as they succeeded, they brought the other 90% along with them. That the privileges and talents afforded those at the top should be used in the advancement of the entire race, rather than put to use to benefit the oppressor. Egotist that I am, I always imagined myself being among that elite group, and (in my own way) accepting the responsibility.
Of course the problem for me is that I am largely an outsider to black communities, since I didn’t grow up among other black kids or even family members (they all lived scattered far afield – I am closer to my Italian step-cousins than I am my blood relatives). I was therefore left with a conundrum: did I try to force integrate into a black community in order to arrogantly “elevate” them to my status? If not, how could I live up to a duty that I felt was fair and important?
Neil deGrasse Tyson tells of a similar problem:
Much like Dr. Tyson, I make my peace with the fact that I am not a part of any black community by exploiting my familiarity with non-black groups. Instead of working twice as hard in order to achieve, I began working twice as hard to introduce exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance that forces people to re-examine their prejudices. I hold myself to a higher standard because I know that my success can have a ripple effect. I do not, as some have done, try to ‘pass’ or try to ‘fit in’ despite my blackness – I make sure to wear it on my sleeve, and let it be your problem if your brain struggles to wed the concept of a scientist/classical musician with the concept of ‘black guy’.
This blog, incidentally, is part of the contract I made with myself as well. I may not be a close member of a black community, but I do face many of the same issues. Because I have some talent for explaining concepts and drawing useful comparisons to things in the everyday life of those who do not necessarily have to think about race, I can serve my people by expanding the circle of people having the conversation. I think my approach is working, and I have no intention of letting up any time soon.
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