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: [Read more…]