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The Price of Black Ambition

ISSUE:  Fall 2014


Hank Willis Thomas, 'Raise Up,' 2014. Bronze, 112.2 X 9.84". (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.)You never know when or if you’ll get a big break as a writer. You write and write and write and hope that someone out there will discern what you believe is in that writing, and then you write and hope and wait some more. I think I am having my big break right now. This year I published two books—a novel, An Untamed State, and an essay collection, Bad Feminist. Both books have received positive critical attention. The latter book has been on the New York Times bestseller list twice. Articles about me keep telling me that I am having a moment, my big break. My friends and loved ones tell me that I am having a moment. Part of me recognizes that I am having a moment, while the more relentless part of me, a part that cannot be quieted, is only hungrier, wanting more.

I began to understand the shape and ferocity of my ambition when I was in kindergarten. Each student had been given a piece of paper in class, bearing an illustration of two water glasses. We were instructed to color in one-half of the illustration. I suspect we were learning about fractions. I diligently shaded in one half of one of the glasses and smugly turned my work in to the teacher. If it had been the parlance of the day, I would have thought, Nailed it. I had not, of course, “nailed it.” I was supposed to color in an entire glass. Instead of the praise I anticipated, I received an F, which, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh for kindergarten. I couldn’t bring such a grade home to my parents. I had already begun demanding excellence of myself and couldn’t face falling short. 

On the bus ride home, I stuffed my shame between the dry, cracked leather of the seat and assumed the matter had been dealt with. The driver, a zealous sort, found my crumpled failure and handed it to my mother when he dropped me off the next day. She was not pleased. I was not pleased with her displeasure. I never wanted to experience that feeling again. I vowed to be better. I vowed to be the best. As a black girl in these United States—I was the daughter of Haitian immigrants—I had no choice but to work toward being the best. 

Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.

The concept of a big break often implies that once you’ve achieved a certain milestone, everything falls into place. Life orders itself according to your whims. There is no more struggle, there is nothing left to want. There is no more rejection. This is a lovely, lovely fantasy bearing no resemblance to reality. And yet. I have noticed that my e-mails to certain key people in my professional life are answered with astonishing speed where they once were answered at a sedate and leisurely pace. I enjoy that.

I am thinking about success, ambition, and blackness and how breaking through while black is tempered by so much burden. Nothing exemplifies black success and ambition like Black History Month, a celebratory month I’ve come to dread as a time when people take an uncanny interest in sharing black-history facts with me to show how they are not racist. It’s the month where we segregate some of history’s most significant contributors into black history instead of fully integrating them into American history. Each February, we hold up civil-rights heroes and the black innovators and writers and artists who have made so much possible for this generation. We say, look at what the best of us have achieved. We conjure W. E. B. Du Bois, who once wrote, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” We ask much of our exceptional men and women. We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all. 

Black History Month is important and a corrective to so much of America’s fraught racial history. But in the twenty-first century, this relegating of black ambition to one month of recognition feels constraining and limiting rather than inspirational.

In the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an essay about President Barack Obama and the tradition of black politics that reached me in a vulnerable place. Coates writes of the president’s ascension: “He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities.” In that same essay, Coates also writes about how the narrative of personal responsibility is a false one that is, unfortunately, often parroted by our president, our brightest shining star, Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States. At the end of his essay, Coates writes, “But I think history will also remember his [Obama’s] unquestioning embrace of ‘twice as good’ in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.” About a month after that essay was published, Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, “an interagency effort to improve measurably the expected educational and life outcomes for and address the persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.” The initiative is certainly well-intentioned, but it also speaks to the idea that black Americans must make themselves more respectable in order to matter. In its initial incarnation, it also gave the impression that only boys and men matter. On its surface, My Brother’s Keeper is a program that does nothing to address the systemic and structural issues young men of color will face, no matter how well prepared or respectable or personally responsible they are. 

I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence. I realize how much I believe that all good things will come if I—if we—just work hard enough. This attitude leaves me always relentless, always working hard enough and then harder still. I am ashamed that sometimes a part of me believes we, as a people, will be saved by those among us who are exceptional without considering who might pay the price for such salvation or who would be left behind. 

Du Bois was a vocal proponent of the “Talented Tenth,” this idea that out of every ten black men, one was destined for greatness, destined to become the powerful leader black people needed to rise up and overcome and advance. This 10 percent of men were to be educated and mentored so they might become leaders, the front line for much-needed sociopolitical change. 

We often forget, though, who first came up with the “talented tenth.” The idea first began circulating in the 1890s, propagated by wealthy white liberals. The term itself was coined by Henry Lyman Morehouse, a white man, who wrote, “In the discussion concerning Negro education we should not forget the talented tenth man… . The tenth man, with superior natural endowments, symmetrically trained and highly developed, may become a mightier influence, a greater inspiration to others than all the other nine, or nine times nine like them.” Here was a somewhat repulsive proposition gilded in condescending intentions, that if the strongest efforts were focused on the best of black folk, a few might be saved from themselves. Here we are today, still believing this could be true. 

Before, since, and during Du Bois’s time, the “Negro” has been a problem demanding a solution. Historically we are, of course, quick to neglect examining how this problem began. We are, it seems, still looking for that solution even as some declare the United States is embarking upon a post-racial era. We forget that we should not only measure black progress by the most visibly successful among us, but also by those who continue to be left behind.

While I am having what some refer to as my moment, I am in the middle of a second book tour. The first tour, for my novel, took me to thirteen cities, beginning in Boston. There I stayed in a hotel where my room had a fireplace that kept my feet warm and toasty. I marveled at this fireplace. I still had a lot of energy for my first event at Brookline Booksmith. I had not yet realized how much energy it takes, as an introvert, to fake extroversion. I was nervous during that first event, but holding my book helped. Looking down at the words I had written helped. Seeing so many supportive people in the audience helped. The booksellers were a delight.

I was next off to New York, a city that is always intimidating and exhilarating to be in. There were two readings, at Community Bookstore and McNally Jackson, where I had conversations with Sari Botton and Ruth Franklin, respectively. It was standing-room only at both readings and deeply engaged audiences and people buying my book and asking me to sign those books. I would encounter more of the same in every city. There were reviews, mostly glowing, even in the New York Times. Time magazine declared, “So let this be the year of Roxane Gay.” It all felt so extravagant. 

And then my essay collection came out. The crowds at my readings have swelled. People stand in hot rooms and then hot lines for an hour, sometimes two, just to meet me, shake my hand, pose for a picture, have a book signed. In Los Angeles, 450 people gave me a standing ovation, and the recognition nearly brought me to my knees because it was all so unexpected and gratifying.

Another reading, in another city, standing room only. During the Q&A, an older woman recounted a story of how she once couldn’t get a credit card because she didn’t have a husband. I think she said the year was 1969. I thought about her story all night and kept thinking, May I be worthy of the work you have done to make my life possible

At that same reading, I met a seventeen-year-old girl named Teighlor whose mom had brought her. She sat near the front, and her eyes were shining the whole time. I threw her a Bad Feminist tote bag, and she held it tightly in her hands. She was first in the signing line and she told me how she looked up to me and she was wholly adorable and I felt my eyes burning at the corners because I was so moved. I kept thinking, May I be worthy of your respect and admiration.

At that same reading, I met a young man named Robert who also brought his mother. She began speaking to me in Creole so I responded in kind. They were Haitian and they were just so excited to meet another Haitian from the Midwest. The bookstore had sold out of my book by that point, but they wanted to meet me anyway. They apologized, as if they owed me something. Their presence at my reading was all I could ever ask for. I gave them my personal copy of the book and signed it. They asked if they could take a picture with me, and I kept thinking, May I be worthy of your respect. May I be worthy of our people’s history.

There were so many encounters that night and on all the nights that made me think, May I be worthy of all of this. And there is a part of me that realizes how hard I have worked for this, and that I have, in part, earned this. 

My novel is in its third printing. My essay collection is in its fourth fifth printing. I am having a moment, and the burden of my ambition still has me wondering if I am worthy. 

For most of my life, I have taken for granted how my middle-class upbringing and my loving, educated, and involved parents made it possible for me to strive for excellence. Nearly everything has worked in my favor well beyond whatever natural gifts I possess. I attended excellent schools in safe, suburban neighborhoods with healthy tax bases. I had teachers who encouraged my talent and creativity. I had parents who supplemented what I was learning in school with additional studies. It was very easy to buy into the narrative that exceptionalism would help me and those who looked like me to rise above the challenges we face as people of color. All I had to do was work and want hard enough because nothing in my life contradicted this ethos. 

All along, though, there were insistent reminders of how, even with all these advantages, certain infrastructures, so profoundly shaped by racial inequality, would never willingly accommodate me or my experiences. I would never be able to work hard enough. I didn’t have to be twice as good, I had to be four times as good, or even more. This is why I am relentless. This is why I am not satisfied and likely never will be. 

In high school, I attended boarding school. I was one of a handful of black students, and even among them, I was a stranger in a strange land, a Midwestern transplant in the wilds of New Hampshire. At first, my cadre of fellow black students had little in common beyond the brownness of our skin, but at least we had that much-needed kinship because to the white students, we were usurpers, treading upon the hallowed ground to which only they, with their white skin, were entitled. 

My senior year, I received an acceptance letter to an Ivy League college. I was in the campus mailroom. Everyone was buzzing as they learned of their fate. I opened my letter and smiled. I had been accepted to all but one of the schools to which I applied. I allowed myself a quiet moment of celebration. A young white man next to me, the sort who played lacrosse, had not been accepted to his top choice, a school to which I had been accepted. He was instantly bitter. He sneered and muttered, “Affirmative action,” as he stalked away. I had worked hard and it didn’t matter. I was exceptional and it did not matter. In that moment, I was reminded of my place. I was reminded of why my ambition would never be sated, and would, instead, continue to grow ferociously. I hoped my ambition would grow so big I would be able to crowd out those who were unwilling to have me among them without realizing their acceptance should never have been my measure. 

In college the situation was much the same. I belonged there, I had earned my place, but few people would acknowledge that belonging. Not a week went by when I or other students of color weren’t stopped and asked to show our student IDs. It was easier to believe we were trespassing than simply traversing campus between classes. This was a small indignity, but it also wasn’t. 

At both my master’s and doctoral institutions, I was the only black student. Any success I achieved only spurred me to work harder and harder so I might outrun whispers of affirmative action and the arrogant assumptions that I could not possibly belong in those institutions of supposedly higher learning. 

Like many students of color, I spent a frustrating amount of time educating white people, my professors included, about their ignorance, or gritting my teeth when I did not have the energy. When race entered class discussions, all eyes turned to me as the expert on blackness or the designated spokesperson for my people. When racist “jokes” were made, I was supposed to either grin and bear it or turn the awkward incident into a teachable moment about difference, tolerance, and humor. When a doctoral classmate, who didn’t realize I was in hearing range, told a group of our peers I was clearly the affirmative-action student, I had to pretend I felt nothing when no one contradicted her. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are dreadfully common, banal even, for people of color. Lest you think this is ancient history, I graduated with my Ph.D. in December 2010. 

Today, I teach at Purdue University, where in the semester I write this, I have no students in either of my classes who look like me. I have yet to see another black faculty member in the halls of my building, though I know some exist. I previously taught at Eastern Illinois University, where, in my department, I was one of two black faculty members, one of only five faculty of color in all. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the price of exceptionalism—you will always be the only one or one of a few. There are no safe harbors. There are no reflections of your experience. 

I have written three books, have a fourth under contract, and am working on three more. I have been widely published. I am regularly invited to read and speak all over the country. I advocate, as best I can, for the issues that matter most to me. As a feminist, I try to be intersectional in word and deed. When I fail, I try to learn from that failure instead of hiding it as I did in kindergarten. 

I have achieved a modicum of success, but I never stop working. I never stop. I don’t even feel the flush of pleasure I once did when I achieve a new milestone. I am having a moment, but I only want more. I need more. I cannot merely be good enough because I am chased by the pernicious whispers that I might only be “good enough for a black woman.” There is the shame of sometimes believing they might be right because that’s how profound racism in this country can break any woman down. I know I am one of the lucky ones because unlike far too many people of color, I had far more than “half as much” to work with, the whole of my life. It is often unbearable to consider what half as much to work with means for those who are doing their damndest to make do. I call this ambition, but it’s something much worse because it cannot ever be satisfied. 


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Al's picture
Al · 9 years ago

My wife sent me a link to your article declaring you as becoming one of her favorite authors.  So I decided to read the article under the link instead of doing what I’m paid for.  I’m pretty pleased with that decision.

So for you it was kindergarten huh?  My revelation came in the first grade.  I came home with straight C’s on my first report card.  I remember (as does my family with much amusement) crying inconsolably in the bath tub that night, saying that I could not possibly get into Harvard with grades like that.  And for years it was a running joke with my folks. 

Even more so when I eventually got into Harvard. 

Curiously?  First grade stayed with me.  I acknowledge now (at 57) that my 16 year old self agreed with one of my schoolmates who, when I told him I was applying, responded “they ain’t gonna let your black ass into Harvard.”  So while my black ass got in?  It shrank from the opportunity feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, ‘not quite good enough’.

Instead I went to a place in western Massachusetts that probably looked a lot like your New Hampshire boarding school.  That was almost forty years ago.  And there I learned to understand race a bit differently.  What I learned was that when I’m not in the room?  There’s a Jew or a catholic or a recent eastern European immigrant or a more recent Latin American immigrant who will be made to feel as if they “don’t belong”.  That they are not worthy, nor will they ever be full members of ‘the club’.  And in the case of the most recent immigrant they may even be labelled as ‘the affirmative action’ student.  Because Ms. Gay, even within the WASP nest?  There is a pecking order.  And unless and until you claim a fortune equivalent to say – a Rockefeller – one of whom, by the way, I went to school with, someone will always be measuring. 

And the ruler will forever be at least an inch longer than you.  

I like to think that I would have known Barak Obama had I the courage to attend Harvard.  And contained within that thought is the following kernel:  yes it most definitely is about personal responsibility, personal initiative.  We are none of us born equal except perhaps in some abstract way akin to what the slaveholders who wrote the Declaration intended.  Some of us – like myself – are born in Pittsburgh and grow up in extraordinarily loving circumstances.  Others of us come of age in Indonesia born to a Kenyan father and a white mother.  Some of us have the wherewithal to attend Harvard.  Others of us choose to defer.  Some of us run for President of the United States …

And please, make no mistake.  That son of mixed race union?  I would suspect were you to get him drunk on truth serum he’d tell you that he stood squarely between communities, in a no man’s land.  I’d wager that he never felt any more embraced by the community of brown skinned people, given his white mother and African father, than he was by the community with white skin.  Which sort of explains just how he came to where he is:  beholden to neither. 

He acknowledges that yard stick, and then chooses to ignore it.

A pretty decent trick and a great lesson for all of us.  The next time you’re on public transportation and young folks of color choose to act in ways that demonstrate their lack of home training?  You can practice not taking on the burden of feeling either shame or responsibility for their behavior.  The next time you sign your book for that young admiring feminist?  You can actively choose to embrace those who embrace you, and understand that right then and there, in that moment, given your work and effort expended, you are worthy.  As you walk the halls of the institutions of higher learning where there are very few if any of similar color?  Gird yourself with the notion that it is the priviledged who got there as a result of something other than their own effort.  Not you.

And then I would suggest that you take a step back.

Because you are beholden to no one.

And by the way:  insatiable restless ambition ain’t half bad in this world, regardless of where they come from.


I am looking forward to reading your book.  And I already would like to simply thank you for your voice and wish you my very best.

Janet's picture
Janet · 9 years ago

Thanks for the beautiful, honest article and Al's insightful comment. As a member of an oppressed group myself, I struggle with deciding if my desires are deformed by culture or represent my true desires. This is exhausting!

it does help to know others are always looking over their shoulders, too--my 'moments' are always tinged with imposter syndrome. If they knew the real me, they wouldn't think I was so great or worthy of all this praise, is what I often think. I am glad for you, Roxane, that you can turn that feeling to empathy and appreciation for your readers and a true humility. I think we should strive to be worthy of the good people who share our lives and listen to our words, and even worthy of the wicked ones who need our example.

But I wonder sometimes, who am I saving the world for? The point of all this work is to bring real happiness, and that includes bringing it to myself. So I strive to see when I am giving in to cultural expectations, and decide if I want to, or if I can play with them if I want to, or when to resist.

I also have to right to just be me and not have to care every waking moment about the cause. And so do you, and so does everyone else! Wishing us all some days of carefree happiness where we don't have to wonder what a certain look or comment meant, we don't have to explain anything to anyone, and we can just live our lives unselfconsciously. Because that's the heart of privilege, isn't it? To move through space, time and discourse without having to 'think about' or 'be aware of' all these nuances.

So, Roxane, I love you and I am proud of you for being humble in your success, and seeing your readers as people, not sales units. But you deserve to go to a few book signings and be fabulous and love the people you meet but maybe don't think about being worthy. You already are without having to think about it. 

Moya Henderson's picture
Moya Henderson · 9 years ago

Thank you for your honest writing. What you write is profoundly affecting. You encourage women everywhere to be the first to be proud of their achievements. And this despite their being sectioned off from the mainstream on whatever culturally condoned pretext. Those colleagues of yours who resort to the tag, 'affirmative action,' in order to be as good as, or better than you, are pathetic.

Erin's picture
Erin · 9 years ago

This is amazing. Keep writing and don't let the bastards grind you down. Can't wait to read your books.

Ashbee's picture
Ashbee · 9 years ago

Why do we still care so much about what white people think about us? Inherently that is a manifestation of mental slavery that I would hope everyone tries to break free from. 

George's picture
George · 8 years ago

this is the best comment here, and it should be the mantra for all African-Americans in the United States.

Brett's picture
Brett · 9 years ago

I'm a middle-aged white guy, and I believe Affirmative Action is a net societal good.   However, we need to take the good of Affirmative Action with the bad.  The good is that it gives kids with societal disadvantages a leg up, and helps balance out some both historical and present-day injustices.  The bad is that, to many people, it cheapens the success of any minority who succeeds, because minorities are held to lower standards.

Did the author benefit from Affirmative Action?   We can't really know.  Clearly some of her colleagues (indeed, from high school through her doctorate program) believed that she did.   Perhaps this was racism, or perhaps not. 

For all we know, her SAT scores and class rank were far below other students who were rejected from the same schools, and THAT'S why the stereotypical lacrosse-playing white kid (boo!!!) scorned her.   

Anyway, it's not like this doesn't happen on a regular basis.   If it didn't happen all the time, Affirmative Action wouldn't be doing its job.  Nor can we ever know for certain, or else Affirmative Action would also not be doing its job.   (Can you imagine the shame and outrage of announcing WHICH minorities were admitted because of AA, and which were admitted upon their own merits?)

Anyway, this is the legacy of Affirmative Action -- we have to tak the good with the bad.  And anybody who thinks that we should hold minorities to lower academic standards, and then ask everybody to never suspect that anybody ever did, is asking a lot of human nature.  

...By the way, for anybody who disagrees with my last point about asking too much of human nature, consider this:  Did you immediately loathe  that white male of "the type who plays lacrosse" because you jumped to about fifty conclusions about him, his place in society, and his likely reasons to reach his conclusions?   ...And did you notice that the author led you there and played upon your own stereotypes?   If so, then you're exhibiting the exact same behavior that you're expecting the rest of the world to rise above.

Al's picture
Al · 9 years ago

Too often what’s missing is honest and respectful dialogue on the web.  I really appreciate your response.

You write: “The bad is that, to many people, it cheapens the success of any minority who succeeds, because minorities are held to lower standards.”

When I was admitted to Harvard there were likely many factors that entered into the admission decision:  my grades, my SAT scores, my extracurricular activities … the usual.  And there are several things that are interesting about the process and the outcomes.  In my case?  I came from a predominantly black inner city school known more for its basketball team (several times, state champions in Pennsylvania) than its academics.  So it would be easy to dismiss the 4.0 that I presented as “inferior”.  My SAT scores on the other hand, given that I was educated in that environment, I’m sure caused more than a few eyebrows to rise especially since I was graduating in three years not four.  And as to those extracurriculars?  Through a number of different serendipitous events, I wound up working at several of the local television stations where, as an Associate Producer (at the ripe old age of 15), I worked on several shows which garnered national awards.  So it’s interesting:  affirming actions have several implications, not all of which are typically accounted for.  I would ask you: what about the kids that exceed the standards, but because affirmative action is in place, are lumped by any and all into the “lower standards” pool because of the color of their skin?  I would agree with you that it cheapens their success, but I don’t think that’s exactly what you had in mind.  

It all revolves around the notion that there is some kind of meritocracy in place.  Work hard, score high, take the AP classes, get into … you pick the Ivy League name.  And yes, there is a system in place where kids from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds are able to be recognized and subsequently to climb.  But that little school in western Massachusetts where I went?  That was Williams College.  There I met the children of – as they say – the captains of industry and finance.  The son of the CEO of Honeywell was my RA.  A kid from the Bronfman family (Seagram’s Seven distilleries) was two years ahead of me.  And then there was that Rockefeller.  So … I don’t think it was an accident that several of the buildings in the science quad carried the Bronfman name.  Nor was it an accident that the Rockefellers gave the school a new gymnasium.  And forgive me for being more than a little cynical when I say that I firmly believe that the children of those families (and many others) were provided with the access and the advantage that they were by virtue of their wealth.  That wealth trumps merit every day.  That the privileged are not likely held to the same standards either.  And one has to wonder:  would there be “shame and outrage” of announcing WHICH of these rich white kids got in because of their family’s money and which actually “earned” their way?  Interesting thought.

And as to your lacrosse player?  You’re right about this much:  did I immediately leap on the stereotype?  Yes I did.  I knew that kid and many like him.  I knew their arrogance, I endured their condescension, and I routinely busted my ass to better them.  But!  Guilty as charged.  I fell right into it.  We all do.  It’s the nature of race in this culture to bend race-based groups around the worst, not the best, of our experiences and perceptions from ‘across the divide’.  It’s what makes white women hug their purses closely when I get on an elevator.   It’s what makes people of all colors cross the street when approached by young black males wearing hoodies.  One of whom could be my son, who favors hoodies but is also fluent in Arabic and Spanish and is now in college in New York City.  It’s the corrosive nature of race as we’ve conceived of it and as we live it.  It’s why we need to rethink how we make policy when trying to address past injustice.  Because we can’t seem to divorce ourselves from that race based bending on either side of this divide.   And it perverts and distorts the best of intentions such that today’s Affirmative Action through the lens of history could be seen tomorrow as just one more version of separate but equal.  It’s possible.


So all told?  I’m not too sure I’d agree with your net societal good with regard to Affirmative Action.  I prefer to think of it right now as simply a lesser of evils.

MrBrett's picture
MrBrett · 9 years ago

Wow!  Al,  when I read your initial well-written post, and you mentioned going to school in Western Mass, a thought floated through my head: "I bet he went to Williams or Amherst."  You just fit the ...dare I say it... stereotype -- and as it turned out, you did!  

Does suspecting that you went to Williams make me a bad person?  Does it matter that I was right?  What if I had reached a less-flattering conclusion?  

I know this much:  The author can't have it both ways.  She can't complain about people using stereotypes, and then bait her readers with a crazy-obvious stereotype.  Hell, she didn't even say "a lacrosse player," but went crazy-steroetype by saying "the TYPE who plays lacrosse" -- because it doesn't really matter if he plays or not, just that he's the TYPE who does.  <wink> <wink>

Granted, no doubt most readers missed it, because this site's demographic is likely (a) women, (b) African American, and/or (c) politically correct -- groups among which dissing "the white man" is a-okay.  But it's not.  Either stereotypes are fair game or they aren't.

...And if "the type who plays lacrosse" (which practically drips with accusations of unfair class privilege) is fair game, then so is "the type who benefits from Affirmative Action yet complains about people suspecting that he or she benefited from Affirmative Action" and most *certainly* "the type who think that tribal arm tattoos a good idea."

Notice that I didn't even say that she DID benefit from AA, or DOES think tribal forearm tattoos are a good idea (much like she didn't assert that he necessarily played lacrosse) -- just that I think she's of the "TYPE" who might.  

So, if we're against stereotypes, why don't we all agree to not use stereotypes -- rather than to use them against others, but howl when they're used against us.

...BTW, I love the premise of publishing admitted kids who paid for their admission -- I wonder if George W. Bush would still have enjoyed his freshman year.  ;)

Albert DuPree's picture
Albert DuPree · 9 years ago

MrBrett?  I have to admit, I needed to think about what to say in response.  My hope is you’re still out there a week later.  Where to begin …

So let’s start here:  categorizing all of the readers of this site as belonging to specific groups or holding specific political points of view is most certainly not accurate and not particularly useful.  Such sentiments, in my humble opinion, are probably a little wide of the mark of what I said initially:  “Too often what’s missing is honest and respectful dialogue on the web”.  Genuine conversation proceeds without such labels as “politically correct”.  Why?  Because genuine dialogue requires a couple of important prerequisites:  first, an understanding that people are capable of a wide variety of positions and opinions that more often than not don’t fit neatly under simple headers.   I am, for example, as I’ve said African American.  I’m also a (multiple) gun owner who believes in background checks; fiscally conservative and socially liberal; I have a certain fondness for country music and blue grass, but I am passionate about jazz; tall, but I can’t play basketball (that was an attempt at light hearted humor).  And the second prerequisite to honest dialogue is understanding that you don’t know what I think or believe unless and until I tell you.

Next I’d say no I don’t find it offensive that your thoughts turned to the schools in western Mass that you know.  Mostly because that’s not what’s meant by the term stereotype.  You looked at something I wrote, decided that it resulted from some level of education, took a hint that I gave you and came to a correct conclusion.  That’s an assessment of me.  Not a conclusion based on some superficial like what I wear or what group I belong to or what sport I play.

That said, I think the next place we go would be the following observation:  the essay above is 3109 words.  And it moves over a fairly wide swath of landscape.  In some ways one might say that within that space Roxane Gay gives you a fairly intimate look at what it means to be Roxane Gay.  There’s a history that starts in the present, wraps back around to kindergarten, and then walks you through time to help you to understand how we arrived where we are.  And it’s no exaggeration to say that in large part she opens a vein in disclosing some very private feelings regarding self-worth and social standing.  Out of that 3109 words there are five words that have obviously struck a nerve with you:  “the sort who played lacrosse”.    Further along you go on to say that such a phrase “practically drips with accusations of unfair class privilege”.   Just so we’re clear here?  Take the lacrosse player image out and what’s left is  apparently the antithesis of what you’ve stated:  you have someone who believes that affirmative action is only to be evaluated at the individual level.  Someone who believes that they’ve been denied what is rightfully theirs by forces outside of their control.  That Ms. Gay is “undeserving”.  And that was her point.

Regardless, it’s a stereotype.  And yes – emphatically yes -- stereotypes are wrong. 

I understand your indignation about being on the other end of a stereotype.  I really do get it.  Believe me.  For years, women, people of color, etc. have been denied jobs, denied mortgages, turned away from schools, etc. etc. because of prejudice (of which stereotyping is an active component, no?)  I understand that the ‘picture in the mind’ (how Lippman described a stereotype back in the 20’s) takes on extremely negative connotations when portrayed as she has above.  The kind of negative connotations that bring to mind the Duke lacrosse team from some years back.  The team, accused and subsequently cleared of rape charges, that ordered strippers for what amounted to a frat party.  That’s what it brought to my mind anyway.  And that’s wrong.  It’s wrong because not every lacrosse player, white or otherwise, needs to be labelled or classified because of his association with this sport or any other.

MrBrett, it’s wrong.  Got it.

What’s got me curious is the nerve that it’s struck with you.  I guess you could short hand sum it up by saying:  what about the other 3104 words?  Are those observations invalidated by the use of this one stereotype?  I personally don’t think so.  You?  What she’s said above is extraordinarily powerful.  And I don’t think one lacrosse player takes much – if anything – away from that.

Being completely candid this sounds like an instance of someone who realizes that now, with more and more people of color; with more and more diversity in the workplace and within society overall, this sounds like someone who has become sensitive to the notions of stereotyping because suddenly they are on the other end of them.  More or less in line with what my grandfather was fond of saying when situations were reversed:  ‘ain’t no fun when the rabbit got the gun now is it?’

And so we’re clear?  I get that too.  It’s a time when tons of societal relationships are being challenged and redefined.  Gay people are marrying; gender dysphoria is recognized with treatment options available; African Americans sit on the boards of Fortune 500s and in some cases occupy the CEO suite; women are represented in greater and greater numbers in previously male only preserves.  A lot of social upheaval to say the very least.  And the times are uncertain for all of us.

So you started your first post by calling Affirmative Action a net societal good.  And I want to go back to that.  Net societal good says that at some point, in your calculus, something being done may not in fact benefit you, but represents a greater good for all of us.  While I don’t agree with your calculus I applaud your ability to arrive there.  It says that in your mind there is a WE.  And that WE is a big tent with many different kinds of people.  And I personally take a great deal of hope from that.

Finally, let me give you a little advice.  From a brother who’s been down the road a ways.  For years now I’ve known that stereotyping exists on both sides of the divide.  You’ve known very little about the ‘other side’ because in large part whatever existed ‘over there’ had very little impact on your day to day life.  But it’s there.  And now with things changing as they are, you are perhaps more sensitive to its existence. I don’t know but regardless, here’s what you do:  you let it roll off your back.  You learn to zero in on what’s important and let whatever else represent just so much random noise.  You see it for what it is, perhaps parse it in order to see its origins, and then you move on.  I do it every day.

With a little luck and some hard work, somewhere down the road they’ll start to disappear.  As will the divide itself.


I’m done.  If you’re still out there?  You get the last word.

AGD's picture
AGD · 9 years ago

It is galling how often those who are wealthy (and who are predominatly-although not always- also white when we speak of the United States) are not held accountable to the same standards we are as minorities. I also came from a well-to-do family, but because of my skin color I was constantly assumed to be the "charity" student or the token girl for the school's newsletter so that they could claim they were diverse.  How often was it assumed that the rich kid wasn't as smart? Not very. For all we heard about "Afirmative Action", all of the people who had that term hurled at them as some sort of take-down worked DAMNED hard to disprove the association that we were less smart and accomplished. We did more extra curriculars and took more AP classes. We punished ourselves for anything below exemplary grade-point averages simply because we knew the world (and even our peers) were looking for any excuse to discredit our achievements and claim that they came from the color of our skin giving us an "unfair" advantage. What about the unfair advantage that has existed for years and years of the upper classes paying their way out of trouble and into good schools? Or the (less pernicious but still applicable) paying of private tutors and professional test coaches so that mediocre junior could stumble his way through the ACTs? I'll be the first to admit that my family (along with many other wealthy families) hired professionals to shepard me through the rigors of applying to schools, acing interviews and taking entrance exams. At least I wasn't a hypocrite- I knew that although my scores and grade point average were exemplary, they had come with a significant amount of support to hone my skills and abilities. I would be the first to say that if someone coming from more modest means without all of the advantages got similar scores, considering they did it without help, their score would have been worth MORE than mine (that's just common sense; they achieved the same result without the help). Not so for my white classmates; so often they would react to not getting into their school of choice with bafflement and anger- then cry "Affirmative Action" to see someone else get in. You scored the same on a test where you had every advantage and professional coaching for years to prepare for as someone who, say, had to work a job to support their family and had eight-year-old books to work out of.  Please. You don't deserve the spot they got.

Yes, I worked hard. Incredibly hard. But I don't discount the help and support I got to achieve what I did. None of the white people I knew well growing up let me forget it, either, altough when it came to acknowleging their own shortcomings and dependancy on their family name/bank accounts/helping hand....Not so much.

Then, when they succeed in SPITE of not getting into that top school because their father owns/plays golf with the board of/summers with whoever eventionally hires them out of college, it's all "Well, I worked hard and pulled myself up...." Absurd. No mention of nepotism, of everything else that allows them to cheat at the game to get a leg up; it's only whine and complain when, despite their best attempts to cheat the system, they don't get their so-called 'just due'.

Janet's picture
Janet · 9 years ago

The standard for 'who should be admitted' and who is likely to succeed in college is impossible to quantify by test scores or GPA or even extracurriculars. There are thousands and thousands of qualified applicants, and selecting from students of diverse backgrounds makes the university a better place. Life or doing well in college isn't about blackening circles and being in the school play and going to your SAT coaching class.  Some of the hardest-working and most successful university students I have known are farm kids. They already understand deadlines and working when you don't feel like it.

Mary Wickline's picture
Mary Wickline · 9 years ago

White men are the people in America with affirmative action. They're born into it but incapable of recognizing the fact of it. 

QC's picture
QC · 9 years ago

Your comment assumes that the admission process is a strict meritocracy and the merits it rewards are neutral indicators of success or capacity: neither is true. Therefore it would almost be impossible to parse who is the "affirmative action" admit and who is the "meritorious" admit. Further, affirmative action did not breed scepticism about the qualifications of admitted students or employees: racist insecurity did. That will exist even in the absence of AA. I don't think Gray is guilty of stereotypical thinking about the lacrosse player: he presumed she could not get into college by virtue of her own success and merits and his presumptions were based on race; for her to note their differences--the basis for his presumptions--is natural. But most importantly, I think this immediate distrust in Gray's narrative--this idea that a thoughtful, discerning, African-American adult is incapable of thinking through the possibilities and nuances to arrive at truthful conclusions about race and racism is a common barrier we African-Americans face all the time. Many white people often encounter our truths and indulge in the immediate impulse to ask: are you sure? Is this about race? Is this racism? What about this? It frustratingly undermines our judgment, our experiences, our narratives. 

John's picture
John · 9 years ago

I think you have the DuBois/Morehouse talented tenth classification wrong. This philosophy wasn't exclusive to blacks, it was simply being applied to "Negro education" in their writing as that was their life's work. 

I also think you have the wrong opinion about the focus on education of this talented tenth. It's not meant to neglect the remaining 90%, rather to concentrate on the 10% and groom them to innovate for the benefit of the rest. 

It's true that we have a sense that we have to be twice as good to be good enough. But not only is that not uncommon among minority groups, it's a good motivational force. Whether its your gender, race, sexual orientation, or class, most of us have some preconceived notion that we have to overcome.

Being underestimated is something I have come to welcome. You seem to be experiencing some of the anxiety associated with early professional success. But you will eventually outgrow this feeling because it's based in self doubt. But the rest of the drive that's in you is just normal human ambition. John D. Rockefeller, who is often regarded as the pinnacle of white success in America, grew up dirt poor and that was his motivation that pushed him to never stop. Sure he had privileges because of his whiteness and maleness, but he also had to work really hard to get where he got. We all have our cross to bear. 

Someone 's picture
Someone · 9 years ago

Yes, other black professors, at least one, exist in the halls where you work and teach. If you never see them or only know of their existence, you might want to get out more.

SA's picture
SA · 9 years ago

every time i read something of yours i am inspired. beautiful essay.

Cc's picture
Cc · 9 years ago

I just wanted to say that reading your article moved me.  Really verbose in some parts, but it definitely highlighted for me the things i dont experience being white. I cant imagine the rage you feel when the same person attacks you because you 'got there with affirmative action' but then thinks that we should only achieve what we want based on merit. Basically, deciding which one it is that day so they can complain accordingly. 

Anya68's picture
Anya68 · 9 years ago

Thank you for sharing your truths right now. Your writing makes me want to be a better writer and to continue to do the inner work needed to address my own privileges as a white woman. It is far from your responsibility to educate me abput racism but I do learn a tremendous amount when I read your writing (I'm in the middle of Bad Feminist). Let's just say there are a lot of "F*** Yeahs!" happening in my living room right now. And please ignore some of the white-mansplaining in the comments. 

Ludwig Richter's picture
Ludwig Richter · 9 years ago

I really wish we'd stop this endless, divisive race-baiting.  I agree with most of the points made in this article in that respect.   We need to stop thinking and talking about people in terms of race.  The longer we keep doing that, the more ammunition it'll give to racists everywhere.  We're just reifying their outdated, overbroad categories that group people based on how they look.  We need to move on from race.  The post-racial future is definitely not here yet, but we need to work towards it instead of keeping the regressive fiction of race alive.

Mudita's picture
Mudita · 9 years ago

Congratulations on your success! Mudita mudita! I delight in your joy, and I recognize the tremendous force and gravity of resistance that has shaped your ferocious determination. For me, it was an epidemic of addiction, stealing my entire (white, uneducated) family from me which fueled my education and perserverance. I lived in Indiana, I know the racism and sexism rampant there, and I ache in solidarity with that loneliness, though I am white and you are black. Yet please remember that freedom in our heart-mind is still possible, no matter the prison that seeks to oppress us. We are all called to be free.

Your voice is so honest and brave and it makes all of us feel stronger in its pure, distilled truth. I look forward to reading more of your work. Again, bravo. 


Alana's picture
Alana · 9 years ago

Gay worked hard and she succeeded.


Her parents brought her to the US. They could have stayed in Haiti. They could have gone to Jamaica or Ghana or a place where everyone is black. That way Gay could look around and say everyone here looks like me.


The criteria for success in the US and the west were all created by white people for white people out of white people’s culture. Nonetheless, others can join the group or the culture. That can’t be said of any other place on earth except maybe one or two western nations. Gay’s parents would not have been allowed to settle in Japan or Pakistan.


If the rules for success change to reflect Haitian or African culture, the success will disappear too. The US will become like those parts of the world. Every place becomes like the people in it. Eventually the US will be like Brazil. But contrary to popular myth, Brazil is not a more fair home to blacks than the US. There is a color line, there is much more police abuse, and a lot more bad things, but no one protests.


Whit Mal's picture
Whit Mal · 9 years ago

Huge eye roll after reading this one. Sorry. Oversensitive liberalism at its worst: a successful person complaining about their role in life, even amidst their success.

No wonder the American Dream is dead.

Alison's picture
Alison · 9 years ago

Actually, I think the feeling of never being good enough is shared by all those who are driven to write and are perfectionists.


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 9 years ago

I do not like Roxane Gay's essays.  Everything she writes has this tired, self-righteous quality.  You would think she has a monopoly on suffering and hardship and experiencing difficulty as a writer and academic.  And because of the current political climate, her writing escapes criticism.  No one is allowed to criticize any sort of minority writer without being labeled a racist.  Insufferable. 


Julia S. Butler's picture
Julia S. Butler · 8 years ago

Roxane, although I'm reading this many months after it was posted, this is an article that s/b shouted from the rooftops. You've said what I've been trying to explain for60 years. Yes, it starts in kindergarten; my parents had me reading the newspapers at 3 or 4 at home. I read the album liner notes, everything. In grammar school, teachers had to bring books from home because I read the entire library by 5th grade. And the 'affirmative action' cracks are enough to make one 'revert,' but we hold on to our dignity, as you so eloquently stated. God bless and good luck in all you do. 


Brad's picture
Brad · 8 years ago

You were blessed early in life to discover your god given talents and purpose. Most folks, I belive, are not so fortunate.

Congratulations on your success. 


Joyce's picture
Joyce · 6 years ago

African Americans are respected in the USA,  Yes I am a white woman.  I lived through the 1960's when, in my opinion, racism, not as you describe it, was running rapid in our county.  I don't recall the violence we have to endure today. We all bleed the same color blood.  Now I will tell you, I am not a racist, I do not support the violence of the Black lives matter era and believe the group, through violence is not solving anything.  President Obama, again in my opinion created this unacceptable violence between black vs. white.  Mr Obama often talked racist against the white people and created through his speeches a racist calling that was not an issue at that time.  I do know when racisism was alive and wrongly accepted.  We ALL need to come together.  I and so many others look forward to that day.  We can't change history but we can change our future without violence.  I'm ready for that change.



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