Black Excellence and the Low Expectations of White Supremacy

Black people are plagued by Imposter Syndrome, questioning their own competency and self worth; “Have I gained entry, or simply been allowed entry?” White people have deliberately set the bar low, yet maintain that BIPOC entry lowers it.

Dr. Dédé Tetsubayashi, Tech Ethicist

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, corporate America pledged to do better, saying it would diversify its leadership, encourage equity and take concrete actions to root out systemic racism. They revealed that while Black and Hispanic employees are often overrepresented as compared to U.S. census data on the nation’s workforce among the technicians, administrative assistants and laborers who form the backbone of many organizations, they are less likely to be found at the company’s senior levels, or in other professional positions.

Why is this when Black women currently hold more post-secondary degrees percentage-wise than White women, Latinas, Asian/Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Peoples? It is likely due to what is known as “soft bigotry”.

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush originally coined the phrase. It refers to the fact that the left’s approach to dealing with minorities — especially in the Black community — is based on the notion that they cannot achieve success in American society.

This approach is predicated on the widely held racist beliefs of White people, that Black people-to varying degrees based on skin tone-will inevitably underperform, thus lowering the bar. While the impact of such belief systems is pervasive, contributing to the vicious and expansive cycle of oppression: underestimation, underrepresentation, under-compensation, etc., when BIPOC meet and/or exceed this “bar” time and time again, they are seen as an anomaly, an individual exception to the rule: The Token. 

Tokenism comes with a host of complexities, one of which is Imposter Syndrome. Many “high performing” Blacks are plagued by Imposter Syndrome, questioning their own competency and self worth; “Have I gained entry, or simply been allowed entry?” White people have deliberately set the bar low, yet maintain that BIPOC entry lowers it. How, then, does one perform under the pressure of the notion that they will never be seen—that they will never be perceived as good enough even by the mediocre standards set forth? And further, at what cost—what is the cost of entry? 

American gymnast Simone Biles is an example of tokenism compounded by the “soft bigotry of lowered expectations”. Biles, a Black woman and currently the most decorated gymnast in history, is renowned for performing moves so difficult and so distinctive, that several have been named after her. Recently, however, upon the successful completion of a Yurchenko double pike (named after Russian gymnast Natalia Yurchenko who pioneered a rudimentary rendition of the complex maneuver at the 1982 Olympics) Biles received a provisional score of 6.6. Since no score exists to adequately capture Biles’ level of athleticism, she was given the score as a sort of consolation prize that Biles, and some critics of the sport have deemed unfair. Dave Lease of “The Skating Lesson” called the score “ridiculous”. 

“It’s telling Michael Jordan to score 20 points per game and no more,” he said. “You watched the Michael Jordan documentary, right? This is like Justice for John Stockton, who’s just not as good. It’s like if in the early 2000s, we told Venus and Serena [Williams] ‘let’s not break 100 miles per hour, please.’ Could you imagine that?” –Vox

This contempt for BIPOC excellence is not only limited to athleticism, it plays out in corporate and academic spaces, as well. 

“There was a general attitude from my employer that I was ungrateful and wrong to complain about my lack of advancement. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had likely been the victim of a workplace phenomenon known as “pet to threat.” This happens when women, typically Black women, are embraced and groomed by organizations until they start demonstrating high levels of confidence and excel in their role, a transition that may be perceived as threatening by employers.” – Vox

The ceilings of white supremacy were not constructed with bricks or concrete but rather low expectations.

Recently, Nikole Hannah Jones, MacArthur Fellowship recipient and 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner for her work on The 1619 Project was in the news when her alumnus, University of North Carolina denied her tenure based on her involvement with the The 1619 Project. 

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

Ms. Hannah-Jones graduated UNC with a Master’s Degree in journalism and was now being denied tenured professorship for exceptionally utilizing that degree in the way in which it was intended: journalistic integrity. After weeks in the news, Black student protests, the procurement of legal counsel, and the backing of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major donor to the university, the decision was overturned. Kevin M. Guskiewicz, the university’s chancellor, said the board’s vote was significant.“Professor Hannah-Jones will add great value to our university,” he said. “Our students are eager to learn from her, and we are ready to welcome her to the Carolina faculty as soon as possible.” 

Ultimately, Ms. Hannah-Jones would decline UNC’s offer of tenure, stating, “These last few weeks have been very dark. To be treated so shabbily by my alma mater, by a university that has given me so much and which I only sought to give back to, has been deeply painful.The only bright light has been all of the people who spoke up and fought back against the dangerous attack on academic freedom that sought to punish me for the nature of my work, attacks that Black and marginalized faculty face all across the country.”

Again, we ask, “Entry, at what cost?” It isn’t enough to simply be granted entry, as Dr. Monica Cox tweeted, “Instead of showing me your diversity statement, show me your hiring data, your discrimination claim stats, your retention numbers, your diversity policies, and your leaders’ public actions against racism. End performative allyship.”

Meritocracy is a myth for BIPOC, and the consequence for believing otherwise is neither “soft” nor a departure from other types of systemic racism. As BIPOC, we must constantly toggle between being seen and acknowledged for our competency, appreciated and respected by our peers, but not too much lest we become a threat. We mustn’t be lazy, or complacent, but also, not too demanding at the risk of being perceived as “angry”. We are expected to reaffirm White mediocrity as the standard at all costs: to free whiteness from the guilt and shame of not achieving more than those they persistently deem capable of so much less.  

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