There's a long standing maxim in the African American community that if you want to succeed in this country, you'll have to work twice as hard as anyone else. (Of course, I would extend this thesis to all historically marginalized and oppressed groups throughout history, including but not limited to women, queer folks, indigenous peoples, immigrants, and so on.) History bears testimony to this truth as countless remarkable *nonwhite* men and women have been relegated to the shadows.
Everywhere that I turn I am accosted by images of greatness that continue to exclude the multitude of incredible human beings who happen to be marked by some—more often than not intersectional— difference. From Iggy Azalea (who won an award for being the best rap artist in 2015) to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (who beat out Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys in 2014), white people are supposedly even better at the things we have created for our own self-expression, like rap. Once again, there are few nonwhite people nominated for the Oscars, despite numerous individuals and films being worthy of such an honor. Sylvester Stallone got nominated for his supporting role in the movie Creed, but Michael B. Jordan did not get nominated at all. I wish this were a joke.
When my mother first started working at a large corporation located in New England, she remembers talking to a coworker about her family. As she was describing my life situation as a PhD student, another white coworker walked by murmuring, "They gotta fulfill them quotas." Somehow my mother still works at said corporation, after mustering the strength to keep her cool after being accosted with such bullshit. Many kudos Ma!
Frankly, the sentiment displayed in that woman's comment is ubiquitous, exhibiting itself in various forms throughout my life, from the peers at my undergraduate institution that questioned my presence on their campus and at their parties, to my ex girlfriend's parents who believed that affirmative action was responsible for their daughter not getting into graduate school.
If for some reason you thought that academia was immune to this phenomenon you are dead wrong. Sadly, most people would rather believe that if you are nonwhite in academia that you have received a world of help to get you to where you are. For them, you got into college because you are black, you are able to take advantage of various research programs because you were black, and eventually get into graduate school because you are black. Shit, I never knew it was so easy being black, given that all along the way, I've had people telling me that I am not good enough, implicitly and explicitly!
I recently received feedback from an academic journal that I submitted some work to. Commenting on a section that reviews literature in the U.S. on environmental injustice and inequality, the reviewer states (bold is my emphasis):
"Making statements about the findings of others and assuming they are factually correct is the mark of an incompetent (or prejudiced) researcher. You need to be wary of doing this. For instance, you seem to simply accept that racism plays a part in environmental injustice because the proportion of rich black people living in poor-environment neighbourhoods is greater than the proportion for white people. If this is really true, you need to give numbers to prove it. Moreover, you need to apply some sort of control to such numbers by taking account of the fact that some rich black people choose to live close to their family members and there are more black family members living in poor-environment neighbourhoods than there are white people.
Unless you can prove what you say with evidence, you should not simply state it as fact. If you do, you are yourself being racist by unfairly accusing white people of causing a situation even though:
So, Mr. Reviewer, I am an incompetent researcher for citing a vast body of literature that points to the importance of race when it comes to determining environmental inequities and accepting it as fact? Oh what's that Mr. Reviewer... I am racist for thinking that whiteness has something to do with the fact that communities of color are overburdened with environmental burdens, while their white counterparts are not? Oh my bad, I forgot that people of color just choose to live in shitty neighborhoods next door to toxic facilities, engulfing us with air pollution, because that’s exactly what we’re into. We love having asthma, heart disease, and cancer. Really, though?
Of course, I do not assume that Mr. Reviewer knows that I am black, despite sending him my submission from my google account which has a clear picture of me (perhaps I should remove that). Nevertheless, the message is the same. By subscribing to standard research conventions (i.e. citing previous research) that happens to be critical of race relations and whiteness, I am somehow incompetent.
But wait, there's more as Mr. Reviewer continues:
"And so we continue on, and I am perhaps now beginning to understand why some people do not want to become involved with your work, not even by simply reviewing your paper. Its title – environmental privilege, could be seen by some as unnecessarily provocative in the sense that it tends to attribute selfishness to those who have worked hard enough to be able to afford to live in environmentally pleasant neighborhoods." He suggests that I change the title, and indeed the entire concept of "environmental privilege" to "environmental success" thereby circumventing the entire issue of racial privilege all together.
If that isn't an instantiation of white fragility, I don't know what else is. The title of my paper is so affronting to white ontological stability that it is understandable that he has had trouble finding another reviewer. You know what I don't think I want to revise and resubmit my paper. Thanks anyway, Mr. Reviewer, I'll take this one somewhere else.
Yes, if you are different in some socially relevant way, you do have to work twice as hard, especially in academe. Why? Historically, white men have been the producers of knowledge, and thus knowledge was produced from their standpoint. From my reviewers standpoint, it would be racist to think that white people are somehow complicit in environmental inequalities because of course white people have never meant any harm. Knowledge produced from the standpoint of the "others" is threatening and often world-shattering for dominant perspectives. It must be suppressed. Thus we have it that Du Bois' social theory and methodologies for social research would be relegated to the shadows of history until being recovered rather recently. Why? Because Du Bois' social theorizing of race ran counter to dominant conceptions ubiquitous at the time.
Hidden within Du Bois' story of marginalization is a valuable lesson for us (the "others"). Working twice as hard is cumbersome, but in the end forces us to develop intellectual, and more importantly emotional, resilience. Despite the perpetual side-lining Du Bois faced throughout his lifetime, he nevertheless continued on with his work, producing some of the most sophisticated social scientific work the world has ever seen with limited resources.
Our options are limited. Unless you let them succeed in telling you that you are not good enough, you have no choice but to carry on to do the brilliant work that you know that you are capable of producing.
I remember my feelings of anger and disgust when I heard that a close friend of mine was told that her NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant would not be funded because her project carried "no intellectual merit" to the sociologists reviewing her proposal. If there was anyone in graduate school that I've met whose work had intellectual merit, it was this person! Why didn't they think her work was good enough? Well, it seems obvious that they felt that her work was "me-search" because she studies the identity formation and experiences of a group of black Appalachians of which she is a descendant. On her qualifying exam on race, ethnicity, and migration, she was told by examiner that she needed to "talk more about white people." It is very clear that unless you are in an ethnic studies related discipline, centering the experiences of nonwhite people is viewed as illegitimate. That is, of course, unless you yourself are white, if so, researching and writing about nonwhite people is rewarded and praised. Did she let this stop her? Hell no! Like Du Bois who continued on with his work despite being told repeatedly that it wasn't good enough, she took those comments in stride, and will continue her work as an assistant professor at UCLA this fall.
Whenever I'm feeling shitty, and need a little help fostering my own resilience, I think about all of the people who came before me and the myriad ways in which they forced the structures of knowledge to open up a little more, even if ever so slightly. I am reminded that we are never working twice as hard for ourselves alone.