A Far Too Familiar Story
In the words of the Combahee River Collective: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” (Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977)
Despite the Supreme Court ruling last year, today’s headlines confirm that Affirmative Action and the damaging quota system are alive and well. The proof is in Boston, at the esteemed and maligned Harvard University itself. In the Divided States of America, individuals who believe themselves to be White have once again affirmed each other and ensured their balance of power is maintained through a White quota system, also known as “normal.”
I saw it when I read about the unsurprising resignation of Dr. Claudine Gay, the first Black President in the history of Harvard, after her appearance at a Congressional hearing last year and the ensuing pummeling she has taken in the weeks since. I saw it and I thought, “Yep, and there it is.” Anyone watching the hearing and reading the news cycle over the past few weeks knew the “hanging” was coming. It’s always coming.
In fact, I saw it foreshadowed in Dr. Gay’s inaugural speech, “Courage to be Harvard,” a prescient piece in which she references both the dangers and necessity of navigating our world with courage:
“Ideally, we shouldn’t need courage to ask Why? we should feel no more danger of the recrimination or risk or censure than a young child. But Why? pokes at things. It raises doubts and raises eyebrows. It clashes with those who prefer, as President Kennedy once said, “the comfort of opinion, without the discomfort of thought.” To persist with Why? is to give up the safety of silence, the ease of idle chatter, the satisfaction of an echo chamber. The goal of Why? is not to comfort; it is knowledge. Knowledge is what transforms lives. Knowledge is our purpose.”
So instead of writing another thought piece about this exhausting subject, I want simply to share relevant quotes from my first book, Navigating Courage: Leading Beyond Fear. That book, first published in 2018, follows my career in academics and demonstrates the systematic nature of what happened to Dr. Gay and reinforces the title of her first public writing since her resignation: “What just happened at Harvard is Bigger Than Me.” I know from which I speak when I say that Dr. Gay’s resignation is NOT about plagiarism or qualifications. It’s about keeping Black women in their place and affirming the existing White quota system. Let me be clear here: I have worked for and with a lot of underqualified, unfit cheaters who were not only allowed to remain in power, but who were also spared the public humiliation we see happening with Dr. Gay.
Join me on a walk down memory lane:
“Throughout my career I’ve mentored hundreds of young Black women working two jobs, going to school full-time and raising families, who believe that meritocracy offers a viable path to economic, political and social parity, only to earn 63 cents on the dollar compared to their White male and female counterparts. Their experiences, as well as my own, have shaped my belief that ideology of meritocracy is both dangerous and disingenuous. The narratives demonstrate how even academic excellence and breaking racial and gender barriers fail to provide even modest safety or protection for Black women in the workplace.” (p. xiii)
“The lack of diversity in the workplace and the perpetual failures of people of color cannot simply be explained using the ideology of intellectual inferiority—he/ she was not a “good fit,” or that it just didn’t work out. In some cases, the failure lies in the racial and cultural ignorance of a heavily White administration and faculty, and it should be examined not as a byproduct of happenstance but as strategy.” (p. xiii)
“My entire career is full of stories of people trying to put me in my place or asking me to pretend the room is empty when I’m it. Fortunately for me, I never learned how to be invisible. As a Black woman, I’ve come to believe that knowing my place and staying in my place are two different things. Knowing my place is about understanding the social, political and individual contributions I bring to my position of power. Staying in my place, though, is an act of oppression, whether self-imposed or externally enforced. It is designed to ensure current power structures remain intact. Staying in one’s place is an act of personal, spiritual and mental sabotage.” (p. 19).
“I learned that the narrator of the story controls the script, the characters and in some cases, the story’s ending. People in power know that. It is the one uninterrogated, powerful and deadly tool in the tool kit. He said I was a problem; therefore, I was a problem.” (p. 72).
"#BlackGirlMagic is more than a 21st century hashtag. It is about owning and embracing the magical journey that I and so many other Black women dare to imagine. Ultimately, it is a display of resilience, courage and exploration of just how much extra shit Black women have to endure". (p. xiv)
"My greatest hope, however, is that everyone reading this book, especially women of color, who have questioned their intellectual, spiritual, political, cultural or leadership capacity, know that they are not alone and that our journey is magical. For We, the collective WE, are the peace the world awaits. We are the perfect manifestation of our ancestors. We represent their hopes, dreams and the future kingdoms for which we were chosen to rule. So, embrace and take-hold of this magical journey with resilience and courage. For we have come to this royal position for such a time as this.” (p. 142).
Dr. Gay is far from alone on her journey, which today seems far from magical. But if there is one thing I know, it is that her resilience and courage will see her through such a time as this.
Want to read more and learn how you can navigate courage? Buy the book at www.navigatingcourage.com