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When I was nine, my family moved to an all white suburb. I’ve written and spoken about it often. It has affected the ways I think about race on a global scale as well as how I wrestle with my own racial identity. Whether it was their intent or not, I realize that my parents gave me one message that I unconsciously internalized and that I am now beginning to reckon with: I have to be excellent to be good enough. My mother was a stickler for grammar. To this day she will take to correcting my punctuation and word usage on Facebook statuses. It was clear to her that any slip up on my part would reinforce what people already believe to be true about us: that we’re uneducated, that we don’t belong here, that we don’t deserve access to the level of education that we’re receiving. It wasn’t okay for me to be average. I needed to be a little better just to be okay.
I think this is a common experience of minorities living in primarily white spaces. We feel that we have to excel or else not only are we letting ourselves down, we are letting down our families and, to some extent, our race. It’s a burden that first generation and immigrant children carry with them. It is the not-so-subtle message that if we are going to exist in white society, we’d better prove that we have worth.
White people, it is growing more and more apparent to me, don’t seem to have that burden. Of course, there is the good old fashioned protestant work ethic, and the drive to achieve in a capitalist society, but achievement for white people doesn’t always seems to be merit-based. Studies have shown that most of white achievement is linked to inherited wealth. Most white people take for granted things like having savings, investments, and inherited property waiting for them when and if things go bad. White people get into schools based off of family names and alumni connections. They get internships and jobs based off of their last names. Most of the white people that I know, and I know A LOT, have a familial safety net that even if it doesn’t allow them to live in the lap of luxury, will stop them slipping into utter chaos.
Most minorities in this country don’t live with those securities and so when we enter white spaces, we do so knowing that we’d better perform and produce, or we’re screwed. Most minorities in this country are only a few generations removed from enslavement or some other form of colonial rule. We don’t have generational wealth. Not only that, but we have decades of policies that have been put in place to keep us from having access to wealth and influence. The playing field has never been even. So when people of color do achieve, it is against the odds.
I can look at Ben Carson, a man whose politics I pretty much despise, and say that he is exceptional. Exceptional at politics? Maybe not so much. But the man separated conjoined twins. Joined at the head! And he had to overcome all that African Americans of his age had to overcome to get to the place where he could be a pre-eminent neurosurgeon. To get to the place where he could be a mediocre political candidate, he had to be an exceptional physician.
White people need not be exceptional to achieve. At times it seems they don’t even need to be competent. They need to be visible. They need to be loud. They need to be connected. And being wealthy doesn’t hurt. The bar is lower as are the stakes. Failure for white people means a return to a world that is generally set up for them to succeed. White people, when they are not excellent, seem to be that way because they simply don’t have to be.
Nothing illustrates this point more clearly than our current presidential situation. Could Barack Obama have been more excellent? Could he have achieved more? He was a well spoken, good looking (but not too good looking), family man who overcame a broken home, first black president of the Harvard Law review, constitutional lawyer, civil rights attorney, state senator, U.S. senator, and first black president. Was he perfect? No! Was he excellent? In almost every measurable way! He’s bright, articulate, funny, has a gorgeous family, and he’s incredibly inspirational and aspirational. Excellence!
Enter the mediocre white man. So much of Trump’s campaign seemed to be fueled by this notion: how dare a black man achieve more than even a mediocre white man! Trump’s accomplishments? Taking his dad’s money and using it to put his name on everything like a four year old with an orange crayon, swindling workers out of money, numerous bankruptcies, manipulating the image of himself as a world class business man to create a reality TV show, and stirring up the worst in the American psyche to ride a wave of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny to the White House. Oh, and having five kids by three wives. Mediocrity.
The church isn’t immune from this phenomenon. Middle-aged, white, “progressive” pastors (usually men) are considered groundbreaking and courageous for saying the things that theologians of color (and women) have been saying for decades and sometimes centuries. We celebrate people who have audiences and then have a “conversion” instead of celebrating the originators of thoughts. We celebrate the strategies and ideas that church leaders of color have had by invention or necessity for decades as “emerging” and “postmodern”. Mediocrity.
I write this from a place of frustration. The celebration of white mediocrity privileges the voices of uneducated, unexperienced, uncreative whiteness over the voices of more skilled and competent people of color. I know, I know… #notallwhitepeople… I’ve painted with some pretty broad strokes here, but I don’t think I’m off base. And please know that there are mediocre people of color and there is most certainly white excellence. The difference is that mediocrity is often a death sentence for people of color and white excellence has no problem finding space to be celebrated. Our public space should be reserved for the best our thinking, the best of our creativity, the best of our culture no matter what the origin. We can’t continually give voice to those who appeal to the lowest common denominator of our society or we will devolve. I worry about us becoming a nation lead by overconfident, white ignoramuses and the people of color who are willing to play ball with them. Oh wait… maybe we’re already here…
Stop celebrating white mediocrity!