I grew up post-civil rights and voting rights; affirmative action and minority scholarships and mentoring programs were the legacy that I inherited. I was led to believe that my inheritance guaranteed my piece of the “American Dream” if I held up my end of the bargain: go to school, get degrees, work hard in my field of choice, and secure salaries and health benefits. Then I would be acceptable and accepted by both my black community and the greater white community. I would be respectable, and my ancestors’ dying (and beatings, lynchings, segregation, jim crowing, and so on) would not have been in vain.
At first, working the system worked for me. I took every advanced class, participated in every program and extracurricular activity, received all kinds of awards, honed every gift, talent, and skill–I did everything I could to insure my place in the system. I was rewarded with scholarships and grants. I took advantage of that, too, using every ounce of smart I had to figure out what I should do in life. I always worked hard; every supervisor I’ve had would have great things to say about me. I did my best at every turn, determined to get my foot in the door of the promised land bought by my forefathers. I almost succeeded, too.
At some point the door slammed in my face. The system that I had honored with my sweat and tears and personal best began to turn me away. You will never know how many times some white person with less experience than I told me to my face, “You’re overqualified for this position.” I have seen the fear in the eyes of supervisors as they looked my résumé, then looked at me. I have had people tell me that they would call but never did.
And I started to realize that the system was slowly failing me.
My mother thought I wasn’t trying hard enough or staying long enough for the system to work. What she did not see was me being passed over for promotions given to people who were less educated, less experienced, and less black. She did not see me and a white person that I had trained compare check stubs–I was being paid $12.00 less an hour. My family did not see the hundreds of resumes that I sent out for jobs in my field, only to be turned away in a good economy. No one saw the doubled and tripled workload given to me because I was so “talented” even while my requests for raises and promotions were met with beatific smiles and the response, “But you are SUCH a good fit here.”
It took a long time for me to admit that the system was not working for me. And when I finally looked around, I saw that the system was also not working for many of my educated, African American counterparts.
This is NOT to say that people were not successful. We had “good” jobs, families, communities-the whole nine yards. But we weren’t happy. We were pressing against walls that had no intention of crumbling.