It was a typical weekend evening. I was tipsy and debating communism with a few friends. I was giving my take (that communism is difficult to truly enact due to the corruptibility of humans in power) and cited China’s current detention of Muslims in concentration camps as an example. My debate opponent insisted that such detention has been “proven false” and was just a mechanism deployed by Western nations to demonize communism. I refused to relent in this conversation because I knew that the things I was saying and citing were true and also because I just love debating (for those of y’all who don’t know, debating and arguing are not the same thing). Throughout the debate, one thing that was consistently told to me (but not my opponent) was “it’s okay to be wrong about things.” After things died down, someone who has watched me talk politics with many a person told me that “sometimes [I] say things with such confidence.” This was not a compliment. And just like that, I realized that I had done it again. I went out in public and committed the grave sin of confidently expressing my well-informed opinion without first considering how my high self-esteem and steady, assured articulations might be off-putting. This has happened to me many times, and will certainly happen many more. This time, though, I decided to sit and really think through what was really happening in those moments. What is it about my tiny, Black, non-male self-confidently uttering facts and educated opinions that is so jarring to people? I invite you all to explore this with me.
I’ll kick this off by giving you all some insights about my educational upbringing. I was home-schooled for most of my childhood and gained an interest in politics after viewing the 9/11 attacks on my living room TV at age 9. This casual interest turned into intense study after our nation invaded Iraq 2 years later and I became determined to understand why my country was going to war. I have since focused heavily on social/humanities studies, taking AP history courses in high school, receiving a B.A. in History (with a Philosophy minor), and culminating my formal studies with an M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology. Long story short, I’ve essentially spent the past 20 years of my life learning as much as I can about humanity’s past and present, and engaging in conversations about its future. Still, despite my many academic achievements, I have encountered the following:
- People have asked if my degrees were obtained online as a means of suggesting that they either aren’t real or are of a lower caliber. They weren’t.
- People have accused me of being “aggressive” and a “show-off” (including some of the people in the scenario above) for doing things like speaking in complete sentences or pointing to factual information when contesting people that I disagree with.
- A colleague in my graduate program told me to my face that I only received funding from our department because “of course they have to have a minority here.” I received the exact same scholarship as several of my other White colleagues.
- I experience a disproportionate number of lectures from “devils advocates” (always White, usually male) who feel the need to assist me with being open to the possibility of my own error, and considering multiple perspectives/alternatives to my outlooks and opinions (because in 6 years of rigorous university study with mostly White, male professors in the fields of History, Philosophy, and Anthropology I certainly never encountered a counter-argument or was made to take into account varying viewpoints on an issue *this is sarcasm*).
- I will probably be dead before the last time I hear the “compliment”- “Wow, you’re really smart…for a Black girl!”
These instances, and many more, have kept me mulling over the following questions: 1) With years of high-quality formal education, multiple advisors and tutors, hundreds of scholarly books and articles, and 2 degrees under my belt- why do so many people struggle to believe that I actually am a person of high cognition and vast amounts of knowledge? 2) Why do so many people who do recognize that I do have intellect and talents resent me for displaying them? Obviously, racism and sexism are at play here, but through an examination of old stereotypes and tropes, we can see how these oppressive structures are double-edged swords designed to stop social mobility attempts at all costs.
In my case, the two most prominent things working against my credibility are my Blackness and the fact that I’m female presenting. Old stereotypes tell us that Black people are lazy and daft and that women are incapable of profound intelligence and so are best suited for silent, submissive lives. Marginalized people who fall into the worst stereotypes of their demographics are viewed as simply the status quo by those outside of their communities. While a successful businessman might get annoyed by a stupid mistake made by his stay-at-home wife, he also doesn’t expect her to behave any differently because “that’s just how women are.” The real conflict comes when individuals move beyond their supposed nature and begin to display characteristics that are traditionally reserved for those who dominate them. In the case of male/female relations, women are criticized and called “aggressive” when they are actually being assertive in the workplace, while men are praised and promoted for the same behavior. Black workers are often criticized similarly among their White colleagues.
Beyond this though, it is important to note that the negative reactions to boundary-breaking behavior aren’t just limited to mischaracterizations. Such behavior is often accused of being downright fraudulent. In two separate famous incidents, Black female doctors Tamika Cross and Fatima Cody Stanford were publicly questioned and dismissed on their flights when a fellow passenger was in need of medical assistance. All the more insulting was the fact that the people who felt confident in discerning a real doctor from a fake one and determining the best steps for assisting the ailing passengers were White flight attendants, and the other passengers on the plane accepted this. These incidents reveal another layer of the dynamics of racism and sexism in our society:
In a privileged/marginalized social dynamic, privileged individuals are often so committed to the belief that the oppressed inherently possess certain traits (like stupidity) that it is impossible for them to believe or acknowledge that an oppressed person has transcended those traits. The resulting social interaction is the privileged person accusing the marginalized one of social fraud.
In the case of Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, the disbelief that she could truly possess a medical license and the intellect required to obtain one is why she was questioned intensely by flight attendants instead of being allowed to assist a person in need. I can’t say for sure what the logic of White, female flight attendants was- but I can take a guess because it is a train of thought that is all too common:
**This Black woman might be kind of smart and maybe even have some money (we are on a Delta flight after all), but her attempting to treat this ailing passenger is out of line. Like, there is no way she is really a doctor. I’m not even a doctor. There is no way in hell that this Black lady is smarter and more successful than me, so she must be lying about her occupation. I’d better step in before someone gets hurt…**
The unspoken tension in both Dr. Stanford’s and Dr. Cross’ situations is that their statuses as medical doctors moved them beyond stereotypes for both their racial group and gender group. The flight attendants and other passengers had such a hard time grasping that this was actually possible that they thought it better to let an ailing person suffer rather than receive treatment “just in case” these Black women didn’t really have positions which are typically filled by White men. It is also for this reason that people without any higher education and people who get most of their news from social media headlines still feel confident in challenging me to a debate on political history and regard their opinions on such topics as equivalent to mine. Unlike in a typical debate, my opponents aren’t just trying to debunk my points and stances, they are also trying to debunk me altogether and expose me for an impostor in a field of experts.
The notion that excellence is natural only for the privileged classes is also found among marginalized people who have internalized that narrative. For example, Black people who pursue knowledge and non-stereotypical hobbies are often ridiculed within their own communities for “acting White.” I have been accused of acting White since childhood. Those who have hurled this derogatory accusation at me have accepted the idea that true knowledge and wisdom are only attainable by members of the European Diaspora. According to the “acting” framework, any supposed intelligence put forth by me (a member of the African Diaspora) is actually just a counterfeit attempt to mimic the genuinely high cognition of White individuals.
With all the aforementioned in mind, my being intelligent in public while also being Black and non-male is often regarded as grandstanding because biased people (regardless of how progressive they think they are) are convinced that I’m putting on a show. Just as the flight attendants assumed that Dr. Stanford was begging for attention by “playing doctor,” others are put off by me because they think that I am merely “playing academic.” I am then scolded for trying to breach pre-established social boundaries and reminded that I’m a Black femme. My arguments should be petty, hysterical, Cardi B-esque, tantrums because that’s entertaining, and not passionate, educated, and well-articulated discourses because that’s fake and threatening. By building up a wall of disbelief between us, they can avoid looking at the thing they actually fear most: the truth that someone like me is actually more intelligent/more skilled at something than they are.
In my last post, I wrote out ways that people on either side of the issue being discussed can move forward for the better. However, given the situation, I don’t really feel much of an obligation to help anyone feel less threatened by the empowerment and education of the oppressed. Instead, I’ll end with some words of advice to all my marginalized sibs out there striving for excellence. Please know that the systems which oppress you (racism, sexism, imperialism, whatever) have all been designed in such a way that you will always be worthy of criticism and differential treatment. You will be demonized literally no matter what you do. Women will be criticized whether they choose careers, children, or both. Minorities will be accused of pathetically trying to emulate Whiteness if they strive to move beyond racial stereotypes, or accused of upholding racial stereotypes and “keeping down” their communities if they don’t. You can’t win with them, so don’t try to. Design your own path to greatness, and take it as boldly as others have taken theirs. You are not an impostor. You deserve respect, accolades, and honorifics. You deserve to live long and prosper. You deserve to flourish in public, not the shadows, so do it. Don’t apologize. Let ‘em die mad about it.
 To date, China has detained an estimated 3 million (maximum) Muslims in an effort to purge Islamic practice from the country. While the Chinese government contests the label “concentration/internment camps” and denies that any Muslims have been taken or held against their will, it has openly and proudly admitted that Muslims are targeted and “encouraged” to participate in “re-education programs” which aim to help Muslims realize that Islam is a terroristic religion of extremism. Muslims who attend these programs supposedly sleep, eat, and work at the “schools” until they “graduate.” Graduation can only be achieved by proving to the Chinese government-provided “teachers” and “administrators” that any loyalty to or desire to be affiliated with Islam and other Muslims has been completely purged away.
 Privileged people’s constant insistence that marginalized people cannot truly excel in certain areas is known to exacerbate Impostor Syndrome among marginalized groups. Impostor Syndrome, which can affect anyone, is the belief that you are not worthy of a position, title, membership, degree, etc. despite the fact that you are objectively qualified for it. People who experience Impostor Syndrome may not speak up or go after opportunities due to the belief that they are undeserving. When this belief is reinforced by others, Impostor Syndrome may worsen.