As a person from a first generation, low income background, adversity is one of the threads that formed the fabric of my life. Even further than that, being a person of color often brings with it an entire cadre of preconceived notions being made about you. If you’re a black female teenager or young adult, I bet a younger cousin or niece/nephew has been assumed to be your child at least once. If you’re a black male teenager or young adult, I need not elaborate on the myriad, dangerous ways in which the expectations of others have weighed heavy on your shoulders.
There is actually a scientific explanation for the negative effects this can have on our academic and professional careers. Stereotype threat is defined as the affected person’s perceived risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their group. Some of the most common cases of stereotype threat include ‘Girls are bad at math,’ ‘Black people are lazy,’ and ‘Black women are loud and aggressive.’ Low numbers of women in STEM, growing reports of Black Americans working themselves to the point of depression and suicide in order to prove themselves, and the many cultural conversations being had about how Black women’s personalities are perceived in corporate America all speak to the effects of stereotype threat.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is pervasive; it even permeates the educational environment. This is arguably the most toxic and damaging of environments for low expectations, considering that school is the place that literally shapes our knowledge, understanding and the lens through which we view the world. If the lens being created for us sees us as less capable of meeting high academic standards itself, do we not end up doing the same? The question then becomes one of how we can best combat low expectations of academic and professional excellence for members of our community. It took a combination of grace and hard work for me to end up in an educational environment where I was somewhat insulated from this effect, but many of my middle school friends were not so lucky. I saw my friends at other high schools leaving school at 12pm while their guidance counselors and teachers left school at 2pm; when I would ask them about their teachers’ office hours, they would look at me with confusion in their eyes. They had no opportunity to ask their teachers questions if they were confused– by contrast, during my Comp Sci and Calc IV courses, I was often in my professors’ offices after school.
If you find yourself in an academic or professional environment that doesn’t expect what you know you can achieve, follow these three steps.
First, assess and admit the situation. If you are in a less than ideal educational or career space with less than adequate resources, or if you have a previous history of low academic or professional achievement, you must be self-aware and realistic. A person with a 2.5 GPA is not in the same situation in terms of admissions or career prospects as a person with a 3.5 GPA. That is an objective fact that you must assess and admit in order to figure out how to overcome that issue and continue to thrive Second, empower others to succeed. Rather than dragging others down due to jealousy, envy or a desire to be superior or exceptional, we must begin cooperating to succeed as a group. One of the 7 principles of Kwanzaa is Ujamaa: cooperative economics. This has been one of the driving principles of the #BuyBlack, #BankBlack, and #BlackOwned movements both on and off social media in the last decade. When you see a black entrepreneur succeeding even though that is your goal or you had trouble becoming one yourself, applaud them! Celebrate and affirm their success! If you see someone ged admitted to a school by which you were denied, celebrate and affirm them too. If someone gets a promotion to which you think you were entitled, applaud the advancement of the culture, and remember to honestly and realistically assess the situation.
Third and finally, remember you are the star. You are the protagonist of the world’s greatest movie. Rather than thinking of a failure or rejection as the end of your story, think of it as an immediate chance for redemption, just like in the movies. If there was no conflict, there would be nothing for the star to overcome. There would be no conflict, no plot, no resolution and definitely no climax without those moments of failure, rejection and adversity. You must always remember that you are the star, with all of the requisite tools, resources and supporting cast/staff that you need to succeed. Take care of yourself like the star, have the self-esteem of a star, and work at the standard that befits a star.
Assess the situation, empower others to succeed and remember you are a star. This is how we must practice excellence in order to go above and beyond low social and institutional expectations.