What Should We Do?

Photo: Nelly of Muses Uniform

I am a black woman who will soon have a degree from a prestigious liberal arts college. In the United States, just 19.6% of all African-Americans over the age of 25 hold a college degree. I am relatively privileged.

At Amherst, my basic needs, and more, are met. I have a meal plan that offers three meals a day. I have a room in a building that is security-protected. My building has heating. I can take hot showers. The bathroom I use is frequently cleaned by a custodian. On my floor, there is a broom, dustpan, and vacuum cleaner all at my disposal. And aside from that, I have access to a library, gym, counseling center, and am even surrounded by accomplished academics.

When I think about my basic needs being met, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend a couple of summers ago. She said something along the lines of, “Students of color are told constantly to be grateful for the bare minimum. White students are never told that.” She continued to argue that only students of color were conditioned out of asking for more. Of course, this dichotomy between students of color and white students isn’t nuanced enough. But her views on gratitude, specifically for the bare minimum, are still interesting.

I understand her concern with asking students of color to be grateful in this way. It seems like a distraction from the issues. Of course, I know the problems that Amherst has. I know that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds do not always have the resources we need. I know that there is a lack of socioeconomic diversity in athletics and in our faculty. I know that there is rampant misogyny. I know because we students talk about the issues frequently. I am glad that I attend an institution where I have the freedom to critique. I am glad that those critiques are listened to. I don’t think that we should ever stop critiquing Amherst, because our critiques are what make Amherst better.

I do think that gratitude of this sort is necessary, though. When we get to a place where we are not grateful, we have been swallowed by the “bubble.” We have forgotten our standing in the world, relative to those who are not college-educated. This is not to say that those who are college-educated are better than those who are not. It is to say that a college education opens a lot of doors in the United States.

It is tricky to be grateful because it often turns into guilt. I have often thought about how unfair it is that I am here at Amherst while my family members are struggling. What makes me different from them? I do not feel smarter, more hardworking, or more special by any means. I just feel that I was lucky to have a mother who emphasized the importance of education and a high school that had a stellar college guidance program.

It is easy to think that this guilt is imposter syndrome, but it is not. I do not feel that I am a “fraud.” I know that I have worked hard throughout high school and that I have worked hard throughout college. I just recognize that if given the space and opportunity to do so, many more people could flourish where I have.

Because of these thoughts on gratitude and guilt, I have been thinking a lot about how to pay it forward. I think that at one point or another, this question passes through the mind of every black person who both recognizes their privilege by virtue of being educated and who is somewhat aware of the state of many black people in the United States. But for a few it doesn’t, and that is because there seems to be two competing paths when it comes to what to do with our lives.

The first path is the one that says “do whatever you love” and “do what makes you happy.” The second path is the one that says “go where you are needed” and “do what needs to be done.” For a while, I felt that the first path was privileged advice. Only someone who belonged to a community that was excelling could choose to put that community’s needs on the figurative backburner. It was a purely selfish act. I thought that when you belonged to a community afflicted by mass incarceration, police brutality, the failure of the education system, and more, you couldn’t put your community’s needs on the backburner.

During this time, I thought that college-educated black people needed to become teachers. I didn’t understand why an educated black person would be confused about what to do after graduation. I believed that educated black people were needed in schools and that young children of all backgrounds, but especially black children, needed to learn about black history and black intellectual thought. I saw in my own life that learning about black history and black intellectual thought went hand in hand with my own self-actualization. I felt that more people should have that experience.

One thing that is difficult about convincing more people to teach is that when it comes to being radicalized, liberated, or what have you, a sense of urgency develops. There is one way to gain more economic and political rights for black people and that is through revolution! Teach? No! Take to the streets! Disagree? I’m leaving you behind! While protesting is effective and necessary, it only calls attention to an issue so that the long work can then be done, and there is a lot of long work. And it is hard. It can feel burdensome, especially once you realize that protesting through social media is not the only avenue for completing that work. It can be hard to know what work to do. I am realizing that this is where “do whatever you love” and “do what makes you happy” and criticism all come into play.

I’m reminded of when Ta-Nehisi Coates came to speak last fall. He kept referring to paths. He’d say that he did not do something because it was not his path or that he did do something because it was. I like the idea of staying true to one’s path. If Issa Rae had not stayed true to her path, we would not have, for example, Awkward Black Girl and Insecure. If Serena Williams had not stayed true to her path, we would not have the work that is being done for black people in tennis. If Toni Morrison had not stayed true to her path, we would not have the work that is being done for black people in literature. We would not see their joy in doing what they love. Their work for the community is implicit in their showing up in these fields.

I think that we have a narrow definition of what it looks like to work for the community, or activism as a whole, because our passion and loquaciousness, to a certain extent, has made us untouchable, or impervious to criticism. It is almost impossible to critique those of us who champion causes that we hold near and dear to our hearts. Critiques often feels as if they invalidate the importance of the work we are doing, when in reality, they are just critiques. So we recoil and argue that the person who holds the critique is anti-this and anti-that. We create an echo chamber. There is one way to do things. Maximillian Alvarez puts it perfectly when he writes in “Your Political Correctness Is Showing, Conservatives“:

The right’s war to stoke irrational paranoia at every turn over the bogeyman of “political correctness” has been a clear tactical ploy. But that doesn’t mean the actual character flaw of being “politically correct” hasn’t made some on the cultural left incredibly difficult to deal with. Not necessarily because the values they believe in aren’t worth defending, but because they may get so hung up on the “right” way of adhering to those values that they completely lose the ability to argue for them, or to adjust them to complex interpersonal scenarios, including engaging with those who think differently. (links and italics in original)

The fact that we have an echo chamber at Amherst dawned on me recently when I realized that I don’t have to defend a lot of ideas because they are widely accepted. I don’t have to defend many of my beliefs because any argument I disagree with, that is identity-based, can be translated as an affront on my person, and I’m constantly hearing that I don’t have to defend my humanity. I’m told to exercise self-care and that I can leave any argument on the basis of feeling frustrated or attacked.

We cannot continue to ignore this echo chamber, especially knowing that ignoring it has a negative impact on the quality of both our intellectualism and our activism. When our views are not challenged by new perspectives, we are no longer practiced in defending them. We explode in ad hominem and elitist attacks instead of defending our views crisply, or just taking a step back and adjusting them. There is no doubt that this affects our forms of activism. When we find a better way to communicate with each other, our community will benefit.

There is more than one way to teach, to lend a hand to one’s community, to do activism. What is important is that one feels a desire to lend a hand to one’s community. What’s neat is that simply “doing you” is outreach. In doing what you love, you act as a representation to other people that doing what you love is legitimate. I don’t know what is more freeing than that, especially for college educated black people who often feel an overwhelming sense of obligation.