My father, born during the civil rights movement to parents raised in a segregated South, had also been told just how powerful he was to the world. He was often told how bright and intellectual he was at home, yet he was thrown into a remedial class at school in the third grade for asking too many questions. His family slogan, the same as the one I heard growing up, should have come with a warning label: “You’re going to have to work 10 times as hard as any white person to even be seen as somewhat equal.”
When the college scandal unfolded, I thought to myself, “business as usual,” although many people were surprised. I began seeing commentary of people who were angry that the system hadn’t worked in their favor. The fantastical system that says straight A’s, high SAT scores and integrity go a long way actually worked its way into people’s minds as being realistic.
As I began to read about people dismayed at the situation, I remembered a moment in college many years before. A big media professional came to speak to one of my broadcasting classes. He was a white man and thankfully didn’t hold back on informing my class of all black students about the reality of the business. He said that we would not be the ones to get the internships or entry-level jobs with his company because someone who already worked there may have had a niece, nephew or child that needed a few credits or starter gig, and those slots would go to them. He shrugged as he commented that they probably would be white and have no interest in media, giving us a look as though that were just the way things went. However, the most poignant message that stuck out to me was when he stated, “You’re going to have to work 10 times as hard to even be seen.”
He took the wind out of my classmates’ sails, but not mine. Before he left the room, I dared to challenge this notion that we wouldn’t succeed because nepotism was going to beat us out. I raised my hand and said in front of the class, “Since you are here, you should take the opportunity to hire me for an internship.” He laughed and told me that if I was going to make it in the business, demanding what I needed and challenging opposition was going to be vital.
This first step landed me an internship with one of his employees, weeks later.
It was at that moment that I knew my father had set me up for success by allowing me to understand that by not having, I was already working against a system since birth. I was working to be myself despite what the perception of me was going to be.
Now that I am a parent, my young son will receive the same message. Is the world actively changing? Yes, but at a very slow pace for marginalized people. I believe that knowing what you’re up against and how you will be perceived by the world from a young age is the best way to have less of a letdown. Imagine the number of children who internalize not getting into a certain school, although they believe they met the criteria. Or those who didn’t make the team while someone has told them their whole life that if they did their best, they would receive the reward/acknowledgment/trophy. Imagine the children who are told that although they may meet one set of criteria, there are other barriers they’re going up against.
My son does not have a typical name and, much like myself, will have to battle people’s assumptions of who he is based on the complexity of that name. He is also a black male, and according to the American Psychological Association will be perceived as more threatening and larger than a white male who is of the same stature. He does not come from wealth, and although my husband and I work our hardest, we will still be below the financial bar that allows “pay to play.” That makes three strikes against someone who’s barely of school age.
On the other hand, he will still have the saying from us that he is *insert name* and he does not back down from any challenges, because we have a lineage that has survived no matter how hard of a road it was to travel.
Teaching my son that lesson of not-having is not failure. The failure is believing that he will be treated the same as everyone else. I want my son to have a better chance at coping with his successes or failures, knowing what he’s up against. I want him to understand that life will be bumpy between his successes, and that is the only way to take the bitter with the sweet.
Imani Bashir is a former sports broadcaster who decided to try her hand as an educator teaching abroad. Having had her son in Poland, she believes in raising her son as a global citizen and has lived in three countries, where she is a full-time freelancer. She documents her journey on Instagram @sheisimanib.