Black Exceptionalism

“A black man has to fly to get something that a white man can just walk to.”
– Chris Rock

An article was published in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about the newest cabinet members in the Trump Administration, with Reince Priebus named Chief of Staff, and Stephen Bannon named Chief Strategist and Senior Counsel. Now, as bad as that is, that wasn’t what caught my eye in that article. I was fixated on a small section of that piece which touched on Donald Trump’s visit to the White House and his private meeting with President Barack Obama. As Obama was going through the duties of running the country, Trump was “surprised” by the scope of the presidency. In fact, it seems that not even his aides knew that the entire presidential staff would have to be replaced. According to the authors: “After meeting with Mr. Trump, the only person to be elected president without having held a government or military position, Mr. Obama realized the Republican needs more guidance. He plans to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do…” (If you don’t have a subscription to WSJ, check out the condensed version of the cited article here.

I hope you caught that because people did. I would argue that black folk all over the country can relate to the current predicament that Obama finds himself in. Once again, a black individual must offer “guidance” to a white individual who is not qualified for whatever position he/she has been appointed to:

Imagine that, will you? A man who has spent no less than four years being subject to flat-out disrespect and delegitimization as the President of the United States of America, purely because of the color of his skin, now finds himself in a position where he must offer “extra guidance” to the primary instigator of said vitriol for the sake of this great country of ours. President Obama now has to swallow his pride in order to personally ensure that his successor is well-prepared for the task ahead of him – he has to be sure that Donald’s tiny hands are ready to handle the responsibilities and duties of the Office of the President of the United States. I say again, you’d be hard pressed to find a black person in America that has either personally lived this story or knows someone within two degrees who has lived it.

My favorite comedian, Chris Rock, touched on this issue in his 2008 HBO special, “Kill The Messenger” and again in the HBO documentary, “The Black List: Volume One”. Please check out the short clip 2.5 minute clip below. He really addresses this matter quite beautifully through a number of illustrations:

What’s the point? Black people have to either be exceptional and extra-ordinary in order to achieve the same personal or professional standing as their white counterparts, or they have to wait for a longer period of time for their opportunity to come, often, in spite of their work ethic and performance.

This story of Trump and Obama really hit home for me because this is precisely what my Mom’s experience has been like at her place of employment. I can’t tell you how many times Mom would tell me stories of people that didn’t know shit about nothing who got promoted ahead of her. Mind you, these are individuals that she had seniority on. She was there long before they ever showed up. She knew the system, she knew what the job required, she knew how to do it. She had been doing it. But, because they were either white, or were men, or were younger, or had the right connections inside, or the right methods, she got passed up while they moved up. We’re talking about a woman who put herself through nursing school in her 50s, in a country where English is not her primary language, and became an RN, fulfilling a dream she has had since she was a little girl growing up in Haïti. She set an example for my siblings and myself about how to hustle and how to push to accomplish your dreams regardless of the obstacles. Friends, my Mom IS the American Dream. So you can imagine why it was furious to hear how she’d get passed up year after year after year for a promotion only to have to tell those who did get promoted what to do and how to do their job. A woman, now in her 60s, black, an immigrant, speaks English well but with an accent, but inarguably smarter than anyone else on her floor. But, it still wasn’t quite good enough.

This is nothing new, folks. Most black people know this to be a fact: black exceptionalism often barely seems to meet the bare minimum in a society that values, favors, and awards whiteness above all else. In other words, we don’t have the license to suck. As Chris Rock pointed out, baseball wasn’t “equal” until the 70s because that’s when you started seeing black players who sucked. Barack Obama had to be “perfect” in order to get to where he is now. Meanwhile, Donald Trump can waltz in with an absence of experience, a bullish personality, an unfiltered mouth, and an unpredictable and volatile temperament and win the job over a well qualified candidate who, oh by the way, just so happened to be a woman. Obama will probably never get the full credit he deserves. Meanwhile, folk will line up to stroke Donald’s ego for just showing up to work or, at the very least, sleeping in the White House.

Think about what it would mean to live in a country where people could excel and fail on the same playing field. Imagine a society where my failures don’t hurt me more than your successes help you. As Chris Rock said, “The true equality [in America] is to suck like the White man. That’s really Martin Luther King’s dream coming true: guys sucking… I want the license to be bad, to come back, and to learn.” Until such a time comes, though, we’ll just have to settle with being exceptional.