This morning it occurred to me that I may be developing a “you don’t know who I am” complex. It’s because of where I work. Many people here have that complex. I work with/around some of the most powerful people in America. Some of these people have the type of clout to get folks fired from jobs they’ve held for years, just because they want to. One swift e-mail from some of these people could put lots of money into your organization, or strip it all away. As a result, many people here have a “you don’t know who I am” complex. That is, small gaffes like mistaking them for someone of “lesser” importance can piss them off enough that they find it necessary to prove to you who they are by somehow negatively impacting whatever organization or group you represent. I’ve seen it happen.
It’s a complex born of an environment that thrives on clout, capital (of the non-tangible kind), and typically manifests itself worse among people who’ve never had power before. Power is and can be a very dangerous thing. I’ve heard many people, like the recently convicted former Mayor of Birmingham, AL, say that power is a dangerous drug. I hate the people around here who take their power for granted and too far and I’ve tried to be careful of developing this complex, but I see many of the seeds have been planted.
A few nights ago, I had an especially mentally stimulating conversation with a friend. She told me she was ashamed of herself for thoughts she had and assumptions she made with regards to a student she was tutoring. It’s worth noting that she and I have similar backgrounds. Both are black, female, and the only child of a single mother. We both graduated from private high schools and we both attended the same university. We are almost the same age (less than a year seperates us) and we have similar (not the same, but similar) interests as it relates to the types of ideallic things we do/wish to do. When she told me she wondered if the education we recieved at our elitist undergraduate institution had somehow lent itself to making it easier for us to have some of the same negative thoughts about low-income minorities as some of the ignorant individuals we dislike so greatly, it sort of struck a nerve with me.
I immediately thought of a post I read by a guest blogger on A Belle in Brooklyn. The title of the post was “Why The Talented Tenth is failing the black community” and written by Brandi, author of a blog titled Social Angst. I specifically remembered this portion (quoted here w/out permission, but be sure to check out both the post and her blog via the links provided):
The most pressing issue of Black America is the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Those who have access hoard it. And the talent of lower class individuals is being both unrecognized and unsolicited by the top tier of Black society. We are not meeting our obligation to nurture those who have less access. We are failing ourselves and it is starting at the top…
If you are not actively seeking out and pulling up the deserved, can you truly call yourself part of the Talented Tenth? Without commitment to the covenant aren’t you just simply elite? And, if you are simply elite, is your impact on Black American culture benefitting anyone other than you and your insular circle of friends?
I mentioned this post and specifically the general idea of the quoted portion to my friend. I highlighted how many of our friends in undergrad tutored low-income students for community service. I wondered, aloud, for how many was it about helping these students or looking good to and for various organizations. I also wondered how often we really paid attention to the students we tutored/mentored. How often did we try to bring out and foster their talents? How much time did we spend getting to know them and so what sort of impact did we actually have? Were these students truly any better because they knew us — were we truly fulfilling our purposes, or was it all self-serving? It’s sad to say, but true I think, that it was, for too many of us, self-serving and because of a superiority complex.
I talked about my own beginnings in community service; how I was drawn to it because it was amazing to me that I worked with students who were like me in every way. They were black, from single parent homes and my age (sometimes older) but that the lone thing that set me a part was the opportunity I had been given to attend a prestigious private school. I can still remember the moment it occurred to my 14 year old brain that there was almost nothing that seperated me from these students and yet they looked to me for help. I asked my friend, “what does it do us when we’re always the ones helping? How do we process that, ultimately? How do you not develop a superiority complex when people are always looking to you for help and in that, why would we ever really work to “actively seek out and pull up the deserved?”
I was burned out on “helping the kids” by the time I was 17. Between 2000 and 2004 I accrued well over 800 hours in community service; recieved the President’s Service Award more than once and had all types of plaques and accolades; however, I was totally over it all and for various reasons. One part of it was, quite frankly, I was developing a superiority complex.
Compared to high school, I did almost no community service in college. I wasn’t burned out anymore (even though that’s what I kept saying), but I still had remnants of the superiority complex. I had lost sight of why I had done community service; it wasn’t about the prestige it garnered, the plaques, the hours, the accolades, or how good it looked on my college application. It should have always been about the students I tutored and the connections we made. It’s hard to quantify what all was involved in the complex, but when you understand why you’re helping people it makes it harder to not help them. It’s when you think you’re “too good” for that or “too important” or “too busy” that it’s easy to avoid doing it.
As my friend and I continued talking we discussed a class we’d both taken in undergrad. The class discussed the plight of the low-income student in America (and included a “community service” initiative). Too often, we realized, “low-income” was connected with “black” or “minority.” Not only is that because for the most part that’s the case, but it’s also exactly what we were shown when went out into the community. My friend told me about a class she’s currently taking that seems to do the same thing. I expressed concern that not enough well-meaning professors give otherwise ignorant students the right tools.
Back to high school, my CS director required all new and returning tutors to participate in what eventually became a 2-day orientation discussion. She wanted to “prepare” these wealthy white kids for the stark reality of “life in the hood.” Unfortunately, it seemed more like an attempt to present the saddest “snapshot” she could. I remember sitting in the orientation my Senior year (I’d skipped it in the 2 years prior because I was a “site leader” and had ongoing commitments; I had to be there my Senior year as a “senior board member”) being utterly disgusted with how extreme her stories were. She claimed some of the kids were going hungry, some of the kids had no clothes, some of the kids were light years behind their peers in education; she made them sound like those starving African children you see on late-night tv. The truth was, these kids were not that different from us when we were that age. Sure, some of them lived in less than desired situations but not all of them. What her extreme representation of the situation did was to send these still-ignorant yet otherwise well-meaning wealthy white kids into a community that they didn’t understand and wouldn’t understand what with all the presupposed details. I found myself having to be frank with my tutors: “We expect nothing less than the best from these students. Their excuses are just that: excuses and we will not allow excuses to stop us from getting the best we can…”
My friend and I discovered how far left of center we’ve come. How we assume things about individuals who are just like us. She shared that she’d assumed that the student she was tutoring came from a single-parent home and that none of her older siblings had attended college. Neither assumption was true and as my friend considered why she’d thought those things, she realized there was no reason, except that for the past 2 years she’s been bombarded with all the facts that say low-income black children are from single parent homes and don’t go to college. This is despite the fact that we are both proof that those “facts” don’t apply across the board and we have plenty of friends and associates who also disprove those “facts.”
The strength of a superiority complex is astounding when considered, here. I hate when people assume they know everything about me based on the color of my skin; more often than not, they aren’t correct. How outrageous, then, is it for me to make assumptions about someone who is just like me? Ultimately, though, the blame doesn’t lie with our education. The blame lies with us. It’s almost comical how these complexes have taken hold and I hadn’t thought about it or noticed it. How do you become ignorant and not notice it?