“The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.” – Lorraine Hansberry
“You’ve made a reputation of yourself. Whatever the circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger, Platt. But I fear no good will come of it.” – Master Ford, “12 Years a Slave”
A TEN is The Exceptional Nigger.
I am a TEN by pedigree. An undergraduate degree from a top-ranked business school. A law degree from a top ranked law school. And if you are black, regardless of your degree, you too, whether you claim it or not, might be a TEN.
Because if you have hopes and dreams for yourself and your family, have accomplished anything in life, and possess more than a 3rd grade vocabulary, then you are likely included when white folks say that we’re not like “those other Blacks”. What they really mean is that we’re exceptional.
Webster defines “exceptional” as forming an exception or rare instance; unusual; extraordinary; unusually excellent; superior.
Born into a middle class Black American family, my siblings and I were raised to be all of those things. Highly educated pillars in the community themselves, my parents knew that a high GPA, fancy college degree, and impressive resume wouldn’t be our ticket to the American Dream. They knew that if their children were to have a real shot at that Dream, we couldn’t just be good or competent. We’d have to be twice as good to get half as far as our white counterparts.
It was the case for them in the racially charged powder keg of 1960s America, and they knew it would be the case for us.
And they told us so, repeatedly, until it was ingrained in our minds and stamped onto our spirits.
So my siblings and I became exceptional. We got good grades, learned to play musical instruments, traveled, studied foreign languages, gained an appreciation for art and culture, mastered diction and articulation (and were often told we “talked white”), got accepted into top colleges, “B-schools” and law schools, and graduated with honors—in short, consistently doing more than what was required.
And it paid off. I’ve had a successful career in law firms and Corporate America where I pulled in a nice six-figure salary. Buoyed by a dual income and the support and encouragement of my husband, I opened my own law practice in 2006. 9 years later, I accepted a position handling affirmative action cases for a large university.
By all accounts, and certainly by all appearances, my husband and I were an exceptional Black American family. With a loving, two-parent household in the suburbs, a solid, upper-middle class income, a couple of luxury vehicles in the garage, and a few nice vacations under our belt each year, it appeared we’d arrived and were safely buffeted from the racism and discrimination that less affluent, less educated Blacks regularly encounter.
Appearances can be deceiving.
You see, if you’re a person of color in America, especially a highly educated and/or accomplished Black person, your exceptionalism does not exempt you from racial profiling, blatant racism and the subtle (and not so subtle) psychological stress of systemic oppression. Your exceptionalism is inconsequential to your one, immediately defining physical characteristic—your blackness.
As my sons got older, my concern became less that they be exceptional, than that they come home alive. That’s because being Black in America is a life or death proposition. So even in 2015, years after we elected our first Black president, the lynch mob is still on assignment, assassinating our young men—the Trayvon Martins, Eric Gardners, John Crawfords, Michael Browns, Freddie Grays, Tamir Rices and Sandra Blands of the world—our modern-day Emmitt Tills.
And even the most exceptional among them—among us—are not immune.
Take, for example, President Barack Obama and his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama. The President is a Harvard educated lawyer, and the first lady is a Princeton and Yale-educated attorney; yet, even their three Ivy League degrees couldn’t exempt them from being caricatured in international media as primates more than once.
Consider media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who consistently tops Forbes’ annual list of the world’s billionaires, and is easily one of THE most recognizable women in the world. Yet, in 2013, she made international news when a Switzerland store clerk refused to show her a purse because the clerk deemed it “too expensive” for Winfrey.
And then, on the heels of the murder of 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, MSNBC news anchor TJ Holmes posted this blog, reminding Black men that when confronted by the police, their only goals should be compliance and staying alive.
And then there’s me. Accomplished, educated…but still assumed to be a defendant when I walk into courts. Still asked to show my “bar card” by courtroom bailiffs when I dare to cross the threshold in courtrooms separating “them” from “us”. And then, overheard in the hallway outside the courtroom I just left, happy for a small victory for my client…my white opposing counsel, talking to another white attorney: “That nigger lawyer bitch pissed me off”. And he didn’t bat an eye when he realized that I heard him.
Every single one of the individuals mentioned above is exceptional—highly educated, cultured, well-traveled, articulate, poised, and at the pinnacle of their careers. Yet, in the eyes of America, indeed the world, they’re little more than niggers. Exceptional, yes. But still niggers. I’m still a nigger–to them.
I started this blog because, just like the character in the 2014 Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave,” quoted above, I recognize all the progress we’ve made as a people—all the effort we’ve put into becoming exceptional. And I wonder what will become of it.