In this country, we grow up being told that our road to success lies in working hard, becoming the most excellent version of whatever fits with our God-given talents. We are not told about limits, about the ceilings that will inevitably, invisibly halt our progress when those of us who don’t fit the profile of a regular American success story try to make our dreams come true. Instead, we face these moments of reckoning one by one as we move through grade school, college, and eventually the workplace, and these small humiliations teach us that there’s a code we must follow if we want to have a chance at reaching the higher echelons of power, or even just a moderate level of success in our chosen field.
That code: Work longer and harder than everyone else, and don’t make a big deal about it. Be better at your job, and endure the racism, the sexism, the sideways comments about “you people”; the slights that are often so subtle that it’s difficult even to point them out, but which make themselves known as their cumulative weight bows your shoulders day after day. Realizing this, many of us make pacts with ourselves to keep our heads down and keep grinding, because we still believe in that eventual reward. It’s what we’ve been taught not just by our bootstrap culture, but by the people we trusted to show us the way: parents, teachers, mentors. So many of them passed on to us the idea they too were sold, that the American dream is in our reach—we simply have to work much harder to prove ourselves worthy of it, because of the color of our skin, the country of our birth, or the language in which we whisper our prayers.
Most of us who fall into marginalized categories grow up and out of this understanding of how things work. We begin to realize that staying silent in the face of oppression will not miraculously cause mercy and justice to sprout in the hearts of those who enjoy positions of privilege over us. We learn to navigate the minefield of personal relations that greets us when we leave our front doors; we do our best to figure out when to speak up and when it’s smarter to remain silent, and even then often fall to the wrong side of that divide.
We keep on working twice or five times as hard as those around us—because what choice do we have?—but with maturity also comes the understanding that there’s a price to pay for our status as not-white-men, and we’ll pay it whether we toe the line or not. Some of us decide to fall in anyway, because it’s safer in the day to day; some of us resolve that if the world is stacked unfairly against us either way, we’d rather stand up and say something about it, even if we ourselves won’t live to see the fruits of that truth-telling. Yet a third group commit themselves to a fierce entrenchment into the oppressive systems of power that govern our society, joining what they can’t imagine beating, and then holding up their success as a win for diversity.
I’m not here to tell anyone that they’re wrong to take the first tack, in a world that contains so many uncertainties, and considering that each person has their own struggles and their own journey. Who am I to call out someone who needs their job to feed their family tonight for not confronting their boss for crossing a line? How can I judge in what circumstances it would be safe for someone to speak up or defend themselves against racist or Islamophobic threats? All of us exist in multiple spheres of identity and privilege (or lack of such), and we have to make choices based on our own circumstances and beliefs. We can’t all be activists.
It’s that third approach to the challenges of systemic injustice, however, that is not only counter-intuitive, but incredibly damaging to the cause of dismantling those barriers. Often we see a superficial type of “inclusion,” especially in positions of power and influence, that actually entrenches these structures of oppression and undermines any efforts toward equality that they appear to be making. Usually the people from marginalized groups who are allowed into these clubs of rich white men are there on the unspoken provision that they not rock the boat, that they get with the program, that they stay silent even if the organization takes actions that clearly harm minorities like them.
Witness the blunt spear of the FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai, who was unrelenting in his campaign to repeal Net Neutrality, despite the clear risk of discrimination against vulnerable groups once those protections are removed. Then there’s former governor of Louisiana and erstwhile presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal, who built his brand around the narrative of the good immigrant, the model minority who has earned his own success in this country—either willfully blind or simply oblivious to the ways his privilege as the child of professors and the recipient of an elite education have shaped his path to prominence.
But for me, the most egregious recent example of a person of color who has bought into the false promises of white supremacy is Ambassador Nikki Haley, who continues to blithely ignore the murders of Palestinian protesters by the Israeli army and double down on defending the state’s violent apartheid. It’s breathtakingly absurd to see a woman who herself comes from a minority background unequivocally align herself with an agenda of violent racism. She, like Jindal, seems to have consciously erased any trace of her Indian heritage from her public image, except when she holds herself up as an example of progress, an indication that the Republican party is a friend to diversity. (Trump’s selection of her as the U.N. Ambassador after his election marked his first minority pick for cabinet.)
Power is indeed a drug that can blind those it tempts to the moral implications of grasping it—and the price they will have to pay for attaching themselves to those strings. As film director Lexi Alexander (who, all due credit, inspired me to write this piece) frankly puts it, one wonders “what could possibly motivate a woman-of-color to be such a soulless servant to white supremacy. But then I remember how much money there is in being the token brown person and how few people have the integrity to turn that down.” In the case of Haley and those like her, other people end up paying the price for her personal prominence.
Because it’s not token representation in organizations that create and enforce unjust and oppressive policies that we need. True inclusion requires the participation of people from all backgrounds as their full selves, claiming a space in which their perspectives are heard and their experiences acknowledged, so that we can get on with the collective business of trying to create a more perfect union.
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