To Be Young, Gifted and Black — Is it enough to succeed in college and career?
Remember back in the 70’s when the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone came out? It was written in memory of Simone’s late friend Lorraine Hansberry, author of the play Raisin in the Sun. The song became a Civil Rights anthem and I remember walking around the house singing it with a lot of pride. That song made every Black child feel like they were worth something even when we knew there would be a lot of hurdles ahead of us.
While I am extremely proud of the work TAF has done to get students of color into STEM majors and STEM fields, I continue to be reminded that things haven’t changed much when it comes to being an African American in a prestigious university or in a workplace where African Americans are not expected to be.
The most recent reminder came when TAF Alum Patrick Matthews came home from a semester break at Notre Dame. He’s a senior majoring in Civil Engineering. His girlfriend (Ashley) is also a senior and is now in the throes of applying to medical schools. Both of them had the same experience at Notre Dame (which has an African American student population of a whopping 3.4%).
Patrick grew up in South Seattle and attended public schools in that area, which is mostly students of color and primarily African American. Ashley grew up in the Midwest and attended parochial schools all her life and was used to being the only African American in pretty much all her classes. Their experiences at Notre Dame were exactly the same–feeling like they were seen as outcasts, only admitted because of affirmative action, and for Patrick, the assumption was he came because of sports. Ashley, already having experience in this type of environment, has been able to deal with it. Patrick on the other hand has struggled, but found it best to hang with the few students he’s found that have the same background–birds of a feather.
When we asked Patrick to write a piece for our donor investment brochure last year, this is what he wrote:
To say that TAF has had a great impact on my life would be a gross understatement. Choosing to attend TAF was one of the greatest decisions I could have made (or made for me). It was far from easy, but I truly believe that the road I chose brought me to the point I am at now. Whether it was algorithm development in middle school with Zithri (TAF’s Education Director), C# programming with Larry (former Technical Teens Internship Program instructor), or even lounging around with Lynn (former teacher) and the other students before classes began, each of these experiences had a lasting impact and helped me develop socially and intellectually.
Professionally, TAF also put me in a position that many people my age couldn’t relate to. Being given the chance to go through rigorous interviews and intern with Fortune 500 companies boosted my confidence and let me know that as an intelligent man of color I had a place in the professional world. While I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I chosen to pursue varsity sports over TAF and where it could have taken me, I have no regrets in the decision that I made. I learned that not only is it okay for a young black man to reject sports for intellectual pursuits, but it is also okay to aspire for things greater than social expectations based on the color of my skin or athletic ability.
I credit TAF for not only preparing me to attend one of the country’s most prestigious universities, Notre Dame, but also for giving me the strength to pursue a STEM major (Civil Engineering) despite the department’s uniform complexion.
The last part of the last paragraph tells the bigger story. While we as a country are all hyped up about getting kids to college, teaching kids to code, etc. we’re paying little attention to the sociological and psychological affect being the “only” has on our students of color. When you are the only (or maybe 1 of 3) African American in a “high achieving” academic environment, there are a lot of assumptions that come with you and there are additional hurdles you much jump. Claude Steele has done a great amount of research on this in his book “Whistling Vivaldi”.
TAF does more than get kids academically ready for college. We get them mentally ready to face the inevitable issues they will face no matter how young and gifted they are. But something else has to give. We need to change societies view of who belongs and who doesn’t.
We adults need to lead by example.
Students watch us, they watch TV and movies, they read magazines, they’re online. In all these places we adults have told them that people of color–particularly African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans–are not important in our culture, are not smart, are to be treated as second class, and have not contributed to our country in any meaningful way. So it makes sense that when an intelligent young black man like Patrick shows up on a college campus, the assumption is that he must be an athlete. We haven’t told or shown generation after generation any different.
Trish, I have experienced this “see it, feel it, do it yourself” mode over and over in my life, and I think it’s crucial to one’s self concept. My experience is a little different, but related: I am female, not non-white. In the U.S., I won’t be killed or arrested for being female, but I will be discounted and stereotyped (as we all will, male or female) in many ways, every day. I am not saying that my treatment is anything like what I know happens to African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and others; I am saying that I have had a small taste of being shoved aside and I empathize.
When I was a kid, a riddle made the rounds. “A boy comes into the hospital, and the doctor takes one look at him and says, ‘I can’t operate! This is my son!’ How can this be possible?” People were stumped, because at the time–it must have been the early seventies–it was almost impossible to imagine a woman being a doctor.
Now we wouldn’t hesitate to solve the riddle, but then, women and girls couldn’t see themselves in the role of doctor. Literally. So the riddle worked.
Luckily for me and my two sisters, our parents assumed we’d all go to college, and that we’d all work. We grew up right at a moment when some of my friends were raised to be wives, and some were raised to be people, free to be whatever they wanted.
I went to college, and worked overseas, and did lots of things, even some that were intimidating to me. I am very non-mechanical though, and it was only after SEEING blogs with lots of photos and explanations of WOMEN just like me, where the bloggers said, over and over, “I didn’t know anything about home repair/painting/whatever when I started” did I really start FEELING that I could do it too. And I have started picking up the drill more often. I’m not very good at things, but I do them.
So somebody needs to be spreading the meme that we need to get going with black, Asian, and Latino protagonists in movies, on TV, and in books (for those of us who still read).
How does one get that going? Is there someone, a motivational speaker, perhaps, who could speak to writing groups/professional writers and talk about the issue? Or is there a better place to start? I suppose some kind of conscious-raising for magazines, but how? And which? Maybe an organization takes it on, like one Eagle Scout takes on one magazine editor.
I can see that continuity, energy, and scope are all issues, among other things. Such is the fight for equality, isn’t it.
Trish, you’re doing amazing work. Patrick and Ashley, carry on! Well done!
Thank you for so eloquently stating the bigger issue of academic persistence, being the only one. Sometimes, you feel like a fish out of water…and depending on those around you, you could get eaten alive.