So I have been considering some of the reasons that certain groups experience disadvantage. For example, I’ve talked about daily microagressions in The Everyday Racist, stereotypes in I am not your maid, and privilege in Check your privilege.
Whilst there are definitely many systemic issues and wider societal institutionally ingrained discrepancies. In certain situations, I think it’s important for marginalised groups take ownership for acting as catalysts for our own disadvantage. This is not necessarily about allocating blame but about offering an alternate explanation.
As a black woman, time and time again, I am in environments that lack representation. I look around and do not see faces that look like mine. Whilst there is a whole plethora of research that goes into the nuances of why that it is. One of the reasons that I have experienced that have not seen covered in great depth, is that we as disadvantaged people do not facilitate each others success.
I have frequently seen the analogy that success is not like an elevator, it is the stairs. It takes hard work and determination, it rarely gets handed to you. Whilst, I get why referring to success as an elevator is problematic. Bare with me for a second and let me suggest….
If success were an elevator…you need to send it back down to bring other people up
This is a premise that has been instilled in me from a young age. Yet, often I see that when people from marginalised groups (predominantly in race and gender), do actually make it to the top, they then close the door behind them. There seems to be the mentality that once people overcome adversity and reach a certain level, they feel as though they have worked so hard to reach where they are. Therefore, if other people are struggling to reach that level, it’s because they are not working hard enough.
For example, in my first year of University I was assigned a mentor in the year above. I would frequently ask her for guidance with essays or general advice, the usual type of thing a mentor is supposed to help their mentee with. And every time I was met with unresponded to messages or simply the undertone of an unwillingness to help. The topic came up with another friend and she told me that’s just how my mentor always behaved, she felt that if people wanted to do well then they needed to work hard for themselves.
Then about a year and a half later, the tables turn. I am in a situation where I am ahead and she needs my help with an application for a firm that I have already worked for. And this was a pivotal moment where I had a choice. I could act in the same way this girl had behaved towards me and tell her to help herself. I chose the opposite. And this is not because I am an inherently nice person. Because lord knows I can be really petty sometimes.
It was because I realised the importance of bringing people up with you. There is already a lack of black girls in these fields. Helping a fellow black girl smash these barriers to entry can only ever be a good thing. When I graduate and I’m in my city job trying to fulfil all my dreams – I want to be surrounded by other people like me. It is so important there is representation in all facets of society. Therefore, I have a duty to help as many people as I can.
Whilst intelligence, hard work and all that good stuff is important and contributes to our human capital. We also have a social capital which can either aide or hinder us. This is the area that many people from marginalised groups lack in. For example, this is the equivalent of the “old boys network” where other men from a particular socio-economic and educational background give each other a leg up. What leg up do black people give each other? What leg up do women give each other? We are actually more likely to tear each other down.
I feel as though this issue is one of the main reasons I struggled to be friends with other black girls when I was younger. Growing up in predominantly white area, I was often the only black girl in many situations. My sisters and I were the first black people in each our respective schools at the time. Therefore, it is easy to see why you might become threatened when there is another black girl. It can often feel like there is not enough space for people like you.
For example, at University I used to be really involved in the musical theatre society. And I remember there was another black girl and we didn’t really click at first. It always felt like we were being compared or in direct competition with each other. And often we probably were, there is already a lack of diversity in theatre so often we would actually be up against each other. I remember a particular scenario where we both got call backs for the same character and we essentially had this weird sing-off against. We both look back and laugh about this now, because we were able to realise that we could both exist in the same space and be fabulous. And we are now such good friends because of it.
And this is not a particularly new phenomenon. This issue of an unwillingness to help each other out is deeply embedded into history. For example, take this issue of race. During the slave trade, often slave masters would choose a few black slaves to be guards and watch over the other black slaves whilst they worked. These guards were still still slaves but they had some power, they were encouraged to whip other slaves and granted certain advantages. Likewise, light and dark skinned slaves were also segregated to either be the field or house slaves.
Already you can see a hierarchy emerging even within slaves. Whilst I am not arguing these guards should have helped the other slaves – of course, the situation made that inappropriate and self-preservation was important. However, I feel as though many black people still have this slave mentality now. When they become successful and rise through the ranks, it is almost as though they feel that by distancing themselves from other disadvantaged people, there is the hope they will not be treated like them. Just like in the slave trade with the guards, in doing so, they limit the benefits of having diversity as they merely offer a mirrored version of their slave masters.
We are no longer slaves…
This can often lead to them feeling the need to assimilate and mimic the behaviour of the privileged, be it stereotypical Caucasian traits or in the case of women, exhibiting male traits. In itself this is not an issue, as ultimately I do not believe there is a specific “black” or “white” or even “male or “female” personality type, only stereotypes. However, this assimilation does become problematic when it results in marginalised groups who have become successful or are in a position of advancement turning their heads to the problems other marginalised groups face.
I feel as though there can also be a culture of self-hate amongst marginalised groups where they hate themselves for the thing that makes the marginalised e.g. black, woman, etc. Thus, they hate other people who remind them of themselves. This perpetuates a feeling of not wanting to support people like you which further facilitates marginalisation. Whilst, police brutality is a massive issue, a massive amount of black people are also killing black people. We heavily criticise each other which in turn sets the tone for how other people treat us. As Chris Rock said: “Everything white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people,”
As with all these type of posts, this comes with a small caveat. Yes, bring people up with you. But this advice is for a very specific scenario and you need to be strategic with it. It’s not for when you’re in direct competition with someone at a given time. It’s for when you are already ahead, so you have the ability look back and drag others up with you. Helping others should not come at the expense of your own progression. It is so important to be wise as I wrote in talk less, smile more.
For example, when I was still considering whether I wanted to be a solicitor or barrister. I was fortunate enough to secure a mini pupillage and this led to attending an event where I had the amazing opportunity to speak to the awe inspiring Baroness Hale.
I really wanted to absorb all her knowledge and understand how she as a woman had smashed the patriarchy and succeeded in such a male dominated field. And she gave me a whole wealth of advice which all these years later, I still draw upon when making life choices. They help me place myself in the best position for success.
Baroness Hale is clearly already ahead of me, she has no reason to close the door to me. I am not her competitor. Likewise, my mentor was a whole year ahead of me, she had completed those modules and already gotten her grades. We were not academic competitors.
This is not to invalidate the wider issues that due exist in society. But I feel like it is so easy to blame “The System” for all the problems because its an abstract entity far away. But what if you are part of the problem?
It’s just me, Dammy, there’s space in the elevator for you