by Dr. Boyce Watkins
In the wilderness, there are a wide variety of animals who change form in order to survive. Typically, it is to avoid predators, and in some cases, it is to make it easier to capture prey so they are able to feed their young. This skill evolves over thousands of years, as the animal learns to live and thrive in its environment.
It’s not difficult to argue that this might also be true in the black community. For hundreds of years, black people who were able to pass for white were given privileges and opportunities unavailable to the rest of us. Today, it might mean changing your name, your voice or something else in order to make whites feel comfortable. Even President Barack Obama has stated that making whites feel comfortable was an important part of his success.
Most of us know about the experiment conducted by Yolanda Spivey, a black woman who was searching for a job. Yolanda was searching a popular job search website, and found that there were no takers. Frustrated and at her wit’s end, she speculated that, perhaps the reason she wasn’t getting any interview requests was because of her name.
So, as a test, Yolanda changed her name to Bianca White. She also changed her voice mail to make herself sound like a white woman. She kept her resume the same, in order to isolate the reasons for any changes in the number of job opportunities.
Yolanda saw immediate success after just a few hours of “becoming a white woman.” Bianca was getting lots of phone calls and interviews, while her “twin,” Yolanda, received almost nothing. This article was read by hundreds of thousands of black people who were not only fascinated by the ad hoc study, but who’ also known the pain of discrimination from first-hand experience.
Business owners do the same thing. Many of them will put white people on their websites and brochures to give the appearance that their companies are run by whites. They will change the sound of their voice mail or have white people answer the phone. I’ve even heard people say that black students should attend predominantly white universities to avoid any stigma that might come from attending an HBCU.
With all of this being said, my question is this: How does this affect our self-esteem? How can we survive and compete in a world where we’ve been convinced that who we are is not good enough? I find this line of reasoning to be problematic because when you are trying to become someone else, you will never be as good as the original. At best, you become a cheap, unworthy substitute.
My argument is that we must all find ways to escape the trappings of economic servitude. The development of black-owned business is a critical first step in this process, as we should all have our children learn the basics of entrepreneurship.
Secondly, avoiding an addiction to money as a symbol of success can go a long way toward keeping you from selling your soul for an extra dollar. Through 400 years of direct theft from African Americans, whites control the majority of wealth in this country, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. So, if we evaluate our self-worth based on how much money we’ve got, we’ll always feel that white people are smarter and better than the rest of us.
Finally, drawing clear lines on what we will and won’t do in order to be successful is an important part of your well-being. We all have to sell something in order to get ahead, but none of us has to become a sell-out. I’ve taught hundreds of students who’ve made a ton of money on Wall Street, and I’m sure I could have gotten a few million myself, had I not chosen to be an outspoken black social commentator. But I find that there is no amount of money worth sacrificing my freedom to live and speak as I choose.
Being successful doesn’t mean you have to get racist people to like you. Remember that the next time someone tells you to change your hair, change your name or change the core of your character. You are good enough as you are, and I will always love you.