The burden of being exceptional

There is a narrative that has followed me all my life that I am trying to shake. This narrative is that I am exceptional. That I am atypical and outstanding and impressive. That kind of narrative can really fuck with your head, or at least it has with mine. 

From the earliest moment possible, I was tracked into intellectually gifted classes and schools. From first through third grade, I was enrolled at a private school where I wore a plaid jumper uniform, learned conversational Spanish, joined the girl scout troop, and did my best to fit in with students who didn’t look like me. The students around me were white, or Asian American, of east or south Asian descent. I remember playing basketball with my classmates, and all of us pretending to dunk. One of the boys in my class said, “Only Mawiyah would be able to dunk!” “Why?” I asked, confused. “Because white men can’t jump!” Thus the first of many microaggressions that I didn’t know were microagressions. By third grade, it was clear to my teacher that I was ahead of my classmates in my math abilities, so I worked ahead, learning on my own, teaching myself. Read the math book, complete the worksheet, master the concept. This made my parents furious, although I couldn’t understand why at the time.

Elementary school, middle school, high school, all were more of the same. In 4th grade, I moved into public schools with magnet programs. And I made friends, which was a relief. It became clear that teachers would like me and my peers would respect me if I performed in such a way that defied their expectations. Straight As, top of the class, quiet, studious, polite, humble… the model negro. For my suburban classmates and teachers, I allowed them a close-up view of blackness, the intrigue without the threat.

In high school, I noticed things changed a bit. Because math came easy to me, I was ahead of other students, and so I was placed in the honors math class with students a grade ahead of me. Early on, I was shy, quiet, didn’t want or need anyone to notice me. Then we took tests, and I got As, and people noticed me. And at first it was ok. People were nice, and I made friends. But before long, the male students a grade ahead of me got competitive, and when I continued to come out on the top of the grade charts, their friendliness was delicately laced with resentment. I quickly learned not to brag, not to toot my own horn, not to be threatening in anyway, because people were already threatened enough by my brilliance. I knew we had a very delicate arrangement working here, and I needed to adapt if I was going to be accepted, or at least avoid hostility. I was nice. I was thoughtful. I learned to be witty, and likable, and make people laugh. I did things like bake cookies and make cards for everyone at the end of the year. When it was someone’s birthday in the class, I arrived early before the bell to sprinkle their desk with confetti, and top it with a plate of homemade treats.

I think for each of us, who we become in childhood and adolescence is shaped in no small part by the feedback we receive from the adults in our lives. We notice what draws the praise of our parents, and we do more of that thing, double down on that behavior. Sure, they probably begin as innate qualities. We might be naturally funny, or compassionate, or clever. We may have natural gifts in music, mathematics, athletics, drama. I think for me, as a young black girl with zero peers and very few adult role models who could reflect my blackness back to me, the need for acceptance, approval, and praise was especially acute. And so I paid close attention to what people wanted from me. Adults outside my family were impressed by my maturity, particularly when I accompanied my mom to her various work and volunteer commitments. “She’s do adult for her age.” “She was so quiet during that meeting, I wouldn’t even know she was there.” My parents shook their heads in slight disbelief when I brought home report card after report card of straight A’s; they beamed with quiet pride at open house when teachers sang my praises: “Your daughter is terrific.” “She’s such a joy to teach.” Peers were the trickiest. I could be smart, but not prideful. I could be talented, but not boastful. We could be friends, but only if I left my blackness outside the friendship. I could be witty and we could banter, but not if i was going to make them feel bad about making insensitive comments about race. I could be pretty, attractive, but never desirable, only attractive, and only if I was willing to be exoticized. “Can I touch your hair?” “I love your style. It’s so unique. You can pull anything off.”

There’s more – about college, and young adulthood, and realizing that I was not the only academically gifted black person in the world, and faltering as I was confronted with the possibility that I was never so exceptional to begin with, realizing I had been robbed of formative experiences because there was never (NEVER) anyone in my classes who looked like me. There’s more – about being the token black person in white spaces, and my presence being used as (false) validation that such a space was inclusive and welcoming for other brown faces. About being every white woman’s black best friend who was there for her in a pinch, but knew better than to have needs of her own. In retrospect, I wonder if some of this is my skewed interpretation – rooted in my fear that people loved the idea of me, without actually loving ME – but I suspect there are, at minimum threads of truth.

And now… I am realizing that at age 29, I’ve grown tired of being exceptional. Scratch that, because as I said, being young, gifted and black does not make me exceptional, although this is what our white supremacist culture would have me and you believe. Rather, I’ve grown tired of the burden of expectation I have placed on myself to be exceptional in order to be acceptable. This burden is literally soul-crushing. It leaves no space for me to receive unconditional love, because why on earth would anyone love me if I cease to be special? Being special is my end of the bargain. I’ve already forced my parents and my other educators to downsize their hopes. I was told I could be president, I was told I should be a lawyer, go to medical school, get a PhD, attain any and every achievement I desired. Only I didn’t ever desire it, and so I did none of it.

At present I am wrestling with the questions of what is me, and what is performance. This is in part because anxiety and depression are enemies of ambition. “Success,” whatever that means, sounds hard and scary. “My dream job,” whatever that is, sounds like one more opportunity to feel inadequate, to feel like an impostor. I’d rather bake donuts for a living, pot succulents, spend time getting to know my friends’ kids, curl up in the fetal position on my couch and stay there. But those don’t feel like options. Because I have to uphold my end of the bargain. I have to pursue my ambition, live up to my potential. That’s the deal. That’s the feedback I began to internalize two decades ago.

With the narrative of exceptionality, any sincere desires I have to place my values and convictions at the center of my work are obscured by the burden of expectation. It’s not about what I want to do, or who I want to be. It’s what I have to do, who I have to be, to be loved and accepted. I am practicing letting this go. I am practicing accepting myself as an actual human person, with lots of flaws and rough edges and needs and failures and ambivalence. And taking it on faith that the people I love, who love me, will stick around even if I cease to be exceptional. Because the truth is, they have so far.


One response to “The burden of being exceptional

  1. Pingback: things i read #10 | hayley @hinsbug

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