Merit-hypocrisy in the Air

April 18, 2015

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

One of the hardest ideals for me to give up on in all of my life has been the idea of meritocracy. Even when I couldn’t spell the word, much less define it or use it in a sentence, I believed in this ideal. It was the driving force behind my educational progression from the middle of fourth grade in January ’79 until I finished my doctorate in May ’97. The meritocratic ideal even guided me in my career, in both academic and in the nonprofit world. Only to realize by the end of ’09 what I suspected, but ignored, for many years. My ideal of a meritocracy is shared by only a precious few, and the rest give lip service to it before wiping it off their mouths, concealing their split lips and forked tongue with nepotism instead.

Being the historian I am — whom people like Jelani Cobb joked about on Twitter as a curse — I am programmed to look back at situations in my own life to look for root causes, to understand what I can do to not repeat my own mistakes, my not-so-well-planned decisions. I’ve thought about my advisor Joe Trotter and my dissertation committee of Trotter, Dan Resnick (husband of education researcher Lauren Resnick) and Bruce Anthony Jones. The biggest mistake I made was in putting this hodgepodge committee of a HNIC advisor, racial determinist and closeted wanderer together to help guide me through my dissertation and then into my first postdoctoral job.

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Of course, I didn’t know enough about these men to describe them this way, certainly not until I’d graduated and couldn’t find full-time work for more than two years. The signs, though, were there. Trotter’s unwillingness to recommend me for any job before my completed first draft of my dissertation was really complete (it took me two weeks to revise my dissertation from first to final draft). Resnick calling my dissertation writing “journalistic” and saying that my nearly 2,000 endnotes and thirty pages of sources was “insufficient.” Bruce pulling back on his schedule with me even before taking the job at University of Missouri at Columbia in July ’96.

None of this had anything to with my work. It was about me, whether I as a twenty-six year-old had suffered enough, had gone through enough humiliation, to earn a simple letter of recommendation for a job. When Trotter finally decided it was time to write me a letter of recommendation, it was December ’96, and the job was University of Nebraska-Omaha, “subject to budget considerations,” meaning that it could (and it did) easily fall through. Resnick flat-out refused to share anything he wanted to write about me, with all his “confidentiality” concerns, while I wrote all my letters for myself for Bruce. It was a disaster, and none of it had anything to do with the quality of my work as a historian, educator, or academic writer.

The work I ended up getting after Carnegie Mellon was the result of my dissertation, my teaching experiences, and my networking. The idea that I’d earned my spot, though, was still lacking in the places in which I worked. Particularly at Presidential Classroom, where I was the token highly-educated Negro on staff, and working at Academy for Educational Development with the New Voices Fellowship Program. In both cases, I had bosses whose racial biases only became clear once I began working with them. The then executive director Jay Wickliff never cared about the quality of my work or my degrees. Wickliff’s only concern was that I should keep my mouth shut when he acted or spoke in a racist manner.

My immediate supervisor Ken, on the other hand, wanted all the credit for work I did under him, except in cases when he deemed my methods “not diplomatic enough.” Even before his bipolar disorder led him to a psychological breakdown, Ken regularly accused me of gunning for his position, sometimes turning red whenever he heard about my latest publication, teaching assignment or conference presentation. I had to fight to keep my job and to move on within AED in those final months of ’03 and early ’04, a fight that had zero to do with merit.

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

I say all this because the one thing that every one of these folks had in common is their lip service to the belief that hard work and results are the keys to success and career advancement. Yet for every one of them, the merit that I had earned didn’t matter. My relative youth, my age, my race, my heterosexual orientation, even my achievements, either scared them or gave them reason to have contempt for me.

I say all of this because in the past eleven years, I have been very careful about the company I keep, about the mentors I seek, about the friends I make, personally and professionally. I went from not trusting anyone as a preteen and teenager to trusting a few too many folks in my twenties and early thirties. All because I believed that my hard working nature and talent mattered more than anything else. What has always mattered more is who you know, especially in high places like academia and with large nonprofits and foundations. So, please, please, please be careful about the supposedly great people you meet. Many of them aren’t so great at all.

That’s why the idea that academia is a place full of progressive leftists is ridiculous. Yes, people like Dick Oestreicher, Wendy Goldman, Joe Trotter and so many others wrote and talked about progressive movements and ideals while I was their student. But fundamentally, they could’ve cared less about the actual human beings they worked with and advised, particularly my Black ass. Their ideals stopped the moment they ended their talk at a conference or wrote the last sentence of a particular book. They only cared about people that they could shape and mold into their own image. And that’s not meritocracy. That’s the ultimate form of nepotism.


The Audacity of Low Expectations/Jealousy

September 19, 2011

Mimi and Eunice, "Low Expectations," September 19, 2011. (Source/http://mimiandeunice.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws because of image's low resolution and without the intent to reproduce or distribute for profit.

It seems to me that I’ve spent a lot of time over the past three decades overcoming other people’s psychological issues. Regarding race, race and gender, race, gender and class, not to mention performance issues, success, jealousy and envy, and other psychoses that had little or nothing to do with me. It’s something that most folks who aren’t Black, male, grew up in poverty and had some success (however one defines that) really can’t understand unless they have parents who’ve told them every single day that they “weren’t good enough to live.”

Still, these issues have mostly cropped up for me when I’ve experienced what most people would recognize as success, as if the only role I was ever supposed to play in life was that of a doormat. The first time I went through this process of blowing up other people’s low expectations of me was at the beginning of my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, about this time twenty-five years ago. A couple of weeks into the school year, MVHS released our class rankings. Out of the 545 or so students eligible to graduate as part of the Class of ’87, I was ranked fourteenth with a 3.83 average.

My MVHS trascript, courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Admissions Office, January 7, 1987. (Source/Donald Earl Collins). Note the circles from the admissions officer all over the transcript.

I understood that this was pretty good, but I was also disappointed that I hadn’t cracked the top ten. In fact, the top twelve students in our class all had GPAs above a 4.0, all because of our weighted Level 0 and Level 1 courses. Crush #1 finished just ahead of me, thirteenth in our rankings, something I saw as ironic. Despite this sign of academic success, I hoped and wished for more, and spent several late-night walks over the next few weeks second-guessing my work in tenth grade.

My classmates started to show their darker sides, some for the first time since the days of 7S. One came up to me after my AP Calculus class soon after the rankings were posted. “The only reason you’re in the top twenty’s because of history!,” implying that I was an average student in all of my other subjects. Another, much shorter and much more condescending classmate chimed in a few days later, saying that “the only thing you can do with history is play Jeopardy.” I wasn’t exactly walking around school celebrating my good fortune. I chalked it up to the stress of years of academic competition, the boiling over of senioritis and the rage associated with college preparations. The possibility that jealousy was involved didn’t cross my mind until much later. I didn’t think that anyone could be envious of my standing.

Fast-forward four years to the fall of ’90, as I prepared in earnest for grad school. Not only had I endured a short conversation at the beginning of that year with the great Sylvia Fasulo and her attempts to discourage me from pursuing grad school, law school or a career in law (see my “The Legend of Sylvia Fasulo” from September ’09). I had two professors from Pitt who told me that they weren’t sure about my chances for getting into grad school, and Reid Andrews, who flat-out told me that he didn’t think that I was “graduate school material.”

I have no doubt that if these yahoos were jealous of me at all, it was because of my age, and not my potential. They simply didn’t see how a 3.4 GPA and a 3.82 in my history major would be good enough to get me into a master’s — much less a doctoral — program. The fact that I completed my master’s degree in two semesters within twenty months of essentially being told that I was a fool left Andrews, at least, at a loss for words.

There are so many other instances in which a grad student, a professor, a supervisor, even my siblings, have expressed their low expectations and jealousy over my tiny little crumbs of success that it has left my head spinning on a broom handle. I mean, what did I really do to earn or deserve that kind of attention? I don’t own a house or have a million dollars in gold lying around. I have yet to publish an article in Rolling Stone or in The Atlantic Monthly. I don’t exactly have LeBron James or President Obama on speed dial.

So what is it about me, I’ve asked myself so many times? And then, I’ve reminded myself of something I figured out about twenty-one years ago. That the only expectations that I ultimately need to meet or exceed are my own. That what other people say about me, no matter how distasteful, really doesn’t matter, for those folks were never going to be there for me anyway.

Maybe it’s my refusal to live under someone else’s low expectations, to not allowing myself the luxury of envy, that irks those around me. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s as simple as misery loving company, and not loving mine. Either way, it’s ironic that we live in a time in which we prefer to tear each other down rather than help each other get going in our lives. Which makes my relationship with the rest of humanity so bittersweet. I guess I really am a writer!


Anger Issues and Management, Inc

September 25, 2010

Rage of the Incredible Hulk. Source:http://www.ramasscreen.com

Exposure to abuse, ridicule and scorn in fairly large dosages when you’re young will leave you with anger issues to manage. I should know. Don’t believe the impressions that my classmates from Humanities and MVHS and my friends from my first two years at Pitt have of me. I may have appeared to smile, to be happy-go-lucky, to be sober and monk-like. But mostly, I was angry, not in a raging, vengeful way, but in a depressed way, a constant, gnawing, sometimes envious, sometimes ironic and sarcastic way. My anger was the kind of anger that I chewed on and swallowed, simmered at low heat for a while in the pit of my belly, then I’d regurgitate it into my mouth, and then chewed on it and swallowed it again.

But, despite what some folks in certain religious circles may say, not all anger is bad, evil or sinful. In fact, sometimes anger is necessary, even if and when it’s dangerous as an emotion or a state of mind. Why, you may ask? Because without anger, you take what life gives to you, even when most of what good you get out of life comes in a miserly and begrudging way. Everything else that comes, if indeed bad or evil for you, isn’t taken in stride or taken with difficulty. You simply don’t take it at all. You become so emotionless that whatever happens doesn’t matter at all, as if your purpose for existing is merely to exist, not to succeed, not to do good works or make yourself a better person because of or despite your circumstances.

That, by the way, is what I’ve heard over the years when some of my former classmates from Mount Vernon — and a few people who knew me in my early days at the University of Pittsburgh — describe me. It was as if I was Porgy in Porgy and Bess, Louis Armstrong or Paul Robeson singing, “I’ve got plenty of nothin’, and nothin’s plenty for me.” That would and did piss me off, but I reminded myself that this was how I had to be to deal with the anger I had within. With emotion, I could’ve easily flown into a rage many

In Treatment Screen Shot. Source: http://sepinwall.blogspot.com

a day between ’81 and ’89.

At the same time, I had the wisdom to allow my anger to rise up, to channel it many more times than not into what I needed to have happen at a particular moment in time. It’s amazing how much you can get done with a sense of righteous anger and indignation, a feeling of got-to-get-it-done-or-else anger. It came at the right time, usually when I felt that my back was up against a concrete wall, with no way out except to fight my way out.

Like in February ’82, the middle of seventh grade, when I just got tired of my 7S classmates thinking that they could say and do anything to me without me getting angry, and tired of days on end at 616 without food to eat. After a fight in the boy’s locker room with one of my classmates — which I won, by the way — I channeled the energy unleashed by that rage and fight into two things. Improving my mediocre grades, and my infatuation over Crush #1. It was three months of relative bliss in the middle of the worst eighteen months of my life.

Richard Marx, 1987.

Or in January ’88, after recovering from the crash-and-burn of my first semester at Pitt. I was mad and disappointed with myself over allowing my obsession with Crush #2 hijack the final six weeks of my semester, not to mention my generally hopeful and creative imagination. After an incident with a couple of my more evil and drunken dorm mates — one in which I cracked a broom handle on the crowns of their heads (no injuries or investigation, luckily) — I summoned some discipline and theme music to get through that second semester. From Richard Marx’s “Should’ve Known Better” to Paul Carrick’s “Don’t Shed A Tear,” I spent fifteen weeks turning anger into A’s and jadedness into new friendships.

I’ve had other periods in my life — in ’93, ’98, and ’03 — where the circumstances dictated that anger, with some patience and understanding, was absolutely necessary in my overcoming of them. The lesson here is that anger — like fire, electricity and nuclear fusion — can be and is often dangerous. Yet it’s also necessary, a potential evil that can be an actual good, if channeled, allowed to dissipate, if tempered by wisdom and patience. At the least, anger allows those of us under stress to know that we are very much alive.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 776 other followers