Have you ever noticed that successful individuals of the Caucasian persuasion rarely say they accomplished something for the benefit of their race or community? They usually cite personal desires as the source of their drive. It’s an interesting contrast to minorities who often speak of a need to represent for their people. The desire to make your community proud is an admirable one. But, the pressure of carrying an entire race or gender on your back can be a burden on the climb to success.
A Huffington Post op-ed captures the pressure black women in particular face, saying “I feel it is my duty to rep my groups well, so maybe there will be one less comment, one less shunning of someone else who comes along or to combat some crappy individual that somebody crossed paths with… There is a weight that I carry around because my words, actions and interactions are frequently perceived on behalf of my race and gender. No pressure, right?”
That’s a lot of pressure, actually. This role model mindset requires performing for two audiences — your people and the public. You can turn yourself into a one-woman show of making one group proud while debunking stereotypes held by the other. But where does the opinion of the person doing all the work come into play? Living up to the standards of others requires that you let other people define what success looks like for you.
Muhammad Ali said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” He made this statement after joining the Nation of Islam. I have a feeling it was directed to his own people as much as White America.
At times your goals will align with those of your community or outsiders you want to impress, but it is important to be clear where the differences lie. Ali realized the problem with living to please everyone else. It’s impossible to do.
Black folks in particular can be a hard group to please. Take Gabrielle Douglas, the first black woman to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around. Before the medal could be hung around her neck, many of the people she had just blazed a path for prefaced their praise with ridicule over what brand of gel she put in her hair. Lucky for Douglas, she pursued a gymnastics dream that was all her own, saving her well-deserved victory from being tarnished.
You have just as much control over what your own people think of you as you do the assumptions that are made about your race or gender based on your behavior. None. So, forget what they think. Concentrate on representing yourself in a way that makes you proud.
People can be inspired or have their minds opened by witnessing your climb to success, but ultimately the journey is a personal one. Everyone’s opinion on what success looks like and how it should be handled is different. Trying to live up to someone else’s vision of success is the definition of not being true to you. The only opinion on your life that matters is yours.