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The color of success

Leila Green | Monday, November 12, 2012

This past week while tutoring off-campus, one of the kids I work with asked me this question:
“Did you ever envision yourself going to Notre Dame?”
He said “Notre Dame” with widened eyes and an awe-filled tone.
We were working on a math problem and this question caught me off guard. This kid, Marquise, is in the fifth grade and is one of the most boisterous kids I’ve ever met. So I was thrilled and alarmed when he was suddenly serious and finally had a genuine interest in what I had to say. However, I was not confused. I knew exactly why Marquise asked me that question. Like him, I am black and this fact challenges his idea of what a Notre Dame student can be.
Marquise asked me this question because, to him, Notre Dame represents a giant orb of white grandeur that is not easily penetrable by people like us. So when he sees someone who looks like him and shares his identity at such an institution, it both confuses and inspires him.
This probe into Marquise’s reasoning is not mere presupposition, rather the result of its similarity to my own educational experiences. I recall being Marquise’s age and seeing very few people who looked like me in college, nonetheless in authoritative positions. This, of course, is due to many historical, structural and social factors – definitely not some pseudoscientific explanation of inferiority.
I attended a nearly all-black grade school of about 200 children. All of the teachers were white. However, it wasn’t their whiteness that was alarming; it was the fact that their race contradicted ours.
The visual contrast was striking: a classroom of 30 black children with a white teacher up front, giving commands. Over time, kids may notice this difference and wonder: “Why is the teacher always white? Is that how it is supposed to be?”
This dominant visual is also seen outside of the classroom setting. We’ve all seen the proverbial photo of a white volunteer in a crowd of African children. Sure, this is touching, but what is really being perpetuated by this image? Think of the implications from the perspective of a black child, who may incur subconscious dissonance:
“I look like the people who are being helped. Do I really need to be helped? The white person is in power.”
I question if this causes self-doubt, but I do believe it imparts a false notion of the color of success and speculation regarding the position of a person of color in society. Are we always just the ones to be taught or helped?
The visual and cultural disproportion I experienced combined with media output of mainly white images of success and power cultivated the incorrect assumption that power was the domain of white people.
An accumulation of white images of power and success can perpetuate a false notion of white superiority in children of color. The racial and cultural disconnect in my experiences of being taught or helped had been mirrored in Marquise’s experiences; so much so that he is incredulous at the idea of a black person attending Notre Dame and being an authoritative figure.
Our race and culture helps shape our experiences, ideas and perspectives. A lack of cultural sensitivity does no good when educating children of color. In my grade school, no mention was ever made of anything unrelated to white culture or history and Black History Month was vehemently ignored. Kids can notice a disregard of their culture and the accompanying championing of people who are not like them.
Marquise’s question displayed that his ideas of just who can succeed had been impacted by his amassed observations of a tendency for positions of power to be held by whites. People of color have the opportunity to challenge this notion and serve as inspiration and leaders for youth in their communities.
It is also imperative that whites recognize the fallacy of color blindness and adapt a mechanism of cultural sensitivity and literacy and an awareness of the very visible power structure that presents itself when mentoring or teaching in settings where children of color are in the majority.
Overall, Marquise’s question revealed his cumulative perspective of how successful a black person could be in a world dominated by whiteness. A delusional image of success can be overcome by providing kids with more positive images of people who look like them – different ideas of what success, power and authority look like. Students in largely minority classrooms could also benefit from culturally literate instructors and curriculum that recognizes the legitimacy of their identity.
My answer to Marquise’s question?
“No, I didn’t envision myself coming to Notre Dame. I didn’t think I was good enough. But, guess what? I’m here and you can be, too.”
Leila Green can be reached at
[email protected]
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.