On Black Excellence And Survivor’s Guilt

How do we cope with success, while knowing what we’ve left behind?

Photo by Beth Tate on Unsplash


Apparently, my elementary school principal was a racist. Let my mother tell the story, she railed against black and brown students in her school for no good reason, and it almost destroyed my educational career.

In the Maryland school system, you can enroll into an accelerated program, called the Gifted and Talented Program. We were told these courses were taught as if we were two years ahead of our classmates, and the grades we obtained during the coursework would have an extra GPA point added to the score. Once you’ve taken these courses, students become more acclimatized to AP tests and are pushed to excel like never before. When I was in school, your first academic pedigree depended on a single test you took in the third grade. Intriguing.

I don’t remember taking the test the first time; but I remember how my mother forced my third grade teacher and principal to let me retake the math exam. Apparently, she knew something fishy was up with my original grade. This time, I took the test by myself after the school day was over; so I didn’t know if I was special, or just in trouble.

There’s only one part of the story I clearly remember: my teacher telling me that, this time, I earned a perfect score on the test. The story always filled me with pride. Today, I’m not so sure.

My Family.

Five years ago, my grandmother became a nonagenarian.

Her 90th birthday was a huge deal. I was early in my graduate school work in the Bay Area, and I had flown back to Maryland to celebrate. Friends, family, and colleagues of all types were there, from childhood friends who’ve become distinguished doctors, to members of the local Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter.

To chronicle her life, my cousin interviewed her and videotaped the experience for all to see. I finally had a chance to learn more about her long life as an educator. I learned, amazingly, sensational test-taking runs in the family.

To eventually get into Fordham University, she mentioned taking two tests: the common branches, and the Miller Analogies Test. For the first, 2100 people took the test, and she received the literal highest score in her cohort. For the second, she had received the highest recorded score in history.

In the video, my cousins exclaimed in surprise. This time, I felt a combination of intense pride — and confusing frustration.


I remember when I visited Monticello, Virginia for the first time.

On Thomas Jefferson’s famous land, you spend the day shifting from tour to tour. Using your Day Pass, you can walk through the levels of the main house, view the Guided Gardens and Grounds, see a summative film narrating Thomas Jefferson’s World, and learn about his complex (read: oppressive) relationship with Sally Hemmings. I remember everything mentioned about Hemmings’ relationship was veiled through artful insinuations.

As you might expect, Jefferson’s stories, motives, relationships, even his money troubles were detailed to the extreme. I didn’t remember much about their discussions on writing the Declaration of Independence, or what he prioritized when creating the University of Virginia. What struck me, however, was the stark difference between his grave and the grave of the slaves. His grave was so large, visitors could read the detail through the gate ten feet away; while conversely, the slave’s graves didn’t even have names.

I remember the second time Jefferson’s impact on American institutions struck me raw. Some design equity colleagues showed me a quote from him about designing education in America:

“Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools.…By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.”

Our Future.

Do you define yourself by your ability to jump through the hoops of society?

To me, educational systems felt as if they enforced exclusivity under the guise of meritocracy. Recent events like the college admission scandal was simply corroborating evidence. However, I, my family, and other minorities like me, made it through. Knowing this, the question that sticks with me remains: do I deserve to be here?

How sure are we, in this complex society of ours, that we ever truly earned the positions we’ve been afforded? I’m not sure we can ever tell if academic success is fully deserved, or simply offered to those who are closer to hitting the target. Other competitions offer a complex interplay of nature and nurture as well; we as a society are okay if others are better at basketball, or chess, or The Legend of Zelda. These competitions, however, don’t offer institutional power on the global stage. Because so much of the game is rigged, how much should we trust the tests that determine who’s allowed to succeed?

I don’t have an answer for you today. What I do know, however, is how successful black people are constantly at tipping points. We privileged minorities that have jumped through hoops, straddled tightropes and made it to unexpected finish lines — carry the burden of who couldn’t make it with us. By knowing a world of lesser, and operating in a world of greater, we have to take responsibility for the power we now hold.

So, instead of finding answers, let’s focus on shifting the question. Instead of asking if we deserve the space, we should ask: what will you do with the power you’ve gained?

What’s your answer?

I’m glad you made it this far.

If you’re willing to speak, I’m willing to listen.

Let’s find time to connect; I’m here for you.

How does your design shift power? | http://www.piercegordon1.com

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