As a Black person, it was instilled in me as a young girl that being good in this world wasn’t good enough. For me to excel, I learned that it was required that I be one of the best, if not the best. Most black people were raised knowing just to get half of what white people had in this world, we would have to work twice as hard.
In the hit series, “Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes reminded the audience of this long instilled sentiment, when Olivia Pope’s father, Rowan Pope told her, “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” Black people do not have the luxury of making it in this world by being mediocre.
Barack Obama would have never become the 44th president if he were just mediocre. In fact, he couldn’t even be good — he had to be exceptional. (I dare say Obama even had to be the right shade of “passing the brown paper bag test” black to win.) Obama was a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School where he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. After graduating, he went on to become a civil rights attorney and a professor teaching constitutional law. He was a senator for the state of Illinois. Simultaneously, while Obama was working on his professional career, he married Michelle Robinson, a black woman who is distinguished in her own right; a graduate of both Princeton University and Harvard Law School. They went on to have two children — Malia and Sasha — who have, for the most part, managed to stay out of the media spotlight with any negative press and live their lives, becoming productive members of society. Barack Obama is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and has continued life after his presidency starting the Obama Foundation with his wife, Michelle. His accomplishments and honors are by far too many to list. Barack knew that to get where he is today, mediocrity was never an option.
However, on the flip side of that, for many white people, they don’t even have to be good. All they must do is be mediocre at best. In comparison to the level of excellence Obama had to attain to become president, all Donald Trump had to do to get into office was be white, be a man and be racist. The bar was set so low, a snake could have high jumped over it, and in fact, it did. Forget the fact that Trump has faced dozens of lawsuits, bankruptcies, a failed Trump University, accusations of sexual misconduct, multiple affairs, never served in politics in any capacity, dodged the draft and a host of other things on his resume of mediocrity, America didn’t care and elected him into the highest office in the land. And the Audacity of White Mediocrity is that he feels that he is entitled to be there.
But it is not just the presidency where mediocrity thrives. The Audacity of White Mediocrity plays out all around this nation. For instance, when Gabrielle Union and Ellen Pompeo served on a panel for Net-a-Porter “The Big Television Debate,” to address such topics as diversity, inclusion and pay disparity. Pompeo stated, “This day has been incredible, and there’s a ton of women in the room, but I don’t see enough color, and I didn’t see enough color when I walked in the room today, and I had a meeting with a director of another endorsement project that I’m doing. I said, you know, when I show up on set I would like to see the crew look like the world that I walk around in every day, and I think it’s up to all producers to make sure that your crew looks like the world we see. … As Caucasian people, it’s our job, it’s our task, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we speak up in every single room we walk into, that this is not OK and that we can all do better. It’s our job because we created the problem.”
And the world paused in amazement and sung her praises as if black women have not said this very same thing since time was time, only to be labeled racist and angry. In fact, the smirk on Union’s face said just that.
It was hailed on Twitter as a Master Class for White Allyship.* A Master Class? Really? Pompeo repeated things about race that black women have said forever, yet somehow her saying them is a Master Class on Allyship. Is that how low the bar is for explaining racism in America? That demanding more people are hired behind the scenes who resemble the world is considered a Master Class on Allyship, inclusion, and diversity? Never mind the countless number of black women who work tirelessly to raise awareness on diversity and inclusion, writing blogs, books, giving workshops, traveling the country to teach, sacrificing their time to stand on the front lines, who risk their very lives to speak truth to power, somehow Pompeo’s comments were a “Master Class.” (On a side note, I always wonder why black truth must be filtered through a lens of whiteness before it is heard and accepted as the truth, but that’s another blog for another time.)
And then today, as if the Audacity of White Mediocrity couldn’t be highlighted anymore, I log into Twitter and see that Sam Whiteout, who is a white man, posted an article, “Popularizing Wokeness,” that he wrote for the Harvard Kennedy School Journal of African American Public Policy. (Yes, pause and read that again. OK. Let’s continue. Typically, I link to the articles, but this time I am not going to do so. You can Google Harvard Kennedy School Journal of African American Public Policy, and the journal is available for you to read.) As Whiteout states the article is about “Wokeness, Black Panther, Drake and what it means to try to do good in this world.”
At first, I thought, “This has to be a joke,” but sadly it is not. Whiteout actually has an article in the Harvard Kennedy School Journal of African American Public Policy. So let’s read it. Surely, since a white man is writing this article, there must be something profoundly engaging that I must know about race in America. To be clear, I am not above reading white authors, not by a long shot. (I mean why would I read James Baldwin when I can see what Sam Whiteout has to say to me about being “woke.”)
Whiteout writes, “If we celebrate the littlest and most banal good done, we lower the bar to the point that everyone can be woke and cool and good without actually doing any good.”
Really? Lower the bar. You don’t say? Imagine that. The bar being lowered for everyone. How ironic! Just anyone can be woke nowadays!
Whiteout goes on, “People have been calling for more diversity, inclusion, and equity for marginalized communities in media for years and years.”
I know! Like diversity in those who are chosen to write articles about black people and Black Culture and, yet, here you are, a white man talking about that. Wow!
Oh, but let’s not stop there, Whiteout continues his tone-deaf article by speaking about Kendall Jenner and the Pepsi fiasco.
“Some companies and brands have already started trying to use hints of a heavily diluted, inauthentic, and ultimately fraudulent wokeness to make money. Just look at Pepsi’s disastrous Super Bowl ad from 2017. This attempt to monetize wokeness and activism and social good was such a terrific failure that Pepsi was rightfully dragged into the filth on social media and in the press.”
Wow! Can you imagine, trying to co-opt Black Culture didn’t work in the age of wokeness. Who knew? Not I, Sam. Also, you are not dragged “into the filth,” you are dragged to filth but what do I know? It’s just my culture’s slang.
Sam concludes his article by saying, “It is a complicated and messy endeavor. But it’s well worth the effort, and I look forward to staying, being, getting woke and continuing the work.”
Oh, Sam. You look forward to staying woke? The fact that you wrote this article tells me you haven’t even begun. The fact that you didn’t bypass writing this article tells me that you are still asleep. But that is what happens when ego collides with the Audacity of White Mediocrity.
*P.S. While I cannot address this now because this article is long enough, black people, we need to have a talk. Y’all want everyone to come to the cookout and this is what happens. Just because someone can clap on beat doesn’t mean they need to bring the greens to the next function. I’m watching y’all. •
Hannah L. Drake is an author, poet and spoken word artist. Follow her at writesomeshit.com and on Twitter at hannahdrake628.