Have you ever felt that no matter how hard you work, it is never enough? Women and people of diverse ethnicities often feel this way. For example, no matter how far African Americans come, many feel that they will never meet with the approval of the dominant society’s expectations. There is a white ceiling, which many people in our society cannot see. The agonizing sense of never being able to ascend and arrive at one’s envisioned destination can even be true for an African American who becomes the President of the United States, or the First Lady. If you’re not white, you’re last, or at least not first.
This point came home to me, as I watched a video clip of America’s First Lady’s giving a powerful address at Tuskagee University’s graduation event this spring. Michelle Obama spoke pointedly and poignantly regarding the problems that African Americans face in the United States today. No matter how hard these graduates work, no matter how far they come, it will never be enough for some people, she said. The Obamas have experienced such challenges. Still, she does not allow such discouragements, including the invisibility among the white majority to be seen for who she and other African Americans truly are, to lead her to despair. She called on her audience to join her in working for a bright future. They must not allow the Fergusons and Baltimores and a variety of other ordeals to cause them to give up, but to bear the heavy burden in an empowering manner. They must rise up and channel that angst in a constructive direction: studying, organizing and banding together to build up their lives and their communities (You can find a CBS clip of that portion of the address here).
I cannot imagine the challenges Mrs. Obama and other African Americans face. However, I greatly admire her resilience—and that of her husband. Just last week, President Obama was in Portland, Oregon. The Oregonian published an article on what his appearance would mean for traffic patterns, and the level of security detail that was required. The article claimed that President Obama receives more death threats than any other American President in history (Refer here). He has come a long way to be the President, and he still faces many obstacles. I think I can put up with a few hours of traffic jam obstacles to make sure he gets safely to where he needs to go.
We should not remain blind to the struggles that African Americans continue to face in America, nor blind to what they have accomplished against overwhelming odds. Moreover, while many in the white majority will claim that African Americans often excuse themselves based on their past to do anything to advance their lives, we who are white should not excuse ourselves from removing the white ceiling. White privilege and entitlements hinder their advance. Rather, we should partner with African Americans to put in place equitable societal structures. We should also be on guard against making excuses for failing to pursue excellence and effect positive change based on various challenges that we ourselves face; we should remain resolute in attempting to benefit our communities and our lives. Regardless of our political orientation, we can learn a great deal from the President and First Lady. Together with them, we must all become resilient and press on to create a better future for all Americans and the world at large.
John Lussier is a ceiling-conscious white friend of mine who wishes to effect equitable structural change that benefits all. He writes,
Who are the friends, across racial lines, that you look to for a change of perspective? Are your social media feeds echo chambers, or are you hearing from people that aren’t like you, politically, racially, socioeconomically, etc.? Is your church community a place that has its eyes open, or does the subject of race need a light shined upon it? Often our African American friends, and other people of color, are far more aware of the implications of race in their lives than white Americans are. Our concern for justice has to lead us to take our own blinders off. We must become inquisitive about the experiences of others, seeking to hear their stories, and educating ourselves.
If we have eyes like John’s to see, we will envision and dream of an America where everyone is welcome, and where everyone is judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, as Dr. King once shared. If we have ears to hear, we will listen to everyone’s heart cry for equality and yearning to be treated with human dignity. This is the America I love and long for–the land of the truly free. Let’s be sure to remove the white ceiling and the dividing walls of various colors of prejudice that we all project to varying degrees. Only then can our country truly be virtuous and great. Otherwise, we who claim so often to be the greatest nation on the earth will not be first, perhaps not even close. After all, in some people’s minds, if you’re not first, you’re last.