I’ve never compared myself to Steve Jobs or other great innovators.
I have trouble at times getting out of bed, let alone giving myself praise for any good work I’ve accomplished. But in times of confidence, when I’m not apologizing for my existence, when I take the time to say “yes, I did this, I earned this, and I’m happy,” I’m labeled as arrogant.
This is the trial of black male humility.
I learned of conversations old colleagues had behind my back. People who will undoubtedly read this and laugh. “He’s so arrogant.” “He thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.” And then the other day, I hear I’m labeled a “good kind of arrogant”, as if anything good can come from a word which is defined as thinking oneself above others.
My brief moments of confidence are largely concealing the anxiety and depression I’ve fought my entire life. This is not a condition of my stature in life, but rather part medical condition, part societal conditioning. It’s something I’ve only recently been willing to be open with, facing my demons head-on, while letting others know they’re not alone. But those moments of confidence where I feel truly accomplished? Where I can be proud of what I’ve done? That’s when my heart sings!
As a whole, confident black men are constantly held under by society, frequently told to not say much and accept what society gives us. This is a tactic to hold us in place, to make sure we don’t overstep our “boundaries”. When we hold onto our dignity by believing in ourselves, we are conditioned to hold it at a distance so as not to upset those nebulous powers that be. Even if those powers are merely by social design, not positional placement.
Because we don’t want to be seen as a threat or inept. The constant pressure of conforming while performing is stressful beyond recognition. And yet we still find time to smile, in our quiet moments, and our proud moments.
It’s hard to be proud, or quiet, or find time to smile when society views differently of you. One study showed that people have a tendency to perceive black men as larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men. Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person sho. These descriptions may reflect stereotypes of black males that do not seem to comport with reality.
And in business? Starting at a certain economic level does little to change society’s views on us. White boys who grow up in rich households are likely to stay rich, but black boys who are also raised at the top are more likely to become poor. That’s just how big a gap African-American males face when it comes to moving up the economic ladder.
I was raised by two midwest parents. I don’t put my elbows on the table. I always let ladies go first. I say thank you at every moment. My humility is engrained in me. But there are also the challenges I face with strangers; I keep my head down in elevators so I don’t seem threatening, I ensure my wallet is always nearby so I can prove where I live.
For me, the word arrogance when it is used to define black men is a way of saying “you’re not good enough, smart enough, or capable enough to be where you are. You have no right to be confident; know your place.” Even though I have always been my biggest critic; even though I’ve never felt myself above others; even though I never treat me academic or personal achievements as anything more than hard work and perseverance; they see me as arrogant, and the truth of my being is replaced by the judgment of color.
What will it take to stop conflating confidence with arrogance when it comes to black men? Our lives are spent with a strike against us for intimidating society’s hierarchy simply by having darker skin; we just want to believe in ourselves and not catch flak for it.
How arrogant of us.
I am not Kanye. But sometimes I wish I could be.
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