Last week — the same week in which a long overdue civil rights movement calling attention to the history of police brutality against Black people in the US swept (and continues to sweep) the world— I finally finished reading Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.
In his book, Gladwell, who is biracial, decimates the myth of self-made success in his book and instead urges the reader to consider the historical and situational context that produces an ‘outlier’ — someone who exceeds the average individual in achievements, endeavors or some particular skill. Americans, he says, focus far too much on personal merits and neglect to account for the full set of factors that truly enable all those outstanding achievements to occur. And in many if not most cases, our success is owed to circumstances outside of our control.
He ends his book on a poignant, personal note:
The detail that stands out here is what Malcom Gladwell explains helped him to become the renowned non-fiction writer that he is. Not decades of hard work nor a particularly rigorous education (though these certainly make a difference) but a coveted skin color, one that lacked the melanin which prevented millions born with darker complexions from progressing with the same dexterity as Gladwell, and the nuances of history that he had nothing to do with that helped him gain footing in the route towards success.
It’s a mistake that we make far too often: marveling over an individual for their seemingly superhuman characteristics, but for the wrong reasons. We praise the likes of people like Bill Gates, who has undoubtedly made many a contribution to the progress of humanity. However, it’s remarkable how we pointedly forget to account for the many factors that essentially pre-determined the outcome of his success and allowed the opportunity for him to become an outlier. All the things that had to work in order for him to achieve: the year he was born, right before the great technology boom of the century. His birth into an affluent, white American family. His enrollment into an elite school. His family being on the West Coast, near the location that would become Silicon Valley. His access to one of the first computers that enabled him to gain the necessary “ten thousand hours” of programming, the achievement that is often touted to lead to geniuses or experts of a particular skill. Family members who were well-versed in the way the world operated, and knew the best ways to nurture his talents.
So when we crow over his world-class achievements and assure young children that they, too, could be the next Bill Gates – a Harvard drop out, an innovator, and one of the richest people in history — if they study his habits and wake up at 5AM and set SMART goals, why do we not share the foundation that needs to exist in order for such lofty discipline to work?
I’ll tell you why: it’s because people love a good story. We simply can’t be bothered to be bogged down with the details.
The glaring cost of parroting a narrative that isn’t quite false but fails to fill in the necessary gaps with historical context and other key details, is that it perpetuates a “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality, a harmful mindset as it so often is attributed to historically oppressed groups like Black Americans. One cannot simply pull themselves up when, upon a person’s first breath, so many things have already occurred that either propel you ahead and hold you behind. The equal starting point was always a lie, and it often takes a significant portion of our lives to unlearn this notion and put a stop to comparison culture.
We always knew that life wasn’t fair. The question then becomes, what do we do about it? Shall we mope over the cards we were dealt? Trudge on with stoicism? Fight against settling? Resign to mediocrity?
“Do we settle for the world as it is? Or do we work for the world as it should be?” — Michelle Obama, Becoming.
It’s been incredibly eye-opening to witness what the relentless protests, public outcry and sharing of key information on social media regarding the Black community in the past month has led to:
–Data showing that 53% of Americans support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, up by 11% since February 9th, 2020.
–All four officers involved in the death of George Floyd have been fired and charged.
–Companies are taking a hard stance (whether it denotes sincerity or not remains to be seen) and standing with the Black community, donating to organizations, and having their ugly history with racism revealed.
–The extent to which system racism prevails in this country – just turn on Fox News. Or maybe don’t.
–Other minority groups are educating themselves and one another of how the actions of the Black community has led to progress for their own. Not that that it is intended to serve as a reason to stand with Black people, but shed light on why this movement is our movement, too.
Outliers has led me to pay attention to the full context of what helped the Black Lives Matter movement reach the scale that it has today. 2020 marks a pivotal period in history, starting with COVID-19 and the extent of the destruction that the virus introduced to the world. But simultaneously, it seems to have been one of the major factors that helped the largest civil rights movement in history to take place.
Black Lives Matter was sparked in 2012 after the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. It has led to many a protest, many a headline, many a town hall and fundraising. Yet, the hashtags kept coming: Justice for Ahmaud Arbery. Justice for Breonna Taylor. Justice for George Floyd.
What led to progress towards change this time? The context that is the current climate of the world. We’ve always known injustice was being committed against Black people. We knew this country was built on slavery and that its legacy prevails today. We know about micro-aggressions, of redlining and modern-day lynching and discrimination and Stop and Frisk. We knew, and yet blatant racism was never taken seriously.
Until now. Until COVID-19. Until hundreds of thousands were dead — in America, mainly people of color. Until a quarter of the US became unemployed. Until essential workers, low-wage jobs held mostly by Black and Brown people, are now hailed as heroes. Until other industries began working remotely and found ample free time in lieu of a commute.
Until a string of murders of Black people at the hands of police, a distressingly common tragedy in the United States, took place while we were all quarantined and staring at our TV screens and laptops and iPhones 24/7, forced to consume the black-and-white truth. The cracks in the system, always hidden in plain view, now under constant surveillance.
The silver lining of the worst virus the world has ever seen? America, the most entitled country in the world, finally started waking up.
As a South Asian, Muslim, immigrant woman born into a low-income family from the Bronx, I’m fully aware of the the weight that a label can carry in this country. But here’s my piece of context: I was born into a family that had the means to immigrate to the United States — a choice I did not make. I grew up in one of the most wealthy, multicultural cities in the world: it put me at the fingertips of opportunity for education and career options — a choice I did not make. I was born into a racial group that faced its own set of struggles, but enjoyed the “model minority” stereotype — a choice I did not make. I was not born Black, a race that faces perpetual and systemic racism unlike any other group in the US – a choice I did not make.
The Black Lives Matter movement is everyone’s fight and we still have a long, long way to go to educate ourselves and others on the downright whitewashing of history and current events, to continue to both learn and unlearn, and to fight for true progress. The key is to keep in mind our own personal context, and what it means to leverage the specific privileges we were given to elevate those without and be on the right side of history — to rightfully let future generations become born into a world with equal opportunities that were carved for them from a fight they had nothing to do with.