Wick Communications

‘A black overachiever’

In Uncategorized on 13 Jul 2017 at 2:18 pm

It is with great trepidation that I choose to write about writing about race. I understand this is a tinderbox topic and that it’s very easy to veer off the page and turn a critique of adjectives and nouns into accusations of racism and worse.

But I’m going to broach the topic anyway, because words matter.

Recently, I had occasion to write a Wick columnist — not an employee, mind you, but a contributor — who had referred to someone as “a black overachiever.” The term was meant as a compliment and the subject was a national public figure. I don’t think the writer intended anything mean-spirited by coupling those words, but it struck me wrong. So I wrote him a note, a bit of it reprinted here:

By any standard, XXXX is an achiever. He is a resounding voice respected by many for his intellect. But by modifying achievement with his “blackness” you A) create the impression that it’s somehow surprising that a black man could overachieve, B) suggest that he is only an overachiever when you consider his race, and C) overemphasize his race entirely. I’m guessing you would appreciate what he said regardless of his race.

To me the test is this: Would you ever write the words “white overachiever?” Would you say, for instance, that Bill Gates is a white overachiever?

To his credit, the columnist wrote me back and admitted that he makes that mistake from time to time. He took the criticism in the spirit that it was intended, even if he didn’t agree with me entirely.

Fair enough.

But he also defended the construction. He said he might refer to a “white overachiever,” for example, in professional sports, because he thinks black folks have a genetic predisposition toward athletics. Which is a whole ’nother topic, as they say. (Whatever the arguments there might be concerning physiology, you would have to take into consideration socio-economic factors, cultural mores, discrimination that precludes success in other avenues and myriad other considerations to have an intelligent conversation about that…) …

I will wind this up by saying this: Race is a difficult topic. It’s not some third rail that can’t be mentioned, but doing so requires great care, humility and an understanding of what we don’t understand precisely because we stand in our particular shoes.

I continue to think it was wrong, at least in this instance, to qualify someone’s achievement with race. I was glad to have a calm discussion about it with someone who had willing ears. And I hope anyone reading my words will be careful with theirs in the future.




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