The Irony of American Exceptionalism

I vividly remember sitting in my 8th grade South Carolina history class when during a discussion about the presidential race, I stood up and told my classmates that one day I would be president. (The year was 96′ and the race was between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole). It was a lightly held dream of mine, sort of like being a marine biologist or a doctor, two things I quickly decided against once I realized that I neither swim nor enjoy science. But politics was (and still is) my jam. My teacher, an older white lady in her late 60s, laughed (out loud) and said to me in front of the class, you can’t be president because you weren’t born here. I could tell she wanted to say more, but she stopped short of adding what she really meant. As one of the only black kids in the honors class, I could read between the lines.

Now, here’s the backstory. I was born abroad on a military base in Nuremberg, Germany where I spent most of my pre-school years until moving to the states. My family had just recently moved “home” back to a small town in upstate South Carolina where all of our extended family lived. To them, I was an outsider, and well, let’s just say I had my issues fitting in with what was expected of me as a black kid growing up in the rural south.

That moment is still etched in my memory, as one of a number of slights that I used to motivate me along the way. That was the year I swept the awards at the end of the year ceremony, causing my best friend to recall, man, those white people got tired of hearing your name called for every award that day. It was a good day for me, and I hope I made my grandmother proud who sat in the audience cheering me on. But in hindsight, I wonder if I spent too much time trying to be the exception to the rule, and not enough time evaluating why is this not the norm to begin with? It didn’t dawn on me until much later after leaving my small town, how rare my success there really was.

After listening to the Senator Tim Scott, a black male republican from my home state share his moving story, I was reminded of this idea of being the exception to the rule. He went from cotton to congress in one lifetime. Now that’s a powerful story and one that could give a lot of people hope, especially a country black boy from South Carolina wondering, is this possible for me too? His story is an example of American exceptionalism. But here’s the thing: exceptionalism isn’t the norm. That’s what makes it stand out. As Trevor Noah puts it, If America didn’t have a racism problem, then [Tim Scott’s] achievements wouldn’t be a big deal. I’m tired of celebrating the exceptions to the rule, without asking, why does this rule exist in the first place?

The very idea of “American Exceptionalism” suggest that the game is already rigged. Who gets to be “exceptional” and why isn’t that simply the norm?  You think most people wake up and choose not to be exceptional?  In my experience, both as a teacher in an urban school district and as a father of 4 brilliant daughters, every child starts off as a blank slate with high expectations for themselves. It’s the adults who muck it up with our own issues. I’m fortunate that everyday I get to wake up and go to battle with leaders who recognize that the game in fact is rigged. We say, let’s change it.

Here’s the dirty little secret: for those of us who become the exceptions to the rule, it’s a tough burden to carry, to be the only one in the room or to have your success serve as the model for your entire race. The irony of exceptionalism is that you work so hard to prove that you can make it, only to realize that the very rarity of your success exposes the flaws in a rigged system. Sometimes I think back on that teacher and wonder how many other kids she discouraged or openly mocked. Did they use it as motivation or was it just simply another nail in the coffin of their dreams being buried with low expectations? I’ll never know. But what I do know, is that my work won’t be done until this idea of exceptionalism is exposed for what it really is: a lie.

SDW3

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