“Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat of its fruit.”
I attended a training on diversity some years ago and in an attempt to explain the social disadvantages of socially colored black people, the African American woman leader of this two day seminar explained to a room of persons who were European American in majority the burden of blackness when it came to employment in America. She said, “You have to work twice as hard for half the pay.” She was speaking of the necessary work ethic and the inequities in pay for a socially defined black person though for the same job or labor when the social construct of race is a factor. She said it rather matter of fact as if she had brought clarity to a misunderstanding. But, what was she really saying and was it a solution?
You need to be faster, smarter, sharper and stronger. You need to be overly prepared. Read more books because you’ll need to know twice as much, spend more money on appearance because they’ll look at you twice as hard, have more answers because you’ll be asked double the questions, solve more problems because you’re the reason for most of them and have more credentials. She went on to say, “If ‘they’ (i.e. socially defined white people) have a high school diploma, then you (i.e. a socially defined black person) need an Associate’s degree. If “they” have a Bachelor’s degree, then you need a Master’s degree. If they have a Master’s degree, then you need a Ph.D. And if they have a Ph.D., then you need two!” She chuckled after making this statement. While many in the room shook their heads in agreement and others in disapproval of such a practice, I sat with a newfound understanding.
This was not a burden of blackness but a curse of race, the seedbed for the inferiority complex and white privilege. Because you are black, you will have to do twice as much for half the pay. It does not take into account your level of skill or the amount of work already accomplished at your normal pace. But, says solely based on this social construct of race, you must produce double the results and that this effort is only worth half the salary when compared to the normal labor and quality of work of a socially defined white person. This is how race curses us. No, there was no wicked witch in the room, no cackling laughter that followed but these words sought to create misfortune and adversity.
This expression and others like it are not proverbs. They are rooted in the historical experience of persons who sought to undermine the worth and value of the contributions of those socially defined as black people while reaping the benefits of their labor. It was used to cheat them and it must be said that the fact that African Americans are able to work harder for this reduced wage is not an accomplishment or a cause for celebration. It should not be a measurement of success but an indication of defeat. It is to give in to the curse and to work towards its fulfillment.
We must not accept the curse as a way of life but seek fairness in employment and wages. We need only to do the work that we love without competition or comparison. To believe and live otherwise is to accept this expression of ill will, this oath of inequality, this practice of injustice. It is for this reason that this curse should not be repeated.
It says that nothing that I could ever do would be good enough, that my relation to goodness and the value of my work, my contribution to society is predicated upon the social coloring of my skin which I did not choose and consequently, have no control over. This is the formula for a defeatist attitude and an environment of hopelessness and despair. It also says that I will never be good enough. My best has to be better than a socially defined white person who doesn’t have to jump higher or run faster than me because he has already been deemed better. The curse reinforces the hierarchy of race and this woman was haphazardly repeating the rules for injustice and unfairness, a game that should have ended a long time ago.
Unlike God, who has satisfied the penalty for my sin through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, there is no satisfying the demands of race. The requirements are callous and maddening. The competition is never over. I would always have to jump higher even if I had to break my own record. I would always have to run faster even if I passed myself along the way. And I would always be compared to another human being, cursed to compete for what all should have… for the rest of my life.
What she shared with us that day was no explanation but a curse placed on the social coloring of skin. But, we have the power to defeat it. We need only not repeat it as “life and death are in the power of the tongue.”