I remember stories shared by my parents about how their youthful dreams were thwarted because of the color of their skin. My dad had been a gridiron great at Tuskegee and a Navy veteran. But he was denied a chance of trying out for the NFL — wrong color. My mom had developed into one of the best dancers in her native Baltimore and wanted to make her name on Broadway. She, too, found doors closed — locked and bolted because of the hue of her skin.
When it was my turn to dream, affirmative action had just entered the American scene resulting in some doors being opened for the first time to “qualified” African-Americans. Those doors allowed me to matriculate at the University of Michigan, Emory University, Princeton and even the iconic Fortune 500 mega-company, IBM. But it would be absurd and blatantly wrong for anyone, including me, to believe that I was handed my college degree and given the nod to ascend the corporate ladder of America because of my caramel-colored complexion and Afro.
The real deal is I studied day after day like there was no tomorrow. I declined invitations to the A-list parties given by friends and colleagues, got to the library as the doors were opening and kept my nose to the grindstone. I slept precious few hours so that I could be ready for the test, prepared for the meeting and poised to learn something new or meet someone that could help me understand the challenges that lie ahead.
I can only laugh when I hear whites complaining about affirmative action policies that they say shut them out. How could that be the case when they created the systems, built the doors and then maintained the good old boy relationships that allowed them and their ancestors to grab up everything in their paths?
Affirmative action has not been the oppressor of white America. I tend to believe that the greed upon which this country has been built, the unadulterated evil that has guided many of its leaders (white males with property) and their refusal to see anyone else as their equals, including their women, has been what’s made it difficult for some of them to achieve any modicum of success.
If anything, affirmative action sought to level the playing field for those who were members of the disadvantaged class, race, gender, religion, etc. of this country. It forced those who had long held the reins of power in their hands and within their families, to open the door so others of equal merit could gain access.
And for the record, white women, more than any other demographic, gleaned the most obvious benefits from affirmative action policies in the U.S. Sure, Blacks found some pathways cleared that had never even allowed a person of color to come near them. But as my parents told me time and time again, and which remains true even today, I had to be “better than my white counterparts, more prepared, better educated, more patient and more willing to face prejudice and outright hatred.”
That’s why I never stopped believing that “Black is beautiful.” That’s why I never let attitudes derived from generations of white privilege deter me from my goals. And that’s why as I went through those doors, I stuck my big foot in the doorway — so that others who looked like me might have opportunities in education, careers and places to raise their own families that our forefathers and mothers could only dream of.