The Pressure to Perform

Do you remember the first time you realized that your best wasn’t good enough? Not in the sense that you tried your hardest and someone was simply better, but knowing that your hard work, dedication, and high standards helped you to be the best and it still wasn’t good enough. As a woman of color, I feel that my best has never been enough because of the pressure I have felt to over-perform.

I’m sure many people of color have had to have that conversation of why we have to try so much harder, be so much better, and simply be stronger. For those who never had that conversation, I’m sure it was understood nonetheless. Growing up, there was always that faint reminder that it didn’t matter what field I wanted to go into or what new interest I wanted to explore, my best would always have to be ten times better to even be seen as “average.”

Coming from a family of hard workers who put a lot of value in a good education, I always worked hard because I was taught that’s what you’re supposed to do. I often thought that my family wanted me to work hard so that I could have a good life. It wasn’t that long ago that blacks weren’t allowed to have a full education, so I should value the opportunities that I had to go to excellent schools.

Before high school, I had mostly been around people who looked like me and came from the same economic background. This changed as I entered high school, and so did my motivation for doing well in school.

You would think that being surrounded by privileged white kids who showed blatant racism would make me want to prove them all wrong—and for a while, it did. I was on the honor roll, held positions in multiple clubs on campus, and was involved in school publications, productions, and athletics. I wanted to do everything I could to prove that I was not a stereotype. But after a time, I realized that it didn’t matter how smart I was or how hard I worked, I couldn’t always change the way people thought about me. Even with all of the time and energy I put into the school, my efforts were never recognized. During my high school career, I had been the assistant stage manager for our spring play, yearbook editor, cheerleader, soccer player, tennis player, basketball manager and videographer, went on multiple mission trips, and even held positions in multiple clubs. Meanwhile, being a Varsity captain, theatre kid, and Honor club member made my classmates “Renaissance men and women.” Their mediocrity was praised while my efforts to be active and social in the school went unnoticed.

It made me question if I had built up my own efforts and even my own intelligence. It even made me question if my high standards were not as high as I thought. My family always made me give my best and when I did I was commended for it, but in this new environment my best was suddenly not good enough.

Without a doubt, there were smarter and harder-working people than me, and I understood that there will always be someone better than you, but seeing half-assed efforts built up and praised infuriated me. In our school we were expected to be typical good Christian kids. We weren't supposed to curse, get angry about sports, drink, or do drugs, and we had to seem pure and abstain from sex. This was rarely followed by my white classmates who were always seen as perfect angels doing the Lord’s work of being Christian leaders. They were seen as pure because they were white and no one at the school thought they were capable of doing something scandalous. People who looked like me were often still viewed as threatening, incapable, and untrustworthy. It wasn’t in us to do anything against the sacred “honor code” in high school because we knew we would all pay for the slightest slip-up. We had seen it before and didn’t want to make it seem like we were proving stereotypes.

I worked hard to try to separate myself from stereotypes that white people had always associated me with because of my blackness. But it was pointless. Someone would always assume that I was from a poor area, an inarticulate family, and was a ghetto, maybe even violent, thug. This was something that followed me for my entire life. For so long, I wasted time thinking I could change the minds of people by being the best. But these people were ignorant, racist, and extremely prejudiced. These same people who were praised for their mediocrity also said it was affirmative action that helped a WOC friend of mine get into MIT when none of them could. People like that will do whatever they can to undermine your intelligence and your achievements simply because they’ve been so pampered by society.

It made me anxious knowing that my best would never be good enough in life and that with every time I failed it reflected poorly on my race. Looking back now, I can’t believe I believed that and that I even put that much pressure on myself. But I had been conditioned to think that way. We live in a society where the second a black person screws up, people say that they “make black people look bad.” This thought had been burned in my brain and I never wanted anyone to say that about me. Despite the evil that we have seen in white men such as Dylann Roof or Donald Trump, no one ever said they made their entire race look bad.

I no longer look for fairness in situations but only equality. If the entire black race gets treated as a collective even when we have not committed the mass oppression that white people have, why do they get to be individualized? No one assumes that every white person is a murderer and a racist, when white men have committed roughly 64% of mass shootings since 1982. But as a tool of oppression, black people are accused of being violent or unintelligent, and we’ve been stuck with that reputation for centuries.

Being the supposedly “dominant race” gave white people the power to think less of all minorities, and that has made some of us people of color feel like we are inadequate and that we have to compete and prove our worth. Of course, this is may not be the case with every person of color, but unfortunately for me it was.

The problem with over-performing is that it makes you believe that you are responsible for how the world views your race. The irony in this is that history is full of cruel, murderous, thieving white figures and society rarely ever associates the entire race with those ideas. Despite the world benefiting from the inventions and creations of black people (cell phones, soap, gas masks, pacemakers, rap, certain types of theatre) we still have to work ten times harder just to be seen as “average.”

Thankfully, I’m wiser now from educating myself on why I felt like this and even how to love myself as a woman of color when people put so little value on my own life. I still know that I will always be held to different standards because of my race, but I refuse to apologize for my race or overcompensate for my blackness.

Taylor Carlington is a junior at Emerson College.