What It Takes To Get What I Want

Over the years and through a lot of experience I have learned a few useful things. One of the most useful, or the most widely applicable, is that in order to get what I want, I have to go and get it. Not in the simple work hard toward a goal sort of thing, but much more in a stop sitting there with your hand raised waiting to be called or chosen, because you will never get picked. So instead stand up and go grab, or do, whatever you want. Don’t wait for permission, don’t wait your turn, just do it. Because my turn never came up.sitting in nook reading

I know now that one of the major reasons I never got my turn, at least not in the way I always dreamed, is because no matter what I knew, or could do, no one knew who I was. Nor did they really care who I was- or am. I realize now that my ability to do anything- absolutely anything- has always been limited by the people around me. I have never met an astronaut, and as it turns out, it is very hard to become an astronaut if you do not, nor does anyone around you know, an astronaut- or at least someone working on the human side of the space program. Now I recall being told lots of prerequisites, or told of the appropriate path to one day being eligible for being launched into space, but I know now that they were in reality just guessing, or passing along the guesses, of others. They didn’t really know and I was absolutely never going to be an astronaut.

And yet someone out there still gets to be an astronaut.

What I was and have always been most likely to become, was a school teacher. There was by proximity always the chance I could be a police officer, a CPA, or a low level manager in any variety of businesses where I would be tasked with numerous duties that would be hard to explain to a suburban adolescent and even more impossible to make interesting to such a person. Because growing up, those were the people surrounding me, and the people I knew.

I guess there was a chance, thanks to the unique characteristics of my school teacher father, that I might have become a hermit living in the woods, an auto mechanic, or maybe even a cowboy, but I had no true interest in those things. I was sort of interested in art. I was pretty good at drawing, and though my father was in fact an art teacher, I knew no working artists- other than teachers. I had other interests as well, but my experience, environment, and the advice coming from those I knew, told me that none of the things I was interested in would ever feed a family, which was my primary duty, and were best given up or at least relegated to hobbies. This was practical advice, and from any of our experiences, it was true. So I settled.ol chap

Eventually I moved. And I started, intentionally, meeting new people. I wanted to do new things. I wanted to do things that were interesting and meaningful, or even just more in line with the things I was best at, and I started to just go for it. I did most all of this unsupervised and un mentored, which is to say I probably did most of it poorly. Yet some of it worked. For instance, it never occurred to me that I could attend an Ivy League school. Quite the opposite really. In fact, to my knowledge I never even met anyone who attended an Ivy League School till, as an adult, I moved to Philadelphia. Once there I met plenty of very impressive, yet still human, students and alumni from nearly all the Ivies. I met them because they lived there, and even then, it did not occur to me that I could attend till one day I did a strange thing and emailed a woman I heard on the radio. She was talking about things I found interesting, the same sorts of things I was doing as a hobby, and it just so happened that she was a professor at an Ivy League school. I reached out to her out of the clear blue sky, mostly because she was local, and surprisingly she reached back.

And now I have a degree from an Ivy League School. Had I just sat and waited for that school to notice me, or really, had I just sent in an application not knowing anyone, it never would have worked. Not for me.

As I look back at it now, most of the things I have done in my life of which I am proud, or that might be of some value (because those two are not exactly the same) are the result of me showing up somewhere uninvited, inviting myself, or reaching out to complete strangers. I have learned to put on a suit jacket, act like I belong, and then just stroll in and casually start asking questions. It works. Sometimes. Really it only works a very small portion of the time, but in the 40+ years of my life, it is the only thing that has ever worked. I am just not shiny enough, noticeable enough, or connected enough, to do any different- that is if I want to do anything remarkable.

And along the way, I have also learned and seen directly, that this works in large part …


because I am white.


I have learned that these things don’t work quite the same, if someone is black. Or a woman. Or anything that isn’t like me, a straight white man. This is not to say that it cannot work for a black man, but the stakes are definitely not the same. The worst that has happened to me is getting kicked out of the American Philosophical Society Archives and told to come back during a regularly scheduled meeting. No, that isn’t the worst. I have indeed been called lots of nasty names and insulted with words, but I am given a helping of grace or room for error, whereas a black man entering a room uninvited is very likely to be arrested- or worse.

Not figuratively. Not maybe. But Likely.

Like here

Or here

And here

How about here?

Should I keep going?

This is what has, and is, and really has always been, the case for black people. Not every time of course, just like walking in uninvited didn’t work for me every time. But the default setting is that though this world, this America, isn’t set up to hand me anything, it will allow me to do things that are just a little bit “out there” in order to get a shot, while this same world is suspect of, afraid of, and will normally squash, repel, or punish any black person who does something just a little bit “out there” trying to get a shot.

That is what privilege is.

And that is how America works.

9 thoughts on “What It Takes To Get What I Want

  1. I may not be the best suited person to respond to your post – I’m not American and I see things from a little different perspective, but nevertheless I’ll still comment. When I was reading your post I realized that you transitioned smoothly from “how I got into an Ivy League School” – I had to google what it means btw. – into “that’s how America works”. I said that I see things from a different perspective because… For me it is weird you say it was easier for you to achieve your success than it would be for a female or a black person. The reality is that where you come from (so your background, family, skin color, gender, etc.) is only around 20% of what makes you successful. I watch a lot of documentaries about America in general, and from what I see the problem with those groups you mentioned is not that they are opressed, but the fact that they are entitled. Everybody is going around them on their toes, like…
    Government: “I cannot give you that!”
    Black people: “You won’t give it to me just cause I’m black. RACIST”.
    Seriously, what the hell. Black people are now living off of the slavery and racism like it’s something they should be paid back for. I’m not an expert on US history, but slavery ended at least a 100 years ago and they really have no right to use it as an argument. I’m Polish and can’t really imagine to keep whining about Germans killing 5 mln of my people, because none of them living now is responsible for that.
    You are completely right though, if you want something you have to work for it. Nothing comes to anyone without hard work.
    I am a female and I graduated from the best technical school in my country and nobody, really nobody, helped me do it. I had to work my ass off. And I never even whispered about being discriminated because of my gender – I studied Electrical Engineering you can imagine how many women there were studying it along with me. And you know the reason why? I was prepared for it because I never really got anything for free in my life.

    1. Dorata, Thank you for your response, but I would have to challenge you that if you feel in any way informed on the racial dynamics of America and have come away concluding that “the problem with these groups” is entitlement- then you need to reexamine your sources. How did you come to that conclusion? Because it is not true.
      Entitlement attitudes are a problem, but mostly for those on the middle to upper rungs of society. It is often this sense of entitlement from those who already have so much, that leads these same people to act in oppressive ways to others who are striving to move up the ladder. “I deserve this” “I worked hard”
      often translates, sometimes unintentionally, into “You don’t deserve this” or “You didn’t work hard enough”.
      I am sure you did work hard and I know that for most of us, that hard work is crucial. But trust me, for black people in America, the “problem” isn’t that they aren’t working hard enough. The problem is that people, and systems, are exaggerating the consequences of risk and failure, as well as dampening the rewards of hard work.

      1. I get your point, but I have to ask: what about communities that are all white, or all black. It seems that in every single group there will always be the those who have it easier and those who have it harder. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be helped or anything – everybody deserves equal start, I just think people make such a great point to say they have it worse just because of their skin color. If nobody ever mentioned their skin there wouldn’t be racism. For now most of the Americans I know segregate people constantly. I wonder why nobody is so concerned about millions of hispanic citizens and how difficult it is for them. It seems the topic only concerns the great opposites: black and white.

      2. That is a great question that mostly illustrates how far removed you are from the real conversation, or from what is really happening over here.
        Our current president was elected in large part because of the contention surrounding LatinX issues. People are talking about it. A lot of people. And they are talking a lot and loudly.

        Not mentioning race does not, nor has it ever, made racism go away. In fact, one of the American challenges was how the white ruling class institutionalized racial hierarchy without having to say the actual words that outline racist acts or policies. Racism has been baked into the batter and disguised. It has happened over enough generations that what you are describing is a white majority who are blind to a racist reality, and then confuse the complaints of black (or brown) people as the problem itself, rather than the call t reality that those complaints represent.

        As to communities that are all white or all black, that is a question that requires an investigation into how those communities became that way, and the policies that control power and resources available in those communities. I can give the shorthand which is to say, racism, or more precisely white supremacist actions and policies, are at the root of American segregated communities.

      3. I’m not saying that not mentioning color of skin will stop racism. I’m saying that why do people always have to segregate each other due to skin color. If I have a friend who has darker skin than me I don’t immediately think he/she is black and I don’t label him/her like that – even if she/he is technically black. It’s just another person – that’s what I meant. I mentioned hispanics because you didn’t and it seemed to me like you don’t see that problem, you only see the “black issue”, which seems to be the exact same thing. It’s really the same with poor white people, women, asians, people from middle east, black people, hispanic people and all the other minorities.
        Maybe I don’t understand your point – although I’m trying to be openminded because I know that we can see things completely different and not due to bad will – I just don’t understand how a country that literally calls itself a land of freedom can be one that has such a great problem with it. Of course here in Europe such things happen too (like anywhere really, in South Africa it’s the same, just another way around) but it’s more about racial slurs and not the fact that black people cant achieve what we can. I know a lot of people that have black skin that achieved a great success in Europe and they never mentioned being segregated. I’ve read a lot of articles about this issue and I don’t know why it always seems that the blacks have it the worst. Or maybe that’s just what is being sent over here.
        I wonder what is it you think can be done to stop this issue if you feel it really does exist. Did the situation improved with the new president? One would think that during the presidency of the old one the whole issue should minimize, but you seem to tell me it even grew. Tell me more about that.

      4. I write about black/white American race issues because that is what I know, live, and study and therefore the area where I might have something to offer. There are of course other demographics and issues that overlap, but each is unique in cause and unique in proposed solutions.

        When America started calling itself a land of freedom, back at our national founding, it only meant freedom for white men. Literally. Black people were not allowed to be American citizens till after the civil war (1860’s) and even then, black people were not afforded the actual legal privileges of citizenship till 1964. This was all formal and by law- while the cultural practice was even slower. So for almost the entire history of America, even into our lifetime, in reality, real freedom was only for white people. So much so that there have been several supreme court cases where otherwise non-white people (Iranians, Indians, and others) sought to be considered or deemed legally “white” so they could be legally American.
        The civil rights movement in the 1960s led to huge change in law- but not in economic policy or in practice. As a result, many white people, especially those who have never lived near black people (intentionally or otherwise) told each other that the problem was all solved and that we no longer needed to talk about it. And that is pretty much what white America (and apparently those who create the messages you get overseas) believed. It was not till Obama’s election that there was a leader, and surrounding voices, at that level who pointed out that so many of the problems created by racism still exist. They were still there all along.
        To many white people this looked like a black person creating new problems that were solved long ago- but that is not nor was ever, true.
        The first step, of many, needed to actually achieve any level of equity or equality, is for the general white population of America to truly realize that they are living life with a very real set of advantages. If they (we) can realize this, there will be a chance that we will have the political will to support and sustain policies that will both right historical wrongs, and create a new mode of operation moving forward that enables true freedom and opportunity.

  2. Also, as to your reckoning the value of where you live or background, also known as social capital, attached below is a European study that attempts to pin a monetary value on these things.

    The purpose of this study is to estimate the monetary value of social capital by considering its multidimensional nature. Four dimensions are conceptualized: Interpersonal trust, institutional trust, trustworthiness, and participation in civil society (formal and informal). The monetary value is obtained by including social capital in a well-being function and estimating the shadow price of social capital. The empirical analysis is based on data from the European Values Survey covering 45 European countries. A generalized ordered response model is estimated to account for possible heterogeneity of social capital indicators among the ten different subjective well-being levels. The results show that on average a one standard deviation increase in interpersonal trust (people’s fairness) is worth an extra € 7913 per year in terms of foregone income, the same increase in institutional trust is worth € 7405, and the same increase in the importance of family is worth € 7312. The findings indicate that social capital has significant monetary value to individuals. This should be considered when designing government policies aiming at, e.g., labor market mobility that are accompanied by a decreasing social capital stock that, in turn, may negatively affect economic and political development.”

    Now considering this, let me submit as “exhibit A”, in the case that African-Americans automatically begin at a disadvantage related to social capital, the idea that you are not American, are far enough removed from American society that you had to google “Ivy League”, and when confronted with an essay on the subject of the disadvantages faced by African Americans in American society, written by an American who formally studies these things- you were still confident that you knew better what “The problem with those groups” is.

    Despite evidence otherwise, you still hold fast to this preconceived negative impression.

    Can you see it?

  3. Excellent post, again! The best way I can think of to try to put people in the shoes of a minority in the U.S. is the question “If you had a choice, would you choose to wake up black tomorrow? I forget which famous activist said that, but it personifies the issue. No one in her audience raised their hand.
    Many Americans deny there is racism. And yet, that question would stop them in their tracks.

  4. Great post but even better comments.
    Personally, I hate Affirmative Action – it diminishes my hard-earned accomplishments.
    In all these years of blogging and reading other’s blogs I still cannot find the answer to the two questions I had when I started:
    From whence volition
    Is virtue a luxury.

    I work hard and sacrifice for what I have but having ‘game’ has been my greatest asset. It seems that I’m always chosen but I have no idea as to why.
    I don’t share the ‘ Black Angst’ and bitterness that many ‘woke’ brotha’s have.
    Even in predominantly white and racist situations, I’ve never suffered from being Black.
    I was turning corners in the hood this past weekend (a bit over dressed) but a boss made sure I knew that I was good wherever I wanted to go.

    Like the woman from Poland, there are a lot of things I just don’t get.
    I live in an all-Black neighborhood where stray white people are viewed with suspicion. (Way different from my suburban integrated childhood neighborhood.)
    I’ll hang out with whomever I wish (dirty looks and all) and I have access to anyone I may need.
    I hear, ‘They won’t let us do that’ from accomplished Blacks and I always have to say, ‘Effum, just do it and let them ask how you did it later.’.
    (Many Blacks in these small Southern towns have been subjugated for so long that they still feel as though they need white approval.)

    ‘Not talking about race’ and thinking racism will go away is a joke.
    My facebook page is about 30/30/30/10 (Black/white/Lantinx/Asian) and we ALWAYS talk about race – even if it’s something bad.

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