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With the series finale of Scandal on the horizon, it’s not the roller coaster relationship Olivia Pope and Fitz Grant had (have?); the Quinn Perkins/Huck torture escapade; or even Mellie Grant’s historic presidential win I’ll remember the most about the show. Instead, it’ll be all the times Olivia’s twisted parents Rowan and Maya dropped the realest soundbites — one of the most relatable popping up in Scandal's Season 3 premiere more than four years ago.
In the episode, entitled "It's Handled," the fixer extraordinaire and her father Rowan have a heated discussion during which, per usual, he reminds Olivia that she isn't like everyone else — and never would be — no matter what position she holds, how much she achieves, or who she sleeps with — all because of the color of her skin.
Rowan: Did I not raise you for better? How many times have I told you? You have to be what? You have to be what?
Olivia: Twice as good.
Rowan: Twice as good as them to get half of what they have.
Since the beginning of time, this “work twice as hard” mantra has been drilled into the hearts and minds of people of color everywhere, myself included. I've heard it from parents, teachers, family members, neighbors, and even older coworkers before and after every test, school project, science fair, ACT test, college admission essay, and job interview. Over time, my thought process became, Do whatever you can to prove you're worthy of a seat at the table. Problem is, this strategy doesn't work in real life — something that became abundantly clear to me when I began working in an office where I was the “only.”
After surveying the office on my first day, I kept hearing those words in the back of my mind. So I got to work early. Stayed late. Racked my brain to write stories that were minimal in errors. Volunteered to write stories my fellow assistants scoffed at. Stayed out of office gossip and didn’t reveal too much about myself. That may not sound too bad, but when you’re giving your all and still being talked over in meetings, passed over for opportunities, and subjected to numerous microaggressions (like being called the wrong name repeatedly), getting even half as much as your peers do no longer seems worth the effort.
Because of my can-do attitude at work, my mental health suffered tremendously and soon panic attacks were a regular part of my morning routine. I was constantly snapping at friends after work. There I was, burnt out, before I had even turned 25. That’s when I knew something had to change. No longer could I allow myself to live by some outdated mantra involving success.
Pushing ourselves to unhealthy lengths in order to satisfy a systematic competition of the races only keeps us focused on the wrong sort of game.
To be clear, I don’t blame my family or other minority parents for telling their kids to work so hard. Not only did channeling this mantra for years help me foster an incredible work ethic and level of professionalism, but it also, unfortunately, holds some truth: No matter how hard people of color work, sometimes we still do come out with a proverbial “half as much.”
Take the pay gap, for instance: Despite the fact that a higher percentage of Black women are enrolled in college than any other group when it comes to both race and gender, we still only make 63 cents for every dollar made by a white man. Native American women and Latinx women make even less: 57 cents and 54 cents for every dollar a white man makes, respectively, according to the National Women’s Law Center. And merely knowing that gaps like these exist can encourage women of color to continue to feed into the idea that’s it us (POC) against them (non-POC), and that we have to do everything we can to “win.”
But as a former perfectionist who wore the “positive Polly” mask and allowed those aforementioned microaggressions to fester in my psyche, I've since realized that this phrase has held me back from building genuine relationships with my coworkers. It’s made me repeatedly question how talented I am despite the number of accolades I’ve received. It’s kept me from sharing all of my creativity in meetings out of fear of not being credited. And the resentment I once harbored over having to be “twice as good” left me too exhausted to do anything besides sleep on the weekends. Totally not productive or healthy.
I now understand that in order to truly be successful, I need to know when to give something my all and when to give it a break — and, most importantly, to realize that the world isn’t always against me. There have been plenty of times when I’ve been subjected to racial bias in the workplace — and there will be plenty more to come, I'm sure — but that seems like someone else's problem, the aggressor's, not mine.
Does this mean that minority parents should stop instilling a level of excellence in their children? Heck no. Hard work is a key component of climbing the ranks; that should be true regardless of what others around us are doing or look like. But pushing ourselves to unhealthy lengths in order to satisfy a systematic competition of the races only keeps us focused on the wrong sort of game.
It’s 2018, and I’ve got better things to worry about than what everyone else is doing — white or not. Like Cardi B says on the track “Best Life” off debut album Invasion of Privacy, “I'm my own competition / I'm competin' with myself.” I suggest everyone else adopt this mentality, too, if they really want to succeed.