Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson

Yes, We Still Have To Do Things Twice As Well

Jose Vilson Jose 3 Comments

Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson

“Why don’t the adults ever have to get into dress code? It’s bullshit.”

The student didn’t say it loud enough for the dean to hear it, but, with me standing right next to him, he could have whispered it and the message would have resonated clearly with me. The problem with his logic stems from the fact that, on that particular day, as on 178 of the 180 days of school, I was wearing a fully iron-pressed set of clothing. From the blue Polo sweater on top of my collared shirt to my black pants draping my black shoes.

With my arms folded, I almost had the chutzpah to say, “We don’t have a uniform because we have to dress better than you are right now, kid.” This especially concerns people of color.

It’s obvious that in whatever field we work in, we have to work twice as hard and do things twice as well just to stand equal with our White brethren. At face value, many people want to corrode the effects of racism by not mentioning it or purporting racial equality with the presence of a Black President of the United States, a Black majority owner in the NBA, Black and Latino billionaires who own everything from record labels to their own cable channels, and the absence of polarizing tools on television like nooses and fire hoses.

In each case, we see aggressive, ambitious human beings who’ve had to go above and beyond what we consider the norm of the success trail, and it’s something we have to convey to our students to this day. When one of ours runs for president, he has to set records for campaign contributions. When one of us makes art, we have to constantly prove we deserve to be discussed amongst the greatest. When we walk in for a job interview, we have to project a meticulous aura and an overconfidence to make up for the “normal” confidence shown by fellow co-workers. When we become advocates in the public arena, we have to develop distinct, passionate, and knowledgeable voices to stand out from what others consider the “normal” voices. When we walk down the street, we have to look intimidating and authoritative in the midst of increasingly suspicious looks from an authority that doesn’t look at the “normative” as threatening.

That expectations is burdensome for sure, and it’s not a burden we’ve placed on ourselves (per se). If all things equal, then why would we need to carve out an entire month to recognize our cultures? The silver lining in this weight is that, when we have a talent, we’ve been endowed with the responsibility to shine as brightly as possible. We have to take our talents seriously. If we’re in positions to make things happen, then we have that duty to make positive things happen because others won’t get that chance. I sympathize with those who, having some talent, can only think about their day-to-day obligations to their families due to their collective economies. Often, I see things that remind me of two afflictions in our communities: talent waste or simple unpreparedness.

I put my students in the latter; it’s OK for students to not see far enough ahead to get why we’re kicking their butts in the classroom, especially if we have any inkling of the struggles people went through just to get us in those seats of influence. As adults, I simply have a hard time excusing a lack of effort. The prevalent idea in some of our neighborhoods towards the “man up” mantra makes just as much sense in our work lives as our home lives. When it comes to certain students, we have to teach them twice as hard. I find myself giving so much of myself that my name becomes Mr. before I use Jose.

Then, I look at the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose suit was impeccable in every picture or movie we’ve ever seen him in, whose diction and baritone stoked fires decades after that shot flew in Memphis, whose words and actions have been chiseled into the hearts, minds, and veins of America, and we all have to wonder if we’re doing our parts. If he’s our prequel, then how will we write that next chapter?

I’m not saying we have to get back in the three-piece suits and dresses, but it does make me wonder what I’m going to wear tomorrow morning. Because my students are watching.

Jose, who reminds you to “man up.”

p.s. – Yes, this also applies to edublogging, which is why I said I’m done with the title.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.