One of my mom’s favorite shows was Living Single.
She loved watching the then twenty-something cast navigate their love lives and careers while living in a 90s kind of world. One standout episode for her depicted Khadijah James (played by Queen Latifah) working multiple side jobs in addition to running her own magazine. She refused any help from her roommates even after they noticed her nearing burnout.
It wasn’t obvious to me back then, but as I got older I realized my mom gravitated toward the hard-working character because she saw herself (and probably every other Black woman she knew) in Khadijah. No handouts. No connections. Just grit.
I thought of that old episode when I watched Idris Elba’s recent interview on ‘The Breakfast Club’ where he and director Will Packer spoke about their new project, The Beast, a film he’s starring in about a father and daughter’s complicated relationship.
In the conversation, the beloved actor shared that his real-life daughter auditioned to play, his daughter in the movie but the role ultimately went to someone else who was a “better fit.” Because of that, she didn’t speak to him for three weeks.
When I heard that the first thought I had was, “why did she even have to audition in the first place?”
I wasn’t the only one who had that question. Elba’s statement sparked a firestorm on social media where many users discussed the Black community’s seemed aversion to nepotism, unlike other ethnic groups.
One user tweeted “All of you Black people pushing White Supremacist doctrine of “work hard”, “struggle”, “merit” in response to Idris Elba blocking his daughter’s bag, this one is for you. White men are rich because of nepotism. It’s not merit, hard work. It’s simply gains via nepotism.”
Another said: “I see all these comments about nepotism thing and all I’m gonna say… white people are not gonna stop so maybe we should start. We shouldn’t feel bad about putting our own people on.”
The conversation around meritocracy in the Black community is a layered one, particularly considering we are a group that is on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder despite our deep efforts.
Black workers are concentrated in lower-paying occupations and underrepresented in higher-paying ones, McKinsey points out in a 2021 report despite Black women being one of the most educated groups in the US.
So, work ethic doesn’t seem to be the issue–opportunity does.
“Black culture has notoriously loved an underdog story because that’s where we’ve fallen on the social hierarchy since the birth of this country,” said Latoya Coleman, MPA, a Harlem, NY-based historian who studied African American history at Wesleyan University.
“That ‘get it out the mud mentality’ is traumatic and deeply rooted in survivalism that stemmed from slavery and shows up in the self-imposed opportunity gaps we see today in the Black community.”
Chicago-based therapist Amari Jackson, MA, LCPC agrees. At her holistic wellness firm, Growing Boundlessly, she said she often sees patients with trauma-based challenges that stemmed from feeling unsupported early in life.
“It doesn’t have to be so hard,” Jackson shared with Essence. “Patients who report burnout and show signs of imposter syndrome have shared their need to overcompensate because they’ve rarely been given a leg-up in their careers. Having a community of support makes a world of difference. Our community believes that there’s honor in struggle and if you get something handed to you, you’re spoiled. That’s just not true. There’s value in passed down opportunities.”
Lauren Miller can attest to this.
Alongside her brother, she inherited a role running the Miller 3 Group, a 2nd generation multi-million-dollar consulting company started by her father nearly 40 years ago. This came after her family’s 150-year ownership of Miller Farms, which at one time, the largest African American-owned farm in the Southeast.
Contrary to popular belief, Miller shared that her privilege shaped her work ethic. “We have this ‘get it out the mud’ mentality that’s become really detrimental to us over time,” Miller said. “Even with what we have been given, there’s still this level of investment in work that has to be put in. It just means we’re able to tap into success that much quicker because there are less barriers to circumvent. We don’t all to struggle to earn respect. It’s time to get passed that.”