The Pressure to be the "Right" Kind of Black Girl

by Sharon Lynn Pruitt

I spent a good portion of my life trying to be better than the best. I was always the first to jump at an extra assignment or task, to show everyone that I was capable. But for what? Why?

It was late at night and I couldn’t sleep. I was sick as a dog but that wasn’t why I was up. The next day’s schedule was overstuffed in a way that felt necessary to me, at the time. I felt like absolute crap but was still wrestling with the idea of calling off the next day. It was then that I realized “why” with no prompting, the way a devastating truth can sometimes come unbidden, a kill shot in the dark.

I was trying to make up for being black.

Deep down, I’d already known the truth, but I’d used semantics and avoidant phrasing to skirt around the truth with expert precision: I was just trying to make a good impression. I was just trying to make sure they got the right idea of who I was. I just wanted to make sure they didn’t think I was any number of things I was worried they’d assume about me.

I was so ashamed I wanted to vomit.

I couldn’t go back, though. It was undeniable. I thought back, and back, and back: as soon as I’d mess up or make the painful decision to not do something and sit out the extra mile, the anxiety would creep in. I’d think about my bosses, my professors, my co-workers, my peers, and what I’d imagine them all saying about me boiled down to the same thing:

I knew it.

I wanted to vomit because I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t driven to succeed by pure ambition alone, but by a desire to prove people wrong – or, more honestly, the fear of proving them right. I had lived for years with that fear at my back, while managing not to fully acknowledge it or its implications – just a girl purposefully choosing not to look over her shoulder.

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