“I am strong but I am tired”
What if I was not black? Was not African American? Did not have this sun kissed melanin skin? Would things be as different as I imagine they would be? Would I be a female in a STEM field? Would I have an engineering degree? Would I have changed paths and pursued medicine? Would I be a medical doctor?
What if I was not black?
A simple question I asked myself.
Sitting on my living room floor I felt completely overwhelmed. I was getting punched on all sides with nowhere to go. My lifelines were miles away and once again I found myself swallowing my pride telling myself that I wanted this. I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to pass another standardized exam. But my mental health was taking a toll. Because on top of the exam there was a long list of other things that were not quite working.
You’d think that the come up would have shielded what I will call the “minority exhaustion” but it only created the same drained perspective in different environments. Because my come up, my success, my change in circumstances, does not change the little black girl mentality. And that is where sitting on the living room floor feeling overwhelmed constructs its foundation. The little black girl mentality is always and forever present. A mentality fueled by an exhausting journey through foreign territory in my own country. To be a minority in this country continues to be a unjust contract I never consented to. An endless marathon to somewhere and nowhere. Minority exhaustion grows with each generation, fueled by triumphs and tribulations.
The Past: To be born into your ancestors’ last words of hope
America was not friendly to black people, well America still is not friendly (read: possibly hated in some corners but definitely did not completely support) black people. Hate is a strong word, I know, but so is the pain. Year after year, generation after generation change consumes children and their grandchildren. Hoping for different circumstances, for better lives, grasping onto the hope whispered from the souls of our ancestors. Recognizing progress in the crevasses of struggle even if it means squinting and forcing our hearts and mind to believe. I was born the offspring of two African American adults still trying to figure out things and make a better life for their children. Parents attempting to navigate a world their own parents were not accustomed to and a world that was not always welcoming. Grandparents who lived through (read: survived) Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement, and basically being black in America.
It is impossible to forget the family tree in an idealistic form. But it is easy to forget the details because that is the reality of black history. To exist without a story but to still exist. So when I ask myself, what if I wasn’t black? I wonder if I’d know where my family immigrated from, maybe even the port they landed in. I wonder if I’d have a huge question mark on my past but also have the lingering feeling of wanting more as if potential was stolen from me. Constantly reminding myself that strange fruit once hung on trees that continue to be sun kissed, trees that stand as pillars in communities, hanging onto old memories like last words of hope. Living in a world that places generations between yesterday’s history as if our healing means nothing. black people feel no pain they say. We’ve never been human enough.
The Come Up: Learning to fly even if it means getting feathers one by one
I didn’t dream of a lot of things when I was younger. I played and lived in the present. Created a safe bubble to exist in and minded my own business. Eventually, I planned my great escape in hopes of finding some stability, some peace in a world of chaos. In the beginning of the recession in the mid/late 2000s after years of wanting more stability, I settled on majoring in engineering, A route that seemed safe though pretty much foreign territory. But settled is a strong word, I was purposely guided into it by strategic steps in order to invest in the come up.
Step One: Insert above notion of two African Americans meeting and wanting more for their children
Step Two: Parents navigate new world different from their parents
Step Three: Parents place child in every affordable activity for “exposure” hoping she gets to level up to her counterparts
Step Four: Remove child from chaos of streets via affordable activities of exposure
Step Five: Sign child up for things that “normal” (read: majority) children participate in by default. Play the game as if you know the rules even if you are winging it.
Step Six: Stay in good school no matter how many loops you have to jump through, because equal school funding is a joke.
Step Seven: Implement long term hustle plan that includes this thing called college.
Step Eight: Child flips the script on her circumstances.
And snap, there it is, I settled on engineering by overexposure to a foreign environment. It sounds exhausting when you look back at it, it was exhausting, but that’s how black people make it in America. Exhaustingly persistent. But what if I wasn’t black? Would my parents have blindly invested these good intentions for the greater good? Would these “exposures” have been default and nothing special?
Like playing darts in a crowded room I got lucky, passed some standardized tests, navigated a big university and earned, received, and took my engineering degree. They don’t like to tell you how many females go into STEM because it’s more fun to tell you other things. They don’t like to tell you how many minorities go into STEM because it’s more fun to tell you anything and everything else. Because you can’t talk about minorities in STEM without speaking on the low number of minorities in college. Without speaking on the culture shock, the academic adjustments, the fundamental need to sit at the cafeteria table with all the other black kids. Pipelines are important.
So imagine being a female black engineering student in this thing called college and in a constant state of imposter syndrome. Collecting feathers one by one in order to fly, soar into some form of success. Imagine not enough feathers, the struggle, the perseverance, and the exhaustion. But I made it, like many other black young adults trying to turnover their circumstances, I made it though tired, I still made it. Just because you’re tired doesn’t mean the job is complete. Minority exhaustion is a journey that builds, fueled by generations of motivation, frustration, and need. From the living room floor I can see that engineering diploma, a forever fact in my line of life. So, what if I wasn’t black? Would I have went into engineering? Would the degree have been such a hurdle because of the multifactorial stressors influencing the obtainment of secondary education?
The Present: Even with all the success I could still end up dying in a jail cell
Funny story, I never used that engineering degree officially. Chuckling from my living room floor I alter my gaze a couple inches to the left to the doctorate of medicine. I’ma Doctor yall. In college I said enough hellos and what are you doings that I realized medicine was where I wanted to be more. I embarked on a new journey after eventually finding a (read: one) minority doctor to help my vision. Why not medicine from the beginning? Well another funny story about exposure and limited minority representation. So note, sometimes it takes non-majority individuals more time to do things because they have to figure it out from scratch. Exhausting, right? I know. Been there done that multiple times. Representation matters for real.
If I hadn’t met the one black doctor would I be interested in medicine? If I wasn’t black would I still be motivated to become a doctor? Would I be more motivated to maintain a lifestyle my parents provided? Dreaming from scratch is difficult sometimes but it makes the journey seem like a magic trick. Medical school was a work of art, Picasso style. Same story as college just more stress, less minorities, and a bunch more standardized tests — my K-12 education didn’t set the greatest foundation for. But remember equal school funding is a joke. Looking back it all seemed like a constant uphill battle, the fighting was exhausting and trying to exist in a community, country, and career that is not the norm or expectation for you takes a toll.
Black bodies keep falling. And every story takes a piece of the community with it. We are not immune. We are humans living in a space not designed to accommodate us for reasons unknown. Forced to displace the pain and hurt for the greater good of my patients only leaves more to unravel on the slow train ride home. It’s only an assassination if the person was important enough to matter, instead it’s just another name. To feel as though rising above your circumstances is not enough. I have often concluded that being a doctor won’t save me from being another black female who dies in a jail cell. Or goes missing with no search team. Privilege has a color quota. Thoughts racing, mind tired, heartbroken; just another day of being a minority in America. What if I wasn’t black? Would my mind feel so exhausted?
And here we are to today. Graduated from medical school. Practicing as a doctor. Living the dream, right? Insert present time living room scene. In addition to exam studying, minority life living, and continued exhaustion in the come up story, residency hit that wall that everyone talks about but doesn’t talk about and I was burning out. And my health, sometimes my physical but mostly my mental health was a rollercoaster. I met no DSM5 criteria but definitely some Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) mixed in there. I am my ancestors’ wildest dream. I am a doctor. And I am a human constantly juggling the residency exhaustion with the much different minority exhaustion. I’ll be honest things were getting messy, my life had eclipse into this moment where years on top of years of minority exhaustion sprinkled with this ambition was tipping over it seemed. The balance was no longer pretty.
The Future: The village mindset and the reality of minority exhaustion
So I just stopped and sat on the living room floor. Got into survival mode. Asked myself a bunch of questions. And realized if I was not black I may not have had this moment. I may not have gone into STEM cause I may not have had such a strong urge to better my circumstances and pursue such a foreign area. I may not have the village mindset, the desire to reach back, to give back, to extend beyond my circumstances for the greater good of my people. I may not have felt the need to get excess exposure because it would have been the norm. More options would have been presented because more resources would have existed. And constantly thinking beyond current circumstances would not have seemed so exhausting. That exhaustion would not have built and layered up all these years. Stacking and stacking with the notion that if they won’t help us we have to help ourselves. And if by other reasons I pursued medicine and was in residency at this moment I would not have both the minority exhaustion and residency exhaustion competing for my little energy and forcing me to stop and sit and think. What if I was not black?
I trust I’d still be a doctor but adversity fuels a different type of motivation. Don’t underestimate the power of the come up. If I was not black I may not have the minority exhaustion and may not have wanted this doctor thing so bad. What if I was not black? We’ll never know will we. But I am here now. Standing in my living room as a physician, a black female doctor. Exhausted but standing for the greater good, the investment, the long term hustle, the passion. Overwhelmed by a catalytic mentality only a journey of perseverance can create. When the village invests, it is a powerful thing.