On Being First

Jahne Brown
5 min readOct 7, 2019

I want to start by saying thank you so much to all of you for coming to and supporting this convocation. I also want to say thank you to the Organization of Black Students and the African Caribbean Students Association for putting this together. It is really an honor to be one of the keynotes at the first Black Convocation ever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be “first” lately. In May, I was elected to be UChicago’s first Black woman student body President and the first woman student body President more generally in several decades, maybe even longer than that.

That accomplishment may sound extraordinary, but you all and me are actually very similar. While you’re here, you will also push the envelope, be very exceptional, and often be the only and the first Black person in the room. By this point in your education I am definitely not telling you anything new. You have been the odd one out before. You have felt the pressure and you know how hard it is to accomplish major goals seemingly by yourself. As Black people at PWIs we talk about these difficulties a lot. So as my welcome to you, I want to discuss something we don’t talk about as much that is just as important. I want to talk not about how our exceptionalism impacts us, but how it impacts others.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander talked a little about this relationship by discussing another very famous first — President Barack Obama. She wrote, “Many will wonder how a nation that just elected its first black President could possibly have a racial caste system. But as discussed in chapter 6 [of my book], there is no inconsistency whatsoever between the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land and the existence of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. The current system of control depends on black exceptionalism it is not disproved or undermined by it.”

This may seem very unintuitive to you. It may seem crazy to you that Black people accomplishing incredible things is somehow a tool of White Supremacy. In fact, it is a common talking point that Black exceptionalism does the opposite. We’re told all the time that if we can just get a black person to the top of this or that position or in this or that room things will get much better for all of us. You may have heard some of this same language being used about you. You may have heard that your acceptance into an elite school like this one was proof that the racial oppressive system in the United States is dwindling away. You may have heard that your success is proof that if other Black people just work hard enough they can make it to where we are too. You may even believe this.

The truth is though, that there have been a small group of Black people in privileged positions for a long time. Even at our most oppressive times in US history, a few extremely exceptional and lucky Black people were permitted to exist at the top. Malcom X actually was a lot like me — Student Body President of his notedly racist, majority white school. I’d like you to consider that making exceptions for a few exemplary Black people is an essential and deliberate strategy for maintaining a system that does not work for most Black people. When Black people like us do very well, the vast majority of other Black people are vilified for their circumstances, blamed for their experience, and compared to anyone who did manage to make it against all the odds.

The worst part of this system is that we are not neutral actors in it. At our worst, we really believe this narrative. We really believe that we are smarter, more hardworking, and more deserving of our privileges. I want you to know that this is not true. I want you to know that I can think of more than one Black girl who would’ve certainly beat me for President had they been given the chance to go here.

At our most common state, we aren’t hateful, but we do nothing at all. In this case we let ourselves believe that climbing the hierarchy is a community win. We let ourselves think that our success will just trickle down to every other Black person. We think that being at the top is enough for real change. I want you to know that this is certainly not true either.

I want you to take this reality seriously in your time here. We talk often about how being a a Black student at this institution is certainly a privilege and often a burden, but I want you to take away that being here is also a responsibility. When you inevitably reach your goals here on campus, you have a responsibility to not let your position be a tool of white supremacy. You being Black and in power, you being black and in a white space, you and me being Black and first — is important but it is not enough.

So what does it take then — for exceptionalism to bring radical, imaginative change? On the basic level, it takes us using our positions to amplify the voices of Black people who aren’t here. It takes us challenging the notion that somehow, we worked harder or we are smarter than other Black people who did not make it to where we did. It takes recognizing Black people in powerful positions CAN uphold white supremacy and do all the time. It takes pledging that we will support radical and bold initiatives that challenge a capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist status quo that sometimes benefits a select few of us — but never works for our community in general.

I recognize that this is not an easy responsibility. It requires a level of self-accountability and humility that I’m still developing myself. But I am hoping that in my position I will follow the advice that I am giving you. I am your first Black woman Student Body President in many years yes, but that’s not the accomplishment I am most proud of. I know that on its own — being a Black woman at the top is hardly radical. What I’m most proud of is how I’ve used my position to do things that help other people get to where I am. I’m most proud of when I founded the emergency fund, when I’ve support undocumented students, and when I’ve helped offer mental health crisis trainings. What I am most proud of is when I have shaken the table, challenged the status quo and brought others into the fold. I am most proud of when I have been lead by sincere responsibility to others, to my community, and to Black people just a few blocks from here who deserve the same resources that I have had.

I trust and believe that you all will also take this responsibility seriously too. My dream for you is to look in the mirror every day and know that you are exceptional and so is our entire community. I am already so proud and excited to see how you use your exceptional opportunities to make big change. Know that I am here to support you every step of the way.