According to philosopher-writer Albert Camus, “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
It is harder for a woman of colour to achieve the same metrics of success as a white man. The very definition of success is built around capitalist and patriarchal ideals: You’re successful if you have a prestigious career, earn a certain amount of money, and command the respect of people who are equally as successful. Women of colour face additional pressures when striving for ‘success,’ to be successful by traditional standards while advocating for social justice. Unfortunately, the two worlds don’t always mix. To be successful, sometimes I feel that I cannot stand up for the things that I believe in.
Injustices are both institutionally sanctioned and perpetuated by people who, though they may not intend to, perpetuate harmful ideas. Institutional inequalities are evident by the disproportionate amount of black men and people of colour incarcerated in the United States and Canada, the fact that people of colour have lower wages and socioeconomic outcomes compared to white people, and in the appalling truth that indigenous women have a homicide rate 4.5 times higher than other women in Canada. These inequalities take place day-to-day, in the workplace, and on university campuses.
The pressure to embody mainstream success while also being an activist often comes from like-minded people who care about righting the structural inequalities of society. But oftentimes activism is, by default, the responsibility of the individual who would most benefit from change. There have been many times where I’ve had to swallow my pride and laugh when mentor figures, friends, and work associates have made comments about my name, or tried to greet me with namaste-esque gestures, or said that the rice and chicken I’m having for lunch is exotic.
I used to be the type of person that would point out every time a movie had an all-white cast, or every time a person used a racial slur in a casual conversation. Initially, I thought that the people I spoke to would stop what they were doing, become suddenly enlightened, and go henceforth as a paragon of social justice. It rarely worked that way: Most people’s reactions ranged from confused, to defensive, to angry. On top of that, I don’t have an infinite amount of energy to patiently explain my point of view and educate every person who says something slightly offensive. Keeping my silence was, I thought, the best way for me to be liked and progress in school or at work. Yet it takes a huge toll to remain silent in these situations because I feel like I am betraying a part of myself. As wonderful as it would be, it’s unrealistic to expect every single woman of colour to act as an activist in their everyday lives. Some women may only care for mainstream success, some only for activism, and some for neither, or for both.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with striving for success; however, as long as that success is externally defined, achieving a certain career entails participation in a society that is resistant to social activism. This is apparent by the fact that most prestigious organizations—whether they are universities, governmental institutions, major media outlets, or Fortune 500 companies—are mostly run and staffed by white men, who, consciously or not, benefit from societal inequalities.
Succeeding in society doesn’t necessarily mean working as an activist to combat such inequities. One does not necessarily need to be a grassroots activist; one need only consider the discussion that followed Beyonce’s “Formation” video to realize the various forms that activism can take. But not everyone has the means, energy, or mental health to be a full-time activist while also achieving mainstream success.
The way in which society is structured means that achieving mainstream success often comes at the cost of working to erase the barriers that prevent other women from achieving the same. While that is a bitter pill to swallow, it’s also the reality of society. We must not demonize the women who choose to work within the system, or do not have the resources or ability to work outside it. Instead, we should work as much as we can to erase these structural inequalities so no one will need to make a choice between mainstream success and social activism.
The tragedy of this situation is that change rarely comes from working within the system, and so activism is the crucial piece in bringing about any societal transformation. I suspect that this is why the pace of change is so slow: In an ideal world, we’d all stop subscribing to notions of mainstream success and build a new, egalitarian system from scratch. But in an imperfect world, one must understand that underprivileged groups are in a unique position: They face pressure to achieve mainstream success within a system that works against them. Their other option is to work towards dismantling the system, but this process is slow, laborious, and is not likely to garner respect within mainstream society.