I find solidarity in Beyonce’s message in Formation. Not just the pride in our Texan roots \m/, but her call to “stay gracious” since “best revenge is your paper”. There has been a lot of backlash, most interesting was the wariness from people who feel Beyonce only represents capitalism. Inherent in these opinions is a stigmatization of minority success and lifestyle that demands certain requirements for it to be palatable. In other words, people have normative ideas about how a minority should behave when they reach high status positions, otherwise they’re evaluated negatively. There is a sense that they must always be supporting their community 100% of the time and not be focused on their own success. However, I argue, this overlooks and minimizes the work and strategic decision making it took to reach that success and influence.
I’ll shift focus from Beyoncé to minorities who are in positions of being on the come up from unprivileged origins as I have encountered criticism of normal everyday minorities who reached success but haven’t graciously given back to the community from which they came. Typically the name given to these individuals is “sell outs”, which suggests that they are considered out-group members instead of representing an advancement of their group.
I will reason through this with my own experience since this strikes home: I come from very poor background, lots of stuff happened in between, and now I find myself with an impossible opportunity that only occurs in feel-good movies, as a student at an Ivy League institution. I’ll be honest, my CV won’t be filled with many (if any) lines showing that I have returned the opportunity to others from my Mexican Houston community (a point I will return to). The beginning of my timeline is fundamental as I had a longer route to pass to reach my current position (relative to others), however just as important was the stuff in between. I was a motivated undocumented Mexican boy with assimilationist dreams, I wanted to drive and have a job and everything that was only available to my American peers. My journey was a passioned fight filled with countless decisions and actions that required me to think about myself and focus on my advancement. Individuals who lack the struggle many minorities face don’t have a clue about the day to day experience of forging your path. Even now, while at Princeton, my undocumented status threatens to destroy everything I have built every two years when my DACA work permit needs renewal (a looming fear in case the next president is republican).
Given that attention and money are both limited resources, there is surely a resource competition between becoming successful and giving back to the community. I chose to advance myself first. Doesn’t mean my community isn’t on my mind, however. It’s about setting myself up so that I’m in a better position to provide help in a larger scope. Much like Beyoncé did. She has set herself up on one of the highest positions in this culture to be able to drop Formation like a bomb on an international scale and continue to be successful and provide aid to her community. The critique that I, or other minorities, are not giving back (whether now or in the future) only serves to shame our sweat-filled path. As one of my favorite commentators on race issues, Kat Blaque, said:
“We can always talk about people who do that. People who don’t speak [out about issues]. To me it’s survival. I think for the longest time I had this idea that I would play the game and then break it up from the inside. But where I am now, I have established myself as someone with certain positions and ideologies. People can take it or leave it.” [Link]
Am I a “sell out” if I play the game while I pull myself out of my oppressed situation? No one would know what my intentions were once I reached a successful platform unless they asked. Same with others, we don’t know what they have planned and, nonetheless, representation in successful positions matters. Most importantly, everyone with similar experiences will choose a different strategy for advancing themselves and their community. Some will play the game, others seek to destroy it. None of these strategies are wrong, they are survival. When it comes to my priorities and values, there is too much to gain (for myself and others) and too much to lose to not engage (and staying conscious while doing so). I, and hopefully others in my position, will continue to “stay gracious” because I also believe the best revenge against a society/judicial system that actively works against your life and success is your success (however you choose to define it).