IX: The Privilege of Performance Anxiety

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Riding on a crowded Lexington Avenue Subway right before Obama’s overseas trip, I overheard the two middle-aged black guys standing next to me, their leather briefcases tucked between their suit pants on the train floor as they rode uptown.

“Man, Barack better be careful over there! One misstep and McCain’ll be all over him like white on rice,” the taller one said.

“You know they’re just waiting for that. He says one thing wrong, it’ll be back to why Black people better stick to domestic issues. Can’t handle those foreign countries,” the shorter one with the purple silk tie replied.

“Yeah, you know how it is. Obama mess up once, then it’s all about what we can’t do in the first place…You just gotta’ worry for the brother…”

Hmm. Sure, Barack Obama has things to learn about foreign policy. After all, he was a state legislator just a few years back. Can’t know what you haven’t had the opportunity to learn, can you? But these guys were talking about something else, something about learning and mistakes and burdens that as a white man I knew I had never experienced.

They got me thinking about my first encounter with a foreign land, when I went away to college and found out that I didn’t know how to write. Talk about culture shock! Hey, I’d had solid A’s and only a few B’s in high school English, I’d memorized what a gerund was, and I once wrote a 14-page book report on “The Hardy Boys” in 6th grade that got me an “A++”! And yet there it was, “D-,” over and over, more red lines on my essays than I’d written.

The professor, the scariest academic I ever met, a man by the name of Dr. William Whyte Watt, called me into his office to have a talk. (Actually, it wasn’t a ‘talk’ because, beyond ‘yessir,’ I never opened my mouth.) . Professor Watt, who seemed to yell rather than lecture about Shakespeare to 30 terrified freshmen three times a week, was surprisingly kind in his oak-paneled office. Pulling a thin book from underneath a pile of test papers, he handed it to me. “Just because you come up with a nice phrase once in a while doesn’t mean you can right, Mr. Burghardt! Read Strunk and White! Better yet, make it your writing bible! I expect to see improvement on the next essay. No more dangling participles!”

Leaving his office, I was a mess. First, Dr. Watt scared me to death. He was brilliant, a Ph.D., author of the 800-page text we were laboring though, smarter than I’d ever be. Second, I was demoralized. All those A’s in high school, and I was still a bad writer? Third, I was overwhelmed. I was taking five courses and not doing very well with any of them. I had been compensating for a lack of study skills by working harder, staying up all night to read and re-read what everyone around me was doing in half the time. Where the hell was I going to get more time to read a book by two guys who sounded more like a small accounting firm than skilled writers who knew how to help a guy like me?

A guy like me. Looking back at that moment and the Everest of moments that grew up around me over the next two months, I was miserable: the more I studied, the dumber I got; the dumber I got, the less I could concentrate; the less I concentrated, the worse my performance became. Finally, with the help of a good friend, Eric Kimmel, I began to get it: cut out the flowery crap, use a period after one idea, when in doubt, leave it out. ‘Ole Dr. Watt almost smiled at me when he turned back my last essay, a solid “B+.”

That success took hard work, overcoming performance anxiety, and feeling sorry for myself. Never once did anyone suggest, imply, or infer—and thus of course, nor did I even remotely think-- that whether or not I succeeded in learning how to write was also a measure of the capabilities of other young white guys like me. My struggle to write was my struggle, and believe me, that was hard enough. I didn’t know it then, but one of the greatest privileges I have had as a white man is to have always been allowed to think that my performance, for good or ill, was basically about me. Sure, occasionally I had teachers who were unfair because of my mouth, or bosses who treated me poorly because of my politics. That still was between them and me. There was no burden knowing that how I was being judged might affect others.

Over the years, I learned from friends of different races (as well as women) that they were raised to be aware that the double standards on performance were in part about being judged as a monolithic group, and to live with the double whammy that if successful, perhaps they were the individual exception: hey, you’re different!. If they failed, it was a collective failure: what else can you expect from them?

Reflecting on that Everest of anxiety as a freshman, I doubt that I would have overcome my performance problems if another rock had been strewn across my path. Whether writing a two-page essay on Hamlet’s ghost or getting first-hand exposure to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a person has enough to handle without being burdened by responsibilities imposed by one race or gender on to another. Whatever he has to learn, may Barack Obama have the privilege of my performance anxiety to help him through.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on August 18, 2008 9:00 AM.

VIII: Searching for the Big Piece of Chicken was the previous entry in this blog.

Speaking Our Truths is the next entry in this blog.

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