Last week, I met success—a longtime dream that looks more and more like reality—but along with overwhelming happiness comes a strange inability to understand my role in my own achievement.
I feel, in fact, a weird mixture of embarrassment and shame about the entire thing. It makes me painfully self-conscious to share my news to anyone but close family and friends, and accepting congratulations becomes even more excruciating.
And I blame—in part, anyway—David Brooks.
Brooks, a political and cultural commentator and New York Times columnist, has a keen interest in humility. In his 2015 book “The Road to Character,” Brooks examines the virtues of various influential people of the past—among them Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Eliot, Bayard Rustin, and Augustine—to cobble together lessons on character and offer readers a clear path to acquiring a good one.
Many of Brooks’ profiles are united by the virtue of humility. Humility, it seems, is the lynchpin to being solidly moral.
“The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring,” Brooks writes in the first chapter of his book. “Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry.”
Brooks also discusses the imperative to divert our recent focus from what he calls the “Big Me”; he contends that “we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.”
The key to not becoming a self-promoting, egotistical monster seems to be separating the self from success; it’s what humility essentially means. The key thing to consider here, though, is privilege, and it’s strikingly absent from Brooks’ narrative of humility and morality.
As someone whose privilege is so striking and important, I agree with Brooks. It’s important to be humble, to immediately tear myself from my success and place any achievement into a larger context of opportunity.
In his Daily Kos essay “Poverty and Privilege: The Consequences of Arrogance over Humility,” PL Thomas echoes this sentiment, writing that “privilege must be tempered with humility, an awareness that anyone’s privilege may have come at someone else’s expense, through no merit on the part of the privileged and no fault of the other who remains unseen beneath the myth of meritocracy.”
So let me take Thomas’ advice and practice separating self and success—considering context. It’s almost embarrassingly easy to do: I was born in the United States to a white family. There were books around me always; my parents read to me. I grew up speaking English. I didn’t have to financially support my family in high school. I went to a good private school and received individual attention from teachers. I enrolled at the University and took advantage of its resources.
For me, humility makes sense and is in fact necessary. To be humble is to recognize privilege; to check privilege is to be constantly humbled. I feel uncomfortable with my success precisely because of the practice of humility: the practice of listing and bringing to the forefront external determinants of success.
So if it’s easy to see how those of us who are privileged fit into our successes—we don’t, really—how are those who don’t enjoy privilege present in achievement? Where does the imperative—the moral imperative—to be humble leave people who don’t have the privilege of attributing their success to privilege? Where does it leave people who succeed despite their identities as opposed to because of them?
Perhaps the most striking illustration of humility’s shortcomings appear in criticisms of black artists for apparently demonstrating a lack of humility.
Take braggadocio, a style of bragging or boasting rap that often involves the struggles of being young and black in America. Bragging, or boasting, becomes an act of not naïve arrogance but resilience, of revolutionary audacity and temerity and radical defiance that society has long denied marginalized people. At the same time, these artists often come under attack for self-involvement.
“How many conversations have you had with people where they refer to a confident black man as ‘self-important’ while a white man gets an adjective like ‘brash’?” asks Martin Douglas in his Pitchfork op-ed, “On Kanye West and Black Humility.” “What will it take for people to stop conflating confidence with arrogance when it comes to black men?”
In the case of black performers like West, Douglas argues, the language around success changes; ironically, “while a white man,” who has the biggest cause to be humble, is called “brash,” “a black man,” who has less privilege—racial, at least, which is a big one—to explain success, is deemed “self-important.” This is not to say that all oppressed people brag, or that oppressed people—an impossibly general term—are more or less humble than those who are more privileged; braggadocio rap is simply one example in which boasting takes on a different meaning for people with different amounts of privilege.
And it doesn’t end with West. The Internet is filled with articles like Tom Hawking’s Flavorwire piece “Why ‘Beyoncé’ Makes Me Want to Die,” which accuses the performer of “narcissism,” “materialism,” and “arrogance,” setting up the singer as a criminal for having the nerve to be anything but humble. At the same time, as Martin Douglas notes, when white performers also fail to express humility, they are celebrated.
Although humility often emerges as a double standard, maybe the point isn’t that we should abandon Brooks’ plea for quieting the Big Me all together. Maybe the point is that we should continue to think about the place of any self in any success. That place is different for everyone, but contextualizing achievement can be empowering. When we leave the self out of victory, we see ourselves as participating in a larger, more profound narrative of privilege and oppression, and that engages us more thoroughly with other people’s experiences. And that in turn puts us in meaningful conversation with the whole world.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.