Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the courage that it takes for a woman—particularly, a high-achieving Black woman—to inhabit her full humanity. Because, after all, that is the goal — to “be”, and to do so while having access to the full scope of what it means to be human. It is indeed a radical act for one to prioritize her self and her well-being above external (and, often, internal) expectations and potential accomplishments.
I know, far more intimately than I would like, how difficult it can be to separate who you are from what you have achieved. And I am so inspired by young women like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, both incredible athletes and brave humans who defied expectations on two of the largest stages in the world in order to protect their physical and mental health. While I am not an Olympian like Simone or Naomi, I have spent a lifetime (un)learning lessons about my entitlement to my own humanity. The excerpt below, from an upcoming travel memoir titled Alfacinha, discusses my experience with disentangling my identity from my accomplishments and celebrates a friendship that created space for me to be fully human.
I had no idea that first day, when I was sitting in the graduate student meeting completely indifferent to my new classmates, that the pretty brunette with the genuine energy and the huge smile would become such an important friend.
I was 25 years old, with a shockingly loud laugh, a curious sense of humor, a quick wit, and confidence to spare, and I had just resigned from my job at a large law firm in L.A. and moved up the coast to Santa Barbara for grad school. It was a move that caused considerable confusion for those on the outside looking in. A move that would eventually lead me through the desert of New Mexico, the red clay of Alabama, the brisk fall of the northeast, and all around the world. Perhaps more importantly, though, this move would ultimately serve as the first bold, brave step toward shedding the expectations accumulated over a lifetime and building new dreams of which I was the sole architect.
For the past several years, people had been telling me that I was a lot to handle, and I was becoming very familiar with the intensifier “too”. Was I loud? If you let them tell it, I was too loud. Was I crazy? Pssh! Too crazy. Too annoying. Too confident. Just too … much. I had been hearing the criticism so frequently that I had even internalized it, and now it was the way that I described myself. Instinctively, and ostensibly as a courtesy, I found myself warning others, “I’m a lot to handle. I’m loud. I’m crazy. Just let me know if I’m ever ‘too much’.” Raquel, that friend with genuine energy and a huge smile, never asked me to shrink myself. Instead, she encouraged me to be even bigger and louder and to take up more space, if that was what I needed. And there was a peculiar freedom in that.
Part of graduate school was learning about linguistics, and an equally important part was learning the language of the space. So instead of saying, “That doesn’t make any sense,” we learned to say, “When you think about it, it sounds quite counterintuitive.” We learned to “problematize”, “contextualize”, and “diachronically situate”. To “optimize”, “operationalize”, and “deconstruct”. I also realized, as we went along, that I could never go wrong if I sprinkled in a Latin word or two. So in one class presentation, the word “place” fell out of my vocabulary, and instead I told the class that the linguistic phenomenon that was the subject of my presentation was the “ideal locus for us to interrogate these questions”. We were really just saying the same thing in a different way, but we played our part and we toed the line, which was of course the “intuitive locus for the optimization of our fully contextualized and diachronically situated dialogic selves”.
Although we had a lot in common, Raquel and I had different strengths. I was supremely confident about schoolwork and career questions, because that had always been my lane. So if Raquel was stressed out about an assignment or a professor or a program requirement, I stepped in to reassure her that everything was going to be fine. In all of our classes together, I taught Raquel my motto for dealing with schoolwork and stress: “I don’t know if this is what they want … but this is what they’re gonna get.” That motto took us all the way to graduation.
I wasn’t always so confident, though. I had zero sense of perspective when it came to making mistakes. For all the talk of “deconstructing”, “contextualizing”, and “diachronically situating” that we were doing in our classes, I had absolutely no perspective on how one decision would ultimately end up being just a blip on the screen in a lifetime that would be defined by a thousand different moments. Anything less than perfection was devastating. It was, to my mind, a moral failing. And because I had no perspective on “falling forward” or on turning mistakes into lessons, I lamented dramatically to Raquel, “What if this ruins me? What if it’s the thing that defines me for the rest of my life?” Where another person might have just dismissed my desperate ramblings, Raquel leaned into what I was feeling and assured me that everything was going to be okay. “It’s okay. It’s done. It’s life. It’s fine.” That was a revolutionary statement. In all the years that I had been living on this earth, Raquel was one of the first people to give me full permission to be human.
I know that probably sounds strange, but, after a lifetime of chasing perfection, I needed someone to explicitly tell me that being human was okay. I had always been a high achiever. I had graduated from high school at 16, as valedictorian and student body president. I was also a National Merit Scholar with a full ride to college. In undergrad, I had completed two majors and two minors in four years and graduated summa cum laude, all while playing on the basketball team, participating in student government, and studying abroad in Spain for a semester. I had taken the LSAT when I was 19, been accepted to 11 law schools, and ended up graduating from one of the top five law schools in the country. I had passed the California bar exam on the first try and snagged a coveted law firm job in downtown L.A. Now that I had pivoted to academia, I could speak five languages. I had visited a dozen countries, and I was on track to complete a master’s and a Ph.D. a year ahead of schedule with a 4.0 GPA. I was “Black Girl Magic”, in the flesh.
The problem with all those stats was that they crafted a narrative of excellence and achievement that didn’t give me much room to be anything other than exceptional. As a result, my self-concept and my self-worth were completely wrapped up in my proximity to perfection. So perfection was the only option, and achievement was the road that would take me there. The ink could barely dry from one accomplishment, before I was already off to the next. In unison, a chorus of internal and external expectations constantly shouted, “Do not miss a STEP!!”
Aligning myself so closely with my accomplishments was like running on a treadmill at full sprint. At first, it was exhilarating. It was how I felt alive. But after a while, I learned that, even when I was exhausted and had nothing left to give, the treadmill never stopped. I never felt like I had done enough. I never felt like it was okay to stop running and catch my breath.
In my pursuit of “perfection”, I was constantly analyzing and reanalyzing every choice and every word. I didn’t focus on what I had done well. Instead, I focused on “what I could have done better”. I told myself that I was doing this in order to hold myself accountable, to some invisible standard that was always with me. So the relationship that I had with myself, with my true self, was never separate from the understanding of who I was expected to be.
I became very skilled at identifying and analyzing where I had fallen short. I was not skilled, however, at reminding myself that my value as a person was not tied to my performance, and I was not skilled at extending myself grace. Many of the people around me saw me through the same lens through which I saw myself. They saw my stats and my resume. They saw what I had accomplished, and it seemed like that was all I was ever allowed to be—perfect, not flawed. Strong, not weak. Running, not resting. In that flurry of expectations, the treadmill kept going.
My friendship with Raquel was one of the first to give me permission to step away from the impossibly high standard that I was always measuring myself against. Our friendship allowed me to be a complete person, with different layers. It allowed me to be both a high achiever and a flawed human being, and it taught me that my value as a person didn’t change according to which one of the two roles I was inhabiting at the moment.
I became comfortable with the idea of being a person who was not just a page of statistics and accomplishments, with the idea of being a person who had a much more complex story.
My friendship with Raquel allowed me to stop running and to finally catch my breath. Our friendship afforded me, what is for many high-achieving Black women, the peculiar freedom of full humanity.