When There Is Only Room For One At The Top

Updated: Mar 11

Mariam H. and Irisa R.

Do you remember that time when the two top female rappers, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, got into a physical fight in the middle of a party, and it was reported that they were feuding over who was the ‘Queen of Rap’? The Sparknotes version is that there was an airborne shoe and lots of chaos. When you first heard the story, did you laugh? Because the entertainment world is filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of mediocre male rappers, yet when the only two well-known female rappers got ahead, they were eventually and inevitably violently pitted against each other for this one mythical spot atop a throne.


The women themselves, we were all told, seemed to be driven by the idea that for one of them to succeed, the other needed to fail. We recall speaking to some friends when it happened, who admitted that without realising, they would always compete with the other women in their classes. Although the ‘beef’ between Cardi B v Nicki Minaj cannot be used to analyse the dynamics that exist between women in professional spaces, it does point to a real issue - we are taught to believe that there is only one spot and we have to fight each other for it.


WHY IS EVERYTHING THE HUNGER GAMES?


In her essay, ‘Cinderella's Stepsisters’, award-winning author Toni Morrison coined the term “emotional and professional violence”. It refers to members of historically marginalised communities actively or passively ignoring the needs of people that look like them, in order to realise their own ambitions and aspirations, even if it comes at the expense of their own peers.


In the workplace it can look like a member of a marginalised community being kinder to certain colleagues depending on whether they see them as a threat because of their proximity to them, or making sure they’re the most liked out of all the people that look like them. It can even be subconsciously fighting to be the only one. It can look like New Girl stars Damon Wayans Jr and Lamorne Morris being asked which one would have to leave the show, because it would be unheard of to have two Black characters on one popular sitcom.


Like most social phenomena, this isn’t just a random occurrence. The best way to understand this pattern of behaviour is through the lens of the model minority myth. At its core, the theory pits minority groups, specifically those of East or South Asian descent, against members of their own community and other minority groups. The myth’s negative consequences come from its dominating narrative that to succeed, you must be better than the people who look like you and that you must be the best in any room.


This translates in classrooms too. A research study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Seattle Pacific University found that Asian students are less likely to ask for help from their peers, friends or families. This aversion to ask for help, can mean that later on in the workplace, they are more likely to compete with their colleagues rather than collaborate with them.


A ‘TOKEN’ CHARACTER ISN’T GOING TO CUT IT


The catch is that once you reach this mythical peak, where there is endless opportunity and nothing in your way, well, then comes the responsibility of being the only very (un)lucky Asian, Brown or Black person in the room. So with diversity becoming a commodity, the ‘token’ has truly become the staple. The token exists in TV shows, where we have all seen the throwaway side - kick Asian, Black or Brown characters that are just palatable enough for the everyday viewer. This concept also extends to both political and professional spaces, where when one person from a minority group is given a platform, they are then forced into the position of being the mouthpiece for their entire community.


For example, after Julia Gillard was effectively usurped (how Shakespearean) the articles written about her were riddled with comments about how her time as Prime Minister proved that women could never be leaders. Or when Barack Obama became President, it was touted that racism in America was dead and that Black people were on top, and the frustration that during his presidency there was little improvement for Black communities was felt tenfold.


Recently, when Kamala Harris was elected as Vice President of the US, it was (and still is) stressed by every outlet that she is the first VP of both Indian and African American descent- but Kamala, throughout her long career, has partaken in pushing and upholding many policies that directly hurt those same communities. One person cannot represent the interests of so many minority groups; for that to occur there would need to be hundreds of people who represent the diverse, and varied interests of all members of a community. Just like our own Mehreen Faruqi cannot be the start and end of representing the interests of all Muslims in Australia.


Unlike any and all of their white counterparts, every one of the people listed above were burdened with the responsibility of speaking for their entire community, and when they failed in this massive task, it was then painted as a shortfall of the entire group that they were representing.


WHAT ARE THE TAKEAWAYS ?


There is an issue with the term ‘minorities’ that operates on the understanding that we are ‘the other’ and that whiteness is the norm. In situating ourselves apart from everyone else, it can start to look like we are the special edition and that we are only acceptable in small quantities. It's like playing a game of musical chairs and fighting over the few remaining seats, while not noticing or recognising that there is a stadium filled with chairs.


We need to start with self awareness- who do we see as competition in both private and public spaces, and why them? Do we tend to compete with the people that look most like us? Do we believe that there can only be one space for people that look like us, and in order to have it, that we need to fight others for it? If any of these questions seems completely left of field to you, then just enjoy your day, because you’ve successfully unlearned and swerved the internalised competitiveness that comes with the model minority myth. If they’re hitting a little too close to home however, like they inevitably would for many of us, it’s time to do that unlearning.


Zendaya, a young African American actress in Hollywood, addressed this issue when she said, “instead of going to the casting call that asks for Black women, I go to the casting calls that ask for White women.” So let’s take a page from her book and start showing up for ourselves in places and for positions that aren't asking for us, but need us.

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