I am not the idiot in the room.
I can guarantee that if you walked into a room of people, you’re not gonna look at me and think to yourself, she is the smartest person in this room. In fact, after having already taken in the fact that I’m a woman, you might realise that I’m also a woman of colour and then think that maybe I’m actually the least smart person in the room. And yeah, maybe you’re not gonna say that to my face or completely disregard or disrespect me because of that fleeting thought, but still, you’ll think it. And that’s what I’m getting at.
“So, what? You shouldn’t care what people think of you”.
And true – in an ideal world, isolating people’s judgments as their own problem is great and I love trying to live in that universe too. But the problem is, people’s thoughts, even as small and sometimes subconscious as one like this, are not an isolated problem. They represent the collective mindset that we have all inherited through an upbringing in a society that is built on a history that has always valued men over women, whiteness over other. Culture is adaptive, and it is learnt, and so we are not immune to the influence of past values. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t help it.
I’ve been an over-achiever since I can remember – but that’s only because in that same amount of time, I’ve also known that people would not assume I’m intelligent. Don’t ask me how I learnt all these negative generalisations, all I know is that I sure did internalise them and I therefore despised all of the stereotypes of a person who looked me (uneducated, poor, criminal – and that’s not even the female ones!). So, I made sure I did everything I could to defy them. It affected the way I spoke, the way I carried myself, the way I approached school. I wanted to learn and become an ‘intelligent person’ and I had the added motivation to do so (however toxic that was). See, this stereotype started a chain reaction for my work ethic and the kinds of aspirations I had, which has completely lead me to my life today.
But the thing is, if I can be influenced positively by this stereotype, it is just as easy for someone to be negatively influenced by it – thus shaping their life in a way completely different to mine.
When I was in year 11, I received a couple of academic awards at our school Senior Prizegiving. It was an achievement, but at that point, I had worked to establish it also as an expectation people had of me. A damn exhausting expectation, mind you, but one that gave me the satisfaction that people thought I was smart. But afterwards, a netball teammate of mine in the year above me – who is also a female of colour – came up to congratulate me, adding, “I didn’t know you were smart.” I remember it bugging me because it meant that people who weren’t in my classrooms didn’t know I was intellectually capable (…poor girl). But years later, I think about how an internalised assumption like this can in fact be so much more harmful than you’d think.
Because the truth is, when we think of someone who is of inferior intelligence, we are also making other assumptions about them – assumptions that they are also lazy, incapable, unreliable, unworthy. It’s a patchwork blanket of judgement that has the power to completely undermine one’s sense of worth. It can cause someone to work desperately to flip that narrative, asserting their knowledge and working harder than everyone to make sure that they are held in the same esteem as their white male counterparts (a pressure that adds unnecessary stress and anxiety) – as was the case for me. But it can just as easily discourage someone else from pursuing their potential, or even worse, distort the way they view and value themselves – which can greatly affect one’s ability to live a happy life.
I’m not asking for you to feel sorry or guilty about this being my experience. This is simply about understanding the way thoughts, especially collective cultural stereotypes, shape and affect real lives. It’s about trying to unlearn our prejudices and assumptions about women, about brown people, about brown women. It’s about accepting without question that someone like me could be smarter than you. Because if you’re really smart, you’ll realise that being open to that type of growth is something really worth admiring.
I am not the idiot in the room.
I recommend to read into why idiot is ablest in a historic sense and the implications of its contemporary use since it’s important we all take the time to understand the ways in which minor actions and choices can be harmful to other people.