Students sing while the Ocean of Soul plays along to the Tiger alma mater song outside of Sawyer Auditorium on TSU’s Founders Day, 2018.
Photo Credit: Earlie Hudnall, Jr.
Darryl McNary, II and Dumerrick Ross
Mr. McNary, II is a senior Political Science student.
Mr. Ross is a junior Communications student.
Following the celebration of 71 years as a historically Black university located in the heart of the American south, Texas Southern University unveiled its most recent marketing strategy: #BeTheException. However, this hashtag did not resonate well with student thought leaders on campus as the message suggests that students should distinguish themselves from the masses of Black people they should always strive to serve. Since the legislative end of chattel slavery, thought leaders of the Black community struggled to define what our individual existence might mean in the context of the American experiment. In this sense, the University’s marketing strategy cannot be separated from its historical relation to W.E.B DuBois’ talented tenth ideology which posited that:
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.”
DuBois furthered, that education in the Black community should be focused on educating the best of the race in hopes that they may lead the masses away from the worst of the race. Being the exception follows this self-hating train of thought which fails to critique the larger system that disenfranchises so many African Americans via inadequate educational resources, underfunded schools, housing discrimination, de facto segregation, job and economic inequality, mass incarceration, state-sanctioned violence, and a myriad of other oppressive ailments that stem from what scholar bell hooks identifies as a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society. The quote “#BeTheException” has no beneficial impact for African Americans because its suggestive language not only disconnects but, alleviates those who have gained access to places of social mobility and educational or economical privilege from the responsibility of fighting and advancing the causes of African Americans who are collectively marginalized as a result of both historical and contemporary forms of structural racism.
Thus, with such a strong emphasis on “Being The Exception”, we see that those who are less privileged are symbolically demoralized and indicted while the societal structures that cause the oppressed to be classified as “The Rule”, and those who are privileged as “The Exception”, are allowed to remain intact without critique. The victims of predatory practices of the nation suddenly become the problems to which the only plausible solution provided is to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” even if one lacks the very boots and straps necessary to complete such tasks. Time and time again when the power structure seeks affirmation for the current function of the system, they round up those that can serve as tokens within the community, better known as boot licking buck dancing negroes or Uncle Tom’s as classified by the Black proletariat and put them front stage and center as human capital that supports their case for why the system in fact works. Those that are “The Exception” are used as props of proof. Socioeconomic privilege is sometimes the reaped reward for being used in the hands of the powerful.
In an era where the spirit of individualism and its capitalistic gospel is preached, we must remain vigilant. Being labeled “The Exception” solidifies the acceptance of well to do Blacks as “Respectable” and worthy of being assimilated into mainstream society. Many well to do Blacks who have obtained a degree of economic and educational privilege that allows them to navigate and minimally divert the direct and myriad abuses and racist assaults that less privileged Blacks who are “The Rule” are the recipients of, often take on a cynical, paternalistic, and demoralizing interaction with the less privileged in their community. No matter the initial intention, this is historically what “Being The Exception” has panned out to be within our community. Which is why Dr. W.E.B. Dubois who coined the talented tenth term later denounced the ideas of being Black and exceptional himself because he finally realized in the United States there was no such thing. Elitism has prevailed in our thinking as educated Black people and has done us a great disservice because, in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society such as the United States, it is always in the best interest of Black people to subscribe to an ethos of communitarianism and not liberal individualism. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoes students’ dissent when he says, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
We have to be sensitive to the quotes, slogans, and words that we choose to employ as a historically Black educational institution. It matters not the intention, in fact, intentions are extremely fluid and expendable when faced with controversy. The very mentioning of a Black populated student body “Being The Exception”, allows us to understand the secret ideology being subscribed to because of the respectable undertone of such phrase. A dog whistle is seldom heard by anyone other than the actual dog being physically tormented. We can use this analogy metaphorically to explain how things that appear to be constructive, are sometimes detrimental to the progress and overall ethos of African Americans in its applicability because of the unique delicateness of our social circumstances here in America. Therefore you and neither am I an “exception” and as long as predatory practices that do not allow all African Americans the ability to access places of social mobility continue, we should completely forsake the employment of this term altogether. Let’s Stand UNITED.