BE AMAZING. Barnard College Legacy Graduation Reception Keynote Remarks, as delivered May 2, 2012

Anita Hill.  Valerie Jarrett.  President Barack Obama.  Let’s be real…. OPRAH.  Over the past few days I’ve been feeling a little pressure…. just thinking about the caliber of speakers who have visited, or will soon visit our campus this year…. and knowing that some of you might therefore be, perhaps a little less excited to hear from someone who is slightly less famous, just a little less powerful…. thinking of this phenomenal group and considering your expectations has made me wonder truly what I might be able to share with you tonight that these exceptional leaders have not, or will not.

Then it hit me.  Yes…. they are powerful…, they are famous…, and get this, they are all people, mostly women, of color.  Whoa.  But none of them, not a one…. has what I have and you are about to attain, a BARNARD COLLEGE degree…. that sometimes seemingly elusive piece of paper, for which you have worked so hard over the past four years…. and which is your passport into a sisterhood of highly motivated, deeply passionate and often times extremely opinionated women…. a special group of service oriented women leaders (in, and out, of the home) who are some of the most visible, accomplished and distinguished women in their professions, their immediate communities, and indeed increasingly, the world.

My heartfelt congratulations to each and every one of you on what you have achieved and are about to achieve.  Right now is your moment, right now, is your time.  You have fought the good fight, you have kept the faith…. and as a result, very soon, you will finish this race.  

And so I am truly honored to be here with you tonight–to have this singular opportunity to toast and celebrate with you.

I am honored, but also conflicted.  Because in thinking about what to say tonight, reflecting upon what it means to leave a legacy at Barnard, indeed in the world beyond Barnard…. I realize that in many ways my generation and the generation just ahead of mine, has failed to honor one of the most significant legacies of our time–the legacy of the civil rights movement, it’s values, ideals and achievements…. and in so failing to honor that legacy…. we have, undoubtedly and inadvertently failed many of you in this room.

Treating the successes of the Civil Rights Movement as definite and permanent, failing to see that it’s accomplishments were fragile and in need of further support and care…. too many of us, too soon, celebrated our freedom and the newfound societal recognition of our humanity…. we grew complacent and relaxed…when we graduated with our fancy ivy league degrees and set out to work in places like Goldman and Cravath, Morgan Stanley and McKinsey, when we started earning salaries larger than we might have ever imagined possible–we replaced aspiration with consumption,….we shortsightedly assumed that the seventh day had come and that for us, it was our time to sit back and rest, when instead we should have been investing vigorously in ourselves and our communities with ever greater vigilance and persistence.

I am of course, making a generalization…. there are many of us, myself included, many of my black, brown and yellow peers included, as well as Dean Hinkson and many other administrators and faculty members here tonight…. who’ve not rested, who’ve fought and are fighting hard for continued progress…. And of course we cannot deny the success of our president, Oprah, Indra Nooyi, Condoleeza Rice, or Ursula Burns…. among countless others….

But alas, these successes, where they have occurred and are still occurring, should signal something to each of us here.  It cannot be a mistake, it cannot be an accident or mere coincidence that an Indian woman is leading Pepsi, that a black woman is leading Xerox, that a black man is leading the United States–if we live in a world where it is possible to have a black president, or women of color leading two of the largest, most historic corporations in the world…then why is it that there are also decreasing numbers of people of color, especially women, in law firms, investment houses, consultancies–to say nothing of the almost complete absence of brown, black and yellow people from leadership positions in these institutions—how is that there are not more black, brown and yellow heads of corporations, or corporate directors?  How come there are not more women of color who are engineers and academics? …., How come there are comparably few black, brown and yellow entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders?

I am making a generalization–but the numbers don’t lie.  We could blame racism, but frankly, that’s a cop out…. a convenient excuse and a crutch…. a wholesale shifting of responsibility that should cause our country’s civil rights leaders, who faced physical danger in pursuit of our freedom, to roll in their graves.  It’s too easy to blame our lack of progress on racism–it’s a lot harder to acknowledge that in many ways we have lost our essential, collective sense of struggle and commitment, our necessary optimism, our sense of purpose.  It’s time we regain it.   You may be about to finish this race–but the main events are just ahead.

It’s not going to be easy for you, however.  As you know, probably much better than I, your sense of self worth and identity (those two things that are so essential to true progress) is under constant bombardment and attack…. and from every direction.  We live in a time where it seems everyone and anyone, aided by social media and technology, can say just about any thoughtless, irrational thing they think or are feeling, no matter how bigoted, how misogynist, how foul…. you are not, as I was, protected by the veil of political correctness, inauthentic though that might have been…, you are instead, repeatedly and regularly exposed to the basest thoughts about your race, your gender, your sexuality, your identity.  We don’t have to look much further than our own university campus, to recall the vitriol unleashed by some, when the White House picked Barnard. 

And if it’s not social media…it’s traditional media and popular culture that seek to undermine your sense of self worth…my generation has not had to contend with, in the same way, many of the insidious cultural harms you and your peers have had to endure…we grew up in the Cosby era, inundated with positive, wholesome images of black and brown life on popular television (well maybe not so much brown life…)…we were encouraged by RUN DMC to “walk this way” and “stay in school”….we grew up grooving to Michael Jackson, to Stevie Wonder, Prince, Whitney Houston…artists who at the time and notwithstanding their later imperfections, celebrated what it meant to be a person of color in America, the potential within us and the possibility ahead, enhancing our sense of self and our inclusion in society…., the popular messages you grew up with by contrast, have celebrated a misogynist, hyper-sexualized, genuinely degrading notion of yellow, black and brown womanhood, with little to no positive images of women of color projected or promoted in popular television and cinema.  My generation, in choosing to promote, sponsor and consume such messages, bears some responsibility for this.

And to make matters even worse, the older generations, the earliest beneficiaries of Civil Rights gains, seemingly take pleasure in condemning the lot of you, shaking our heads and criticizing you routinely as shiftless, lazy…. unimaginative even…. how many times have you heard someone say to or about you: those young kids today, they just don’t get it.  It should be easy for them, life is so much better now…they’re disrespectful, always late, they are never prepared…, It was harder for us.  [We old folks have not, as a group, been particularly good at grooming or supporting you.]

And while it is true that some of you, sometimes, have a loose relationship with time or responsibility, when the old folks condemn you, we fail to recognize that what might seem like common sense to us, is actually learned behavior…and that we have an obligation therefore, to educate, train, enlighten and yes…mentor you (you, of course, have the concomitant obligation to seek out education and mentorship). 

We fail to note our own hypocrisy in dishonoring the legacy of the freedom fighters and we fail, perhaps most importantly to recognize the extent to which your lives are, in so many ways harder than ours, how we have allowed things to slip backwards, how we have not been the guardians or stewards of additional progress, how we have run away from realizing, acknowledging and discussing the extent to which this constant assault on your racial and sexual identity has resulted potentially in a very deep, sometimes delimiting, if not debilitating, psychological burden.  And because we have, as a community, too often been afraid of acknowledging and discussing these things, of acknowledging our understandable anger and frustration…. we have pushed these wounds to a deep place within our psyche, allowing them to fester, unaddressed, letting them become unfortunate habits of mind and spirit that hold us back, jeopardizing our progress and prosperity.

I think that, without us having previously said it explicitly this evening, that that’s why occasions like this, where we can shed, temporarily, the burdens of our otherness, are so incredibly important…. this gives us a moment to pause, to reflect, to celebrate with each other what we have actually achieved.  

But in acknowledging the importance of receptions like this—a reception, which in many respects symbolizes the extent to which we have moved backwards as a society, very far away from Dr. King’s hopeful dream, I have a favor to ask of each of you…do not give in, do not give up, do not settle for excluding yourselves from society and the world, honor the legacy better than the generations before you have….let’s celebrate ourselves, sure, but let’s also avoid perpetuating the habits of mind and spirit that could undermine our potential, and our broader success in society.

The failings I’ve described, and the typically unacknowledged, unmentionable psychological burdens we carry, are not in any way an excuse for those of you here to do anything less than achieve the extraordinary…THIS, is your Legacy…. this is not an opportunity to shift blame or to refuse responsibility for our futures.  Rather—it is very much a call to action… a call to think about and pursue our truest legacy—to fulfill our obligation to the world around us…

I note these things to remind us that we cannot and should not participate in the denigration of our humanity or dignity, by giving into any feelings of self doubt, by engaging in any habit of mind that would undermine our human potential and capacity.  Because a society cannot prosper—it will not prosper, so long as there is any component of that society that allows itself the luxury of nourishing whatever fears or insecurities it has, pulling away, disengaging.  We know that progress is essential…. we know that progress is possible—we know also though, that any form of reticence would only serve to undermine progress.  Therefore we must be relentless in the pursuit and expression of our individual and collective potential.  There can be no greater offense than the staunch refusal to be the person whom you were meant to be, to fail to achieve your innate potential, to refuse to pursue your imagination.  We must be persistent in rising above our individual pains, hurts and fears…because our families need us…., our community needs us…., the world…needs us.  Ladies, we’ve got serious work to do.

There is something each of you should know.  I believe in you.  Every single trustee, administrator and faculty member at this college…. believes in you.  You are our reason for being, the reason we do what we do…. there is not one of you here who is not capable of achieving what I’ve achieved in my own life, and hopefully, so much more.  After all, you are Barnard Women.

And as you enter into the world, conscious of your legacy and your potential, conscious of the needs of our families, our communities and the world….adopt, if you will, some these habits of mind, disciplines and perspectives that have been essential in my own path:

  • Never lose hope…never lose your sense of optimism or the possible.  Hope is the grease of progress and prosperity…. it is the value we draw upon and need to continue to move forward….hope is what causes us to pursue the seemingly impossible.  We move nowhere, and change nothing without hope.
  • Allow yourselves to be creative and non-linear in your approach.  Following extant recipes does not solve problems—it leads to the same result over and over again, which is not to say, progress.  Plus, creativity is a distinctly human and joyful capacity, to deny yourself your creativity, is to therefor deny your humanity and a lot of joy.
  • Be relentless in your refusal to allow others to define you. 
  • Compete… and participate fully in your lives.  Competing means engaging, making yourself, your idea, your business, better….not relishing the failure of others, but doing everything you can to improve yourself to affect the outcome you desire, whatever that might be.  As a society, we often shy from the true hard, work of competition, and so long as we do so, we cannot expect progress.
  • Help others. Previous generations have made the mistake of thinking there was space for only one black person, one brown person, one yellow person, one woman.  It’s just not true.  Success will only be found in weaving an extraordinary web of support, so that if we fall, we can bounce back up again… and that as we achieve, we’ll have company at the top.  There is space for each of us and indeed, each of us are needed.
  • Serve others, love passionately…and allow yourselves to be loved.
  • Finally, never, ever forget, that each and every one of you is amazing.  Live your potential… Be Amazing.

Barnard women, as your college careers wind down and you brace yourselves for the wonder and opportunity in the world beyond…. I urge you to slow it down these next few days…. take a break from the flurry of exams and papers, and stroll slowly through campus, remembering and reflecting on the girls you were when you arrived four years ago…. and recognizing the women you’ve become…. retrace your journey of self discovery, noting how this place, your studies and friendships have nurtured and shaped you.  I urge you to think of what you’ve achieved, how you’ve grown, who you’ve become, what you’ve accomplished—and I hope you will use that as fuel as you move forward, into the world.  

Congratulations….and stay in touch!





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