“One can fall into the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
- Gerald Chertavian
One day at lunch several years ago, I ran into a more senior colleague in the parking garage. She had always been friendly with me and despite our ethnic and other differences, we had forged a professional friendship. We stopped for a moment to chat. She asked if anything was new with me and I shared with her some news of a work assignment I had received.
“That might be a bit tricky for you,” my colleague said in the kindest voice she could muster. I suppose she meant to convey concern.
I didn’t respond.
“Not because you’re not smart or anything,” she quickly tried to explain. “It’s just that you need to focus on other things you normally do and shouldn’t worry about this type of issue. It’s really complicated. You know? It’s also kind of a big deal. I wouldn’t want you to be stressed while trying to handle this issue properly. Our supervisor must not have realized that he was assigning it to you. I think you should check with him to make sure that he meant for it to be assigned to you. You know, just to make sure that it wasn’t a mistake.”
I was quiet as I pondered how to respond.
While keeping a smile plastered on my face, I eventually said, “Thanks so much for your concern. I’ll look into it.” With that, I ended the conversation.
As I walked away, I thought about what had just transpired. Admittedly, when I initially received the assignment, it did take me by surprise. Not because I thought I was incapable of doing it, but because it was outside of the scope of the work that I generally did.
However, I was taken aback by this particular colleague’s overblown expression of concern. She thought I lacked the chops to competently handle this assignment.
I wondered to myself: did this colleague genuinely think that she was protecting me from my inevitable fate of failure or was there some other more nefarious intent behind her words? Did she actually want to undermine me and make me second guess my ability for some other reason?
Both prospects were troubling.
If her goal was to “protect me” from what she saw as my inevitable failure by telling me that I was not suited to handle an issue because it was “really complicated,” then she had a lot to learn about the impact of low expectations.
If her goal was to get me to abandon the assignment in a fit of despair so that it would free it up for someone else to take it, like her, that was even worse.
Either way, I had no intention of being complicit in her scheme. Her mission would not be accomplished.
I am no stranger to people underestimating my abilities and if you’re reading this blog, I suspect that you are not either. Being underestimated is hurtful, but we have to choose how to respond when it happens. My colleague’s words did initially sting. I had come to respect her opinion as a more senior colleague. It was quite sobering for her to question my ability to handle an assignment. But after I digested the bitter pill of the reality of my colleague’s true opinion of my abilities, I remembered all of the people who had gone before me who had not only been underestimated, but actually restricted from participating in certain civic, professional and social opportunities. People like our World Changer of the Month for September, Geraldine Lawhorn, who was a deafblind singer, pianist, author and teacher, as well as the first deafblind African American individual to earn a college degree in the United States. Given that she was a Black woman with two disabilities born in 1916, I can only imagine how many times she was told that people like her could not achieve, yet, she persisted.
The memory of Geraldine Lawhorn and so many other women who had gone before me and had accomplished so much despite encountering so much more opposition than I had, reminded me that not only could I forge ahead with that particular assignment, but that I had a responsibility to those who would come after me to do so.
We must keep forging ahead.If we don’t blaze trails for ourselves, who will?You never know who you will inspire
 It is well-established that expectations matter and that expectations forecast outcomes. Studies show that teachers’ expectations of students influence outcomes by becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. (See https://www.educationnext.org/power-of-teacher-expectations-racial-bias-hinders-student-attainment/.)