Language matters. Words matter. There is a difference between would and could, happy and content, cannot and will not. Words have power; they reflect our values and beliefs. The language we use has the power to reframe issues, rewrite stories, and change narratives.
There are many words I take issue with — hate, favorite, ambitious, impactful, and the list goes on. The most recent addition to this list is success. I find that success is narrowly defined by a particular group of people, and that definition is impressed upon all people, including communities of color. It doesn’t stand to reason that a standard definition can be applied unilaterally because it does not consider and honor one’s lived experience, one’s history.
I say this from experience. As an immigrant and an ESL student fumbling through our education system not designed for someone like me, success meant assimilating, shedding my skin and identity, and acquiring whiteness. That’s the crux — success assumes that results of the dominant white group are the norm; that’s the reference point with which we make sense and meaning. We center whiteness as we define success. That is so problematic.
As I venture into the independent consulting space, I am focused on work that promotes thriving for communities of color and personal fulfillment for individuals as defined by the community or person in question. Only I know the progress I made when I was a 10-year-old ESL student. While I might not have been successful at the end of the school year as defined by the academic progress indicators, I knew that I was able to breathe a bit easier, make a little more sense of my new surroundings. This felt more life sustaining than anything else.
As communities of color reclaim their power and elevate their voices, I strive to reframe and redefine success, so the definition is inclusive of one’s lived experience and history; so that success isn’t centering white dominant group as the reference point; so that success considers notions of thriving, a meaningful life, and personal fulfillment. These are the concepts that are owned by communities and individuals.