On Becoming a Woman Who Knows Too Much

Through my education I’d become a trusted source of specialized knowledge. But how could I become the kind of leader who is surrounded with people like me?

Hawa Allan | “Becoming Meta,” from Double Bind: Women on Ambition | April 2017 | 18 minutes (4,661 words)

For many women, the idea of ambition is complicated. Too often when we’re are described as ambitious, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a compliment or a criticism. Often, it’s an all-out accusation. For the essay collection Double Bind, editor Robin Romm tasked 24 women writers with considering their own relationships to ambition. Hawa Allan‘s essay “Becoming Meta” is a meditation on the mantra of I’ll show you that drove her to achieve—first as the only black student in her elementary school’s gifted and talented program, then as a law student, and finally as a law firm associate, hungry for the validation of the “rainmaker” partners whose ranks held no one that looked like her.

***

A noun is the proper denotation for a thing. I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car. The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having; that is, a noun is used instead of a verb. But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced. —Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be?

I have been to a few Madonna concerts in my day, so I may or may not have been straining to get a view around the pillar planted in front of my discount seat when I beheld the superstar kick up into a forearm stand in the middle of the stage. For non-initiates, a “forearm stand” is a yoga pose wherein you balance your entire body on your forearms—lain parallel to one another on the ground, and perpendicular to your upper arms, torso, and legs, all of which are inverted skyward. Imagine turning your body into an “L.” And then imagine Madonna doing the same, except spotlighted before thousands of gaping fans in a large arena.

I hadn’t done any yoga at that point, so the irony of Madonna flaunting her ability in a discipline meant to induce inner awareness was totally lost on me. I just thought it was cool. Precisely, I interpreted Madonna’s forearm stand as a demonstration of power—power that was quiet yet fierce. An expression of power that I immediately decided I wanted to embody. So, not too long thereafter, I went ahead and enrolled in a series of free, introductory lessons at yoga studios across Manhattan and Brooklyn. My modus operandi: take advantage of the introductory classes and skip to another studio (once I no longer had a discounted pass). I was doing this, I told myself at the time, to test out different teachers—to find “the right fit.” In hindsight, I can see that this was just an excuse for being itinerant and cheap.

In any case, I had a fair amount of time to shuttle between boroughs. My schedule was relatively flexible because I was in my second year of law school. Of course, with law school being law school, my schedule was not absolutely flexible, just relatively— relative, that is, to the circulation-cutting constraints of my first year, which is both notoriously and actually all-consuming. I hadn’t seen any of the films you are supposed to watch before your first day of law school, the ones in which some curmudgeon badgers you with cryptic questions and cleverly insults you as you strain to answer them amid the muffled chuckles of your peers. In my experience, all institutional education was rife with illegitimate authority and bullying, so I didn’t see why law school should be especially different. If anything, I was up for the challenge. I was quietly determined.

My quiet determination, mind you, had very little to do with the subject at hand. Of course, I cared deeply about injustice, which, unlike the lofty concept of “justice,” was down to earth and concrete—evident in the myriad of detrimental effects that structural inequality was having on actual human beings who lived in the real world—and, moreover, I thought law school would provide the practical tools to upend injustice. However, as it turned out, I just didn’t care very much about the law. A “tort,” as far as I’d ever known before that first year, referred to a kind of cake. And subjects like constitutional law, which were, to me, less esoteric and more pertinent to eradicating “injustice,” were systematically drained of all intrigue by the sheer volume of material we were expected to retain.

My charge that first year was not to think and critique, but to memorize and regurgitate. There was no time to consider what the law should or might be, only to apprehend what it was, and then dutifully apply it to a hypothetical fact pattern while ignoring my moral compass. Throughout this experience, I fully grasped the meaning of that saying about the unpleasantness of sausage factories. “Justice” was no longer an abstract concept. “Justice” was sausage. “Justice sausage,” moreover, was oft composed of the dismembered carcasses of injustice; but once we students arduously cranked it through this elaborate machine, we were too exhausted by the process to question the fairness of the outcome. (Burning crosses, for example, was totally constitutional, a protected form of free speech, even—as long as you burned them on your own lawn.) And so, for many, the legal process in and of itself came to justify the result, whatever it happened to be. I watched many a fellow student transform from a sentient being into an android that spouted legal precedent on demand.

My growing distaste for the law notwithstanding, I still wanted to do very well. So, I suspended disbelief and went with the program. I tagged textbook pages with fine-point pens. I dropped the holdings of cases into classroom mics. Like a dutiful subject of colonial education, I imbibed and disgorged. In the end, my results that year were mostly in the B+ range. I was told that I had done “very well,” as we were all graded on a strict curve. But I was appalled. I’d studied harder than I ever had— all the while denying myself an active social life and lugging around brick-thick books and rainbow packs of highlighters in an unflattering purple Jansport—just for a bunch of B-pluses? I thought this was unacceptable. I would have to do much better the next year. I was quietly determined.

***

“Education is transformational. It changes lives,” former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said. “That is why people work so hard to become educated and why education has always been the key to the American Dream.” I found this quotation in Think and Grow Rich for Women—a female spin on the 1937 motivational classic by Napoleon Hill, who studied successful businessmen of his day and distilled their secrets into a subset of principles anyone could presumably follow toward his dreams. (I’m not using “he,” “him,” and “his” loosely here, merely indicating the target audience of the time.) The 2014 version for women features Rice’s quote in a chapter titled “Specialized Knowledge”—one of Hill’s promulgated steps to success. The chapter title implies that a deep knowledge of one’s subject area or corner of her profession gives her a wide lead in the rat race. However, though Hill points out in the original text that all employers value specialists, he spends the rest of the chapter dismissing the intrinsic value of knowledge. Knowledge, Hill says, is only useful insofar as it translates into some tangible—i.e., monetary—value. He illustrates the insufficiency of mere knowledge by noting that, while university faculties possess “practically every form of general knowledge known to civilization . . . [m]ost of the professors have but little or no money.”

So, knowledge, for Hill, is a means and hardly an end in itself. And specialized knowledge is not gleaned solely to deepen one’s understanding of any given subject, but to capture a niche in the marketplace. Specialized knowledge, moreover, is a commodity that can be bought or sold. Hill illustrated this point with automobile magnate Henry Ford. Having filed a libel claim against a newspaper for publishing editorials that called him “ignorant,” Ford—testifying in court—became frustrated when he found himself unable to answer basic questions about U.S. history. Ford eventually went on the offensive, telling his cross examiner: “I have a row of electric push-buttons on my desk, and by pushing the right button, I can summon to my aid men who can answer ANY question I desire to ask concerning the business to which I am devoting most of my efforts.” Why then, Ford continued, should he “clutter up” his mind to answer “foolish” questions when he could just order the men around him to do so.

Hill referred to the consortium of men Ford had at his fingertips as a “Master Mind” group—a collective of informed peers with whom one could brainstorm and strategize, or, for Ford, who were hired to know things that he didn’t want to know. Former President George W. Bush must have considered Rice to be a master mind. “One summer day in 1999, Condi, Laura and I were hiking on the ranch. As we started to climb up a steep grade, Condi launched into a discourse on the history of the Balkans,” Bush wrote in his 2010 memoir Decision Points. “Laura and I are huffing and puffing. Condi kept going, explaining the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the rise of Milosevic . . . I decided that if I ended up in the Oval Office, I wanted Condi Rice by my side.”

It’s all well and good that specialized knowledge can put one in a coveted position of being an indispensable advisor—one who can supply knowledge that is in demand. However, what is missing from Hill’s discussion of this knowledge is how one gets to be in the position of a George W. Bush or Henry Ford. In other words, Hill doesn’t tell you how you get to be the one who does not have to know.

***

At some point during my second year of law school, I availed myself of a discount membership to the campus gym and enrolled in an Iyengar class that counterbalanced my yogahopping. Iyengar is a school of yoga that emphasizes the precise alignment of one’s body when doing an asana, or a pose. A stern woman with long black hair who was more like a stereotypical law professor than any of my actual law professors taught the class. She reprimanded me for whispering for help from my neighbors. She wondered aloud about whether my voluminous box braids would impede my practice. When we all stood our backs against the wall with arms raised, she pushed my own biceps in line with my ears, pooh-poohing my alarm when we both heard something in my upper back crunch. She was intense.

My law school classes, by contrast, seemed far less challenging. This was due, in part, to my ability to select course subjects, which were a welcome substitute for the mandatory curriculum of my first year. However, the load—the bulk of information that I had to stuff into my head—was comparable. If this portion of the essay were a film montage, Madonna’s Don’t Tell Me to Stop would be playing in the background, its acoustic guitar alternately lilting and stuttering as I struggled to hold an asana, then streaked textbook pages with a neon pink highlighter, then raised my hand in class to mouth an answer that was inaudible behind the music but appeared to be correct as, after a pregnant pause, I smiled to myself in response to some off-camera validation. This kind of sequence would repeat with some variation, the key difference being that I would hold the asanas with seemingly less effort. Also interspersed in this sequence would be some shots of me hanging out with college friends somewhere in downtown Manhattan, as I was also going out incessantly during this period. You would not, however, spot a purple Jansport in any of the frames, as I wisely shed it for a more fashionable tote. Suffice it to say that, by the end of my second year, I earned almost all A’s.

***

There was more to Rice’s quote in Think and Grow Rich for Women. She declared that education “erases arbitrary divisions of race and class and culture and unblocks every person’s God-given potential.” Rice’s mother and father, a schoolteacher and college administrator, respectively, instilled in their only child the importance of education. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, about six months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Rice was afforded as many advantages as her parents could afford. She started piano lessons at the age of three and moved on to take lessons in ballet, flute, violin, ice-skating, tennis, and French by her adolescence. Her parents relocated to Colorado, where Rice attended a racially integrated school for the first time and eventually enrolled into the University of Denver at age fifteen. After getting a master’s degree in international relations at Notre Dame, she became a professor at Stanford and went on to become the youngest, first black, and first female provost.

During Rice’s tenure as a professor, a graduate student she was advising had tried to discuss racism he was experiencing over the course of his studies. “She never allowed me to have that discussion in any extended way,” now Carnegie Mellon University Professor Kiron Skinner said, adding that Rice seemed to believe what she was saying, but kept refocusing Skinner on her work. “She was very young—maybe thirty-two—but she was thinking about it as a military general. I remember she said, ‘If you don’t prevail on one front, you move to another.’” Rice is, after all, a realist—in international relations terminology, one who believes states are like rational actors that only take action to further their respective self-interest and self-preservation.

Rice’s move in her twenties from the Democratic to the Republican Party is often framed as her disagreement with then President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy or due to the refusal of the erstwhile Democratic Party to register her father to vote during Jim Crow. However, the motivation for Rice’s shift was personal as well as political: She’d grown disgusted by what she viewed as the Democratic Party’s condescending attitude toward “minorities.” As Rice also once said of her lateral move to the right, “I decided that I’d rather be ignored than patronized.”

***

I have only a vague memory of the time before I became aware of my relationship to knowledge—or before I became meta, as they say. Both of my parents are professors and were each, as I was oft reminded, typically at the top of their classes during their upbringing in colonial Sierra Leone. So, I must have known that knowledge was important. But I didn’t have any distance from what I thought I knew; I was simply immersed in it. Throughout first grade, I would watch programs like Nova and write little impromptu “book” reports on what I’d learned. My teacher would accept these missives carefully handwritten on wide-ruled paper, her face drawn with what I now recognize as world-weary bemusement. I, on the other hand, was very excited to share all the new things that I’d come to know.

In second grade, without being fully cognizant of what was happening or why, I found myself pulled out of my regularly scheduled class to attend special sessions in another room, in which I would take an amalgam of tests that involved categorizing a bunch of odd shapes. And in third grade, I was transported to an entirely different elementary school within my district to take classes with the other kids who were classified as G&T, or gifted and talented. I had been tracked—set, unbeknownst to me, on a path toward advanced placement classes and coveted spots in higher education. That was supposed to be a good thing.

“You don’t belong here!” This impish kid (whom I incidentally had a crush on) yelled at me in the hallway one day. “Your parents paid for you to get in!”

I was disturbed, yes, but not particularly rattled. He was merely vocalizing something that was already thick in the atmosphere—that was heavy and felt, if hardly vocalized. I did not know anything about any bribes, but I knew for certain that I did not belong. I was the only black kid in a sea of mostly Italian, Irish, Jewish, and sometimes Polish hyphenates who, at the time, were all just white to me, as I, to them, was hardly a first-generation American child of West African parents. (They did, however, seem to know that my parents had accents, an observation that one or more of them hurled at me with an accusatory tone.)

During this period, a gulf started to form between me and all kinds of signifiers of “knowledge”—textbooks, homework, in-class exercises. If I got something “right,” then perhaps I really was gifted and talented; if I got something “wrong,” then the white kids were right, and I truly didn’t belong there. In short, I was in a constant state of anxiety. The classroom, in particular, was a minefield. I grew so terrified of speaking in class that, one day, instead of raising my hand to ask my third-grade teacher if I could use the bathroom, I sat there as the urine soaked through my pants, filled the plastic seat bolted to my desk, and dripped onto the floor. (My teacher, God bless her, covered for me, saying the pee was apple juice, otherwise I never would have heard the end of it.)

All emotions, I have since learned, require an outlet. Like dreams deferred, they fester and run or, perhaps, explode. In my case, my anxiety expressed itself as a near-constant stream of commentary, often humorous, that I just had to share with my neighbor in whispers and notes. I became, as my teachers often called me in report cards, “a social butterfly.” I became, in other words, “a problem.”

As Frankfurt school psychoanalyst Erich Fromm discussed in To Have or to Be?, nouns have increasingly displaced verbs to describe certain phenomena. Patients seeking help from a therapist, for example, are more likely to say that they “have” a problem than to report that they “were” troubled. “[S]ubjective experience is eliminated,” Fromm explained, “the I of the experience is replaced by the it of the problem.” While Fromm thought this shift in language usage indicated alienation from one’s self, my being a “problem” rather than being “troubled” represented my alienation from the rest of my class. I was not perceived as a human being experiencing a feeling, but rather as a problematic object that should be removed—akin to how Western medicine beholds a tumor as a foreign, malignant entity that must be lanced from the patient, rather than, as holistic health practitioners would interpret, a symptom of a systemic issue affecting the entire body.

Moreover, knowledge was no longer transferred to me as if through osmosis, suffusing and transforming my very being; it was, rather, something that I came to possess and stockpile, like ammunition. Knowledge became less a thing to be shared and more a weapon with which to defend myself, and let fly with spite.

***

A funny thing happened after I took the bar exam and before I started working at a large corporate law firm in Manhattan. I kicked up into a forearm stand—granted, I did so against a wall and with the aid of a blue foam block that my trial yoga teacher of the week advised us to frame between our hands for balance. Nonetheless, I was proud; I suppose it was fitting for pride to arise from entering into an asana whose Sanskrit name, pincha mayurasana, means “feathered peacock pose”—as I interpret it, the kind of asana you show off in. Heading home that day, my yoga mat rolled and pinned under my arm, I felt the sort of smug elation someone might feel after she’d just purchased a very expensive pair of shoes.

This feeling, however, faded quickly and was a distant recollection by the middle of my second year at the law firm. Though a bona fide Juris Doctor, working at a law firm was still reminiscent of being in law school: We had “classes” filled with all of the other associates who joined the firm the same year; each member of the class advanced every calendar year, as one would advance to the next grade. Instead of teachers, we had “partners,” whose approval every ambitious associate sought to obtain by producing good work product and promptly responding to emails at all hours of the day. Hungry associates were voracious for partner validation, disseminated in the form of positive feedback in periodic reviews and “sexy” work assignments that might eventually appear in the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times. Accordingly, some associates were known to make you look bad in front of your superiors, aka, “throw you under the bus,” to appear more competent or to “cover” their collective “ass.” One day, walking with a stack of documents in my hands, I imagined collapsing from exhaustion in the hallway and one of my cohorts stepping over my unconscious body without losing his stride.

The aforementioned summation of law firm life is not one I am only making in hindsight. It was not lost on me at the time that this environment was also rife with illegitimate authority and bullying. But I wanted to do very well. So I worked very hard. If this part of the essay were in a film, you would not see a montage, but rather a time-lapse shot of me sitting behind a desk in my erstwhile office as the sun rose and set and rose and set and rose and set outside the window.

I was miserable. However, as in well-plotted genre fiction, the extreme situation that I’d found myself in forced me to reconsider all that I’d thought I’d known about myself. Who knew that I had a latent affinity for the Fourth of July, a holiday that had failed to stir any feeling in me until I found myself, two years in a row, due to work, unable to attend a lame barbecue with the rest of America? I also learned that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my working days immediately answering emails sent from all time zones. Most importantly, I discovered my erroneous conflation of “doing well”—a position that is inextricable from accumulating accolades on one’s transcript or periodic performance evaluation form—with “being well.”

I’m not proud to admit that the global financial crisis, for me, personally, was a profound relief. I didn’t lose my job or housing, and the deluge of work (that had been aggravated by an apparent-in-hindsight bubble) suddenly subsided. My email stopped pinging, my BlackBerry stopped vibrating, and I could once again hear my thoughts above the droning hum of the built-in temperature-regulating apparatus in my office. I soon realized that I hadn’t done any yoga in several months. It’s true that I had been incredibly busy. But when I searched my memory files for the last time I’d regularly attended a yoga class— that is, not just popped in sporadically—I realized that it had not been too long after I’d kicked up into a forearm stand for the first time. Soon thereafter, in the eerie post-apocalyptic silence of the financial crisis, I started to do yoga again.

Is it needless to say that most of the associates and partners at my law firm were white? Is it needless to say that most of the students and professors at my elite law school were white? For the purpose of this essay, it is not, because—as with the whiteness of my gifted and talented class—this backdrop helped set the tenor of my ambition. You don’t have to be a yogi to be enchanted by a mantra. We all have mantras. The difference is that yogis choose the words that are repeated in their heads, while the average person typically doesn’t and becomes entranced by unconscious spells. I can see now that one of my mantras was I’ll show you.

“I became an overachiever to get approval from the world,” Madonna apparently said, according to one of those websites that aggregates decontextualized quotes from persons of note. Nonetheless, I can picture these words spoken by both Madonna and Condi, with a challenge in their eyes and capped with a gap-toothed Cheshire smile.

I could be projecting, of course. My own gap-toothed smile notwithstanding, I could very well be seeing something in the two of them that I recognize in myself. Whether Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” or Rice’s particular brand of black ambition, I am intimately familiar with that drive to prove that I can do whatever a man and/or white person can do—and more. The law firm, where white men abounded, was a psychodramatic playground in which to exercise this ambition. It was also a playing field in which—as in the coveted worlds of Henry Ford and George W. Bush—there appeared to be a marked divide between those who had to know, and those who did not have to know. The “rainmakers” were those partners who must have known something at some point, but—due to the amount of business they were capable of bringing in—no longer needed to know as much. Rainmaker business was then handled on a day-to-day and, frankly, mundane level by the “service” partners, a kind of Master Mind group for law firms. The service partners obviously had to know quite a lot about their respective niches of specialized knowledge, knowledge that was essential for completing the documentation that would “paper the deal” for the firm’s client.

The path to becoming a service partner was, at least theoretically, clear: accumulate sufficient specialized knowledge and demonstrate your proficiency in it to whatever partners were paying attention. The road to being a rainmaker, by contrast, was far less straightforward, depending as it did on such dubious factors as “proximity” and “access” to said rainmakers, factors that effectively amounted to being “chosen” or “tracked.” While it was unclear how to become a rainmaker, it was certainly clear to me that, in the context of the law firm, this is who I would rather be. It was also clear that I didn’t see any women or people of color making it rain.

When I finally had time to contemplate all of this, during those precious slow months after the financial crisis first hit, I started to feel like a pawn in a much larger game, being slid here and there by some invisible hand. Incidentally, two white male partners—both libertarians—seemed to authentically value my efforts, giving me the illusion of agency. Nonetheless, I finally appreciated the ways in which my life was not like a clichéd, mainstream movie, in which, after a number of tightly plotted moves, I would arrive at some static scene of “success.” Life was more complex than that. I also decided that I’d done enough showing off.

***

In her memoir No Higher Honor, Rice reflected on her trying relationship with Donald Rumsfeld, who appeared to be less congenial toward Rice in her role as a peer rather than as a subordinate: .

 . . [T]he two of us were walking side by side through the Rose Garden portico. I turned to Don and asked, “What’s wrong between us?” “I don’t know,” he said. “We always got along. You’re obviously bright and committed, but it just doesn’t work.” Bright? That, I thought to myself, was part of the problem.

***

Epistemology is the philosophical inquiry into how one knows what she knows. What has preoccupied me of late is, rather, why anyone knows what he or she knows. Becoming meta, I now understand, is a long, unending process. Perhaps I thought it was a state that I had “achieved” after having been metaphysically body-slammed into a state of alienation by my “gifted and talented” white peers. But I was not some transcendent observer, wisely watching over myself with compassion. I was merely dissociated, a hungry ghost repeating history in a futile attempt to satisfy my desire for validation.

When I kick up into a forearm stand now, at least there is no longer another version of myself by my side, playing on loop the canned applause of a studio audience. Instead, she stands there silently, watching the inflow and outflow of my breath.

***

Hawa Allan writes cultural criticism, fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared, among other places, in The Baffler, the Chicago Tribune, Lapham’s Quarterly and Tricycle magazine, where she is a contributing editor.

Excerpted from Double Bind: Women on Ambition edited by Robin Romm. Copyright © 2017 by Robin Romm. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.