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For a Haitian American woman working in the media and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) communications, it’s been difficult to even begin with Claudine Gay. The campaign that forced her to resign from her post as president of Harvard University is difficult to process as a news consumer. I could only imagine how much harder it must be for her to live it – with racist attacks over her to boot.

So it makes total sense that she’d step down. I applaud her courageous choice – one more of us can stand to make when facing toxic, disparaging situations in our careers.

Gay’s ascension represented Haitian Excellence, Black Excellence and Girl Power each in its individual glory — and also rolled into one scholar, mother and wife. Her resignation from the presidency now stands as an inspiration to leave when you’ve had enough, when your health or safety are on the line.

Too many times, we as Black women are expected or told to hang in there. To keep fighting. To prove we’re worthy. To prove we’re right. And for what? Representation’s sake? When it’s propping up white-led institutions and systemic racism? That sounds like tokenism — and exhausting.

That’s why I say it’s time to “let go.” If you’re placed in an untenable, toxic position – in the workplace especially – just leave. It’s good for the individual and, eventually; it’ll be good for these white-led institutions that need to be broken down and remade into equitable places. But you don’t have to be the one to save the place if it is not ready and become unsafe for you.

“The writing was on the wall in all caps and boldface”

My mind was all jumbled when I saw the news, and then read Gay’s resignation letter. First, there’s the timing. I barely had a day to bask in the pride of celebrating Haitian Independence Day on Jan. 1 when – BAM – “Gay resigns amid plagiarism accusations,” read the headlines.

Moments later, a few threads started going off on my phone. They were from friends, mostly Black and Haitian women in upper management. They were in shock and dismay. Infuriated.

“I’m so pissed,” one friend texted. “The writing was on the wall in all caps and boldface for anyone who understands that the rules are different for people of color, especially a black woman from an immigrant background.”

Me, I was disappointed. Not in Gay as an individual, but in a society that allows bigots to win.

Power wields a double-edged sword

I also had an image pop up in my head of white people in a conference room looking sideways at the Haitian/Black executive in the room thinking, consciously or not, “See, none of them are qualified.”

That thought led me to see the dangers of Black exceptionalism here, which we’ve been warned about. A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Ronald Cetoute, associate director at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development at Morehouse College, brought up the topic in our conversation about Gay and the “DEI hire” furor. He had said #haitianexcellence is a double-edged sword for Black people in white institutions because it’s a form of symbolism that doesn’t equate to structural changes.

Cetoute and others in academia told me that often, the individual has to overperform to keep proving themselves worthy, over and over. It’s a form of validation by white institutions that comes at a steep price emotionally. An alternative, he said, is for Black people to define success on our terms. I agree.

Plus, I wouldn’t have wanted Gay to remain president for us, only for her to be miserable or unsafe. She doesn’t need to prove her qualifications, integrity and humanity to us proud Haitians. She couldn’t prove any of that to the right-wing conservatives out to get her. And she shouldn’t have had to.

Those conservatives don’t and won’t view DEI for what it is – a necessary reaction to oppressive, exclusionary systems created to benefit a majority white, male-led, Christian-ish society. Some people whose own communities have benefited from equity movements in the past, such as the creation of college admissions when Jewish students faced discrimination, deny DEI is a necessary tool. Others don’t want to decouple Israel and the Jewish religion, as another friend said, because the status quo feeds divisive rhetoric better. Some partisans even prefer to trade in “alternative facts,” if you’ll remember.

When you have people with that toxic mindset as opponents, nothing will get through. So take a cue from Gay.

The courage to leave

In her resignation letter, Gay also mentions the “racial animus” in the personal attacks and threats she received. That’s an understatement, given the barrage of appalling hate-filled messages and stunts she faced. There was the helicopter “Harvard hates Jews” banner over campus and the billboard trucks calling her Hamas’s best friend, to name just a couple.

Keep those images in mind when you read mentions of “frightening” attacks. For a mother, a wife and a daughter, there’s just too much to lose for a society that’s not ready for real change.

It might seem ironic that Gay – a leading scholar of democracy and political participation, race and politics in America with degrees from Stanford University and Harvard – didn’t guard against this turmoil. The coulda-woulda-shouldas will never end. It’s what she actually did that matters now.

In her stepping down, I see Gay’s courage in letting go. She’s saying, “ban’m la pè.” Give me peace. I see that same courage in other Black women, in ways big and small every day. It’s in Rihanna’s Super Bowl performance, which was critiqued as her quiet quitting. It’s in some colleagues choosing buyouts over sticking it out to preserve mind and body. It’s in saying no when you don’t have time sometimes.

These choices also embody Black excellence.

Lessons from Professor Gay

Harvard set up Gay to fail. Point blank. That’s my conclusion after learning that the board’s lawyers prepped her for those hearings and communications experts. That approach could’ve – maybe might’ve – worked for the white male presidents before her. It was doomed to fail a Black woman, a daughter of Haitian immigrants who had a salivating mob waiting to jump on her first mistake, real or perceived. So I hope Harvard will now spend time defining how to lead in today’s multicultural society.

For Haitian American professionals in white-led spaces, I pray you recognize unequivocally that your skin color makes you a target in your position, and to take extra care. Even in not-so-highly visible roles, other people’s conscious and unconscious biases can tear you down day in and day out. Keep working hard, of course, but also have people outside your job to turn to when you’re in turmoil.

If you’re singled out because of your identity, run, don’t walk, out of the building. If a workplace becomes a drain on your spirit, leave it. If you’re not able to leave right away for financial reasons, do it emotionally while you figure a way out to a psychologically safer place.

Letting go puts us in a better position to achieve the emotional and intellectual liberation we owe the ancestors who broke our physical bondage. The path in this phase of the revolution is very long and perilous. It’s generations in the making. So practice prioritizing, preserving and protecting your emotional health. Move on when there’s nothing to gain, and rest up.

Editorial Note: This opinion is the author’s own as a community member and communications consultant, not of Go West Now as an organization.

Macollvie J. Neel, a writer and communications consultant, serves as executive editor of Go West Now. Her company Comms Maven LLC helps mission-driven professionals and organizations tell their stories in workplaces and media spaces. Her professional development ebook — Scripts for Success: Workplace Communication Templates to Advance Your Career — is available on Bookboon.

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