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  • Writer's pictureCary Martin Shelby

Unapologetically Embracing Entitlement to Humanity

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

Cary Martin Shelby
Professor Cary Martin Shelby

The word entitlement is typically associated with negative connotations. The Meriam-Webster dictionary defines it in part as a “belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges.” Many believe that entitlement is on the rise based on the conviction that younger generations possess higher levels than their older counterparts. While studies are admittedly mixed on this front, some have found that millennials are more likely to possess entitlement related issues with respect to personal and professional achievements.

Yet, students who are entering the gates of higher education after overcoming dire adversities generally have the opposite problem. My own lived experiences as a former college student who experienced foster care and chronic poverty have provided a window through which to scrutinize this phenomenon. For students who have endured childhood trauma, we have been taught through years of abuse that we are not entitled to safety. For those who have experienced chronic poverty, we have been exposed to vexing webs of challenges in accessing basic needs such as food and housing. I vividly recall having to walk over seven miles per day to attend the better schools that were outside of our district during my years in elementary school. Public transportation was simply too costly within our collapsing ladder of needs. Accessing a single meal was comparable to breaking through a plaster wall with a fork. Making mistakes along these precarious journeys was a nonexistent privilege. A seemingly miniscule slip-up would cause these fragile dominos to collapse into chaos. Entitlement to prosperity was therefore a fictional reality. Hardships have conditioned us to believe that we are not entitled to experience basic tenets of humanity.

Institutions of higher education often reinforce these inhumane standards. The notion of having to work 10 times as hard to achieve the same level of success as their more privileged classmates is repeatedly emphasized for students who have limited access to resources. Institutions often do a poor job at filling in these gaps in terms of creating additional avenues for securing resources for their most vulnerable students. Even after breaking through barriers in accessing higher education, studies have found that 30 percent of college students have experienced food insecurity amid their pursuit of higher education. Students from underrepresented groups face an even higher probability of suffering from hunger or homelessness compared to their peers. The Covid-19 pandemic served to increase these disparities to new heights.

Black students have also reported that they are more likely to experience discrimination within higher education spaces, while facing a greater possibility of feeling emotionally or physically unsafe on college campuses. Psychological safety is frequently compromised by professors and administrators who have limited incentives to create inclusive environments. Professors Ebony O. McGee and David Stovall have further surmised that, “while it is debatable whether pushing oneself to the limit to outwork the next person is an admirable quality, we have witnessed black students work themselves to the point of extreme illness in attempting to escape the constant threat (treadmill) of perceived intellectual inferiority.” These harms are often compounded by the disproportionate share of labor borne by underrepresented students in advocating for meaningful change at their respective institutions. Black students are often the first responders to institutional crises related to racist incidents and policies.

As a Black woman law professor who has endured a vast range of comparable adversities, I hereby give you permission to unapologetically embrace a mindset of entitlement when it comes to your humanity. You are entitled to all categories of safety—including your psychological, physical, and emotional well-being. Being treated as if your needs are invisible should be far from the norm.

You are entitled to all forms of prosperity which translates into a freedom to set stringent boundaries with your affiliated institutions when it comes to your precious time and labor. Extracting every modicum of your priceless gifts, with little to no compensation, is shamefully unjust. You are not obligated to save or rescue institutions from themselves. You are instead free to defiantly pour that energy into yourself. Doing so will untap additional rays of power that will catapult your success to unforeseen levels.

You are entitled to grace as failure is a major component of success. Being afraid of making those necessary mistakes will stifle your future growth. Focus on fine-tuning the ways in which you recover from mistakes as opposed to eliminating them altogether.

You are entitled to peace which is essential in creating space to effectuate your tailored journeys towards healing. Without it, you will find yourself on a vicious treadmill that repeats the same cycles of trauma in a myriad of settings. Knowing that you are entitled to peace will likewise lead to a heightened consciousness when it comes to setting personal and institutional boundaries.

The status quo of chipping away at your humanity is intolerable. It does not become easier to bear with new waves of achievements, or with the acquisition of elite titles. It instead chips away at your mental and physical well-being in ways that are impossible to fully quantify. Shifting your outlook to unapologetically embrace a mindset of entitlement when it comes to your humanity is essential in disrupting these deeply troubling cycles. It is a key ingredient for demanding more, and for securing longevity across generations.

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