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Black excellence? When you break a glass ceiling, no one talks about the scars

As the first or as one of a few, there’s a second job involved in being Black and working in white spaces

Chef Douglass Williams's Beautiful Resistance: The Recipe
As chef and owner of MIDA, Douglass Williams knows confidence is key when navigating spaces where folk aren’t used to seeing Black faces. (Created and produced by Jeneé Osterheldt/Globe Staff, Directed and edited by Chaney Carlson-Bullock, First Assistant Director Mikayla Litevich, Supervising Producer Caitlin Healy/Globe Staff, Photo by Erin Clark/Globe Staff, Illustrations by Paula Champagne)

As a little kid, when you are brainstorming what you want to be when you grow up, you think only of that job.

You might say, “I want to be a lawyer, Mommy!”

The world has not yet cracked your mirror. You can’t fathom that you might be the only, or one of a few, in the office, that you will be the Black Lawyer.

And it’s not that you could ever forget that you are Black ― nor would you want to. You can be Black and proud and want to be noted in your craft not by your race, but by your talent and work. Being “the only” isn’t excellence. It forces emotional labor atop your work while you wade in isolation.

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Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, photographed in her office in front of a wall of photographs of her predecessors. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

In the Suffolk district attorney’s office, photos of every DA line the walls. A whole lot of white, Irish men. Then, we get a woman. A Black woman. A woman whose mother is from Barbados and whose father is Irish.

“No one ever looks at me and says, you know, Rachael, the Irish DA,” she tells me as we sit at her desk. “It’s something I think about often. I am a Black person who also happens to be a woman and I am in a predominantly white male world of law enforcement. Even when I do things that are consistent with the men who came before me, I am questioned in a different way.”

Since being elected in 2018, Rachael Rollins has been tone-policed, accused of being soft on crime, and called angry. Once President Biden named Rollins as one of his US attorney nominees in July, Republicans tried to type her as radical and dangerous. If confirmed, she could become the first Black woman to be US attorney for Massachusetts.

To be a first, she says, is both exhilarating and exhausting. The goal is to normalize Black folk and people of color in these roles.

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“You are the canary in the coal mine for many of these concepts,” Rollins says. “We don’t get the benefit of failing upward as so many others do. We can’t be mediocre and stumble into a CEO position or the presidency. We have to be beyond exceptional and even still we are questioned.”

As someone who pushes equity and justice reform, she fights for our lives. On hard days, it’s the fellowship with other women of color doing justice work that inspires and grounds her.

“Often you are the only person. It can be lonely. When I look at Ayanna Pressley, when I look at Carmen Ortiz, I think, ‘Oh my goodness. We can enter those spaces and set policy that deeply impacts people.’ When given an opportunity, we rise to the occasion,” she says. “But it is really important that we take care of ourselves because it is rarefied air to be the first and the only.”

No matter what happens, Rollins knows she belongs in every role she steps into.

“I know what I am doing is right and I deserve to be here,” she says. “It is liberating when you are authentically yourself. I don’t fear anything right now. I feel so confident in what I do because it is always based in equity, justice, truth, and humanity.”

Chef Douglass Williams at MIDA. David L Ryan, Globe Staff/file

Douglass Williams, like Rollins, knows confidence is key when navigating spaces where folk aren’t used to seeing Black faces. As chef and owner of MIDA, he’s familiar with the way people’s ears perk up when they hear “Black-owned Italian restaurant.”

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People think Black chef and they think soul food and barbecue. Or their taste buds water for food of the diaspora. Folk associate Italian and fine dining with whiteness. But we, like everyone else, can love what’s served at home and hunger for more.

“I can eat fried chicken and my great-grandma’s green beans every day of my life,” says Williams, named one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs of 2020. “It doesn’t get old. I’m not pushing my nose up at it. I am just being myself.

“You cannot erase my Blackness. No matter who I am talking to or what I am talking about, what I cook, I am not code-switching. I am Black.”

As one of a handful of Black restaurateurs in Boston to hold a liquor license, Williams recognizes the work to be done in creating space for more Black businesses and the next generation of kids with big dreams.

“Progressing in spaces that were previously not populated by people like us requires determination, security, and you have to navigate being uncomfortable,” he says. “My main motivation is to help support and guide the 15-year-old us, those kids in the middle, for them to see us. All it takes is for those kids to get that spark, to see it.”

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But even as Williams’s star shines brighter and brighter — he opened a second MIDA earlier this year in Newton and recently brought APIZZA to Hub Hall — he has moments of uncertainty.

“It doesn’t happen often. It’s very rare for me, but when you are are questioned, when it’s like, ‘Where’d you come from,’ and not in a good way, when they are unsure of me and unsure of themselves, it gets weird real quick. Those moments are going to happen. My job is to make my impression felt.”

He seeks to create the space so that whoever comes after him doesn’t encounter that discomfort. Williams also tries to remember joy.

“Going far is one thing,” he says. “But being happy, being content? We can get obsessed searching out the missing tooth in the situation. When you are focused, when you’re outside and running a race, you don’t hear the birds. You don’t hear the crowd. When traveling and training around the world, when in the kitchen, I don’t think about being a Black chef. I think about surviving for my family, the survival of my dream, and living that out.”

Whitney White and Charlie Thurston in "Macbeth in Stride."Lauren Miller

To live your dreams isn’t easy. Whitney White first wanted to be a musician. And then an actress.

She became a director and playwright because of the hurdles she had to jump to sing and act while being a Black woman.

“Every decision I’ve made was made because some door was shut in front of me,” says White, whose show, “Macbeth In Stride” is at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge through Sunday.

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She wanted to sing opera, but was not accepted into the program she applied to. So she went into theater. As an actress, White did television and musicals in Chicago and New York.

“I started noticing the roles available to me used about 2 percent of what I was capable of,” she says. “The roles didn’t reflect the world I was from. I think often of the way the world is telling you to stay in our corner or that you can only be excellent in the ways the world says you can be.”

It was at Brown University that teachers showed her the power of writing, directing, and owning your own narrative.

“If you don’t see the stories you need in the world, you need to go make them,” White says. “The power of authorship, especially for Black women in the arts, is important. The Western audience is very comfortable with the idea of the Black female body entertaining them and being commodified and hypersexualized, but we have something to say.”

With “Macbeth In Stride,” she takes Shakespeare’s classic text and examines it through the lens of a Black woman as Lady Macbeth. It took her years to get it on stage.

“There have been a lot of Black women to step in to the role of Lady Macbeth,” White tells me, “But to rewrite the role, to examine the text, and have the audacity to say, ‘You should hear it and it’s as valuable as any other scholar’s perspective,’ the persistence is resistance in a lot of ways.”

In the 2017-18 Broadway season, about 6 percent of directors were of color and 20 percent of the shows were created by people of color, according to a report by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition in partnership with the American Theater Wing. Inclusion is an act the theater has yet to nail.

“Theater is an exclusive word,” White says. “You think of what it means in the West and people sitting in a dark theater, having to be silent, and expensive ticket prices. But performance is part of every culture.”

Black folk and people of color have a permanent second job in navigating the way to our dreams in a power structure rooted in whiteness. Who would we be if we weren’t in the constant grind of explaining ourselves and fighting for space to thrive, to enjoy, to rise?

Empowered. Unbound. Liberated.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.