Maya Angelou on "Modesty vs. Humility"

In the wake of Dr. Angelou's death, much has been said of her considerable contributions as a literary figure, woman of color, and all around paragon of humanity. However, this quote, from a recent article on The Atlantic, has resonated with me the most. It's partially due to the humor of her stripper metaphor, but mostly because she so eloquently articulated the difference between these two distinct virtues, one which I find deplorable (modesty) and one which I find absolutely essential (humility). 

“I don’t know what arrogance means,” she said.  “You see, I have no patience with modesty. Modesty is a learned adaptation. It’s stuck on like decals.  As soon as life slams a modest person against the wall, that modesty will fall off faster than a G-string will fall off a stripper. 

Whenever I’m around some who is modest, I think, ‘run like hell and all of fire,’” she said. “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.” Dr. Maya Angelou

Humility means that you have respect for the people and circumstances that have shaped your path and privilege. You know what you can do and who has enabled you, but you also know what you can't, and none of this diminishes your accomplishments. It requires a capacity for deep listening and empathy. You're not just willing to listen to others, but you're deeply appreciative of their contributions and perspectives. 

Modesty, on the other hand, can be a way of deflecting or dismissing praise and accomplishments. It is a conscious affectation in response to expectations for passivity. Following Dr. Angelou’s example, I urge us to examine the social script of modesty from the perspectives of both gender and white privilege. There is a greater expectation of modesty for women than men. Women are expected undermine praise, rejecting the power that comes with command of desirable skills. Going outside the expected script, embracing a compliment instead of deflecting, can make men seem confident while making a woman seem narcissistic.

Modesty is also a function of white privilege. Deliberately undermining your own competence requires assurance that your power and position are not at risk. Not everyone can afford the social or economic consequences of making oneself smaller.

I urge people to stop perpetuating this type of forced modesty or expecting it in others. Create a conversational culture that accommodates confidence. Strive to understand both your assets and your limitations. Eschew forced modesty, but remain deeply appreciative of the world around you.