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My Black Perspective #16: Black Excellence

Black Excellence, like many things, has both a potential for good and for harm. Surprising given the name, right? I hinted at this idea in yesterday’s post about the Obama family in a section called “The Gift & The Curse”, and today I’d like to more broadly explain my thoughts on the unseen duality of Black Excellence.

I want to start by saying that Black Excellence is needed, and I’m here for it. But my opinion on it is definitely fueled by ulterior motives (more on that later). For those who don’t know – #BlackExcellence is a popular rallying cry in all forms of media these days. Did you see that so and so became the first Black [insert thing] at [insert company]? #BlackExcellence Did you hear that speech that was given by [insert name] talking about [insert social issue]? #BlackExcellence

That’s great, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Celebrate. Celebrate. Celebrate.

But… Be aware that there is a “dark side” to Black Excellence that isn’t always talked about openly because 1) it may or may not be a little taboo for multiple reasons and 2) there kind of isn’t a good time to bring it up, even if the sentiment is a little prevalent. Well, I want to explore that a little bit today before I flip to the shiny positive side we’re more accustomed to.

(Since I don’t think there are any real authoritative voices of resources on the subject of Black Excellence, I’m referencing a lot of opinion pieces throughout this one. Just a heads up there.)

The Peculiar Pressure of Black Excellence

“[T]his ‘excellence’ title puts a pressure on me to prove something to the world.”

On the term “Black Excellence” and why it’s more complex than that
(Blavity)

Black Excellence sets something out there in subtle ways that can cause unseen mental pressure and anxiety for some. There is a need to step it up in life because that’s the expectation that has been set.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with other Black People about how they feel like they aren’t where they’re supposed to be in life right now and so on. I can tell you exactly how many of those conversations I’ve had with my non-Black friends… Zero. And I don’t think this has anything to do with closeness or some superiority/inferiority thing happening (I’m doing “better” than some of them). I think it has to do with a lingering side effect of Black Excellence in some weird way.

Puzzled Black businesswoman looking away thinking.

We (Black People) like to celebrate and elevate the victories of those who look like us, because a win for them is, in a way, a win for all of us. We share in their excitement and lift them up because if we don’t – who will? We guard our heroes because, again, if we don’t – who will? But the more conversations I have around the topic of Black success and excellence, and the more things I read on the subject – the more I begin to see a pattern emerge that I think is worth speaking on with caution.

We have to address the pressure of achievement and the unhealthy amounts of self-imposed stress related to failure and/or mediocrity. And there should be attention given to how to deal with it in healthy ways.

“Excellence sees me as a high and mighty person who can do no wrong.”

ON THE TERM “BLACK EXCELLENCE” AND WHY IT’S MORE COMPLEX THAN THAT

Switch “The E’s”: Encouragement vs. Exclusion

Black Excellence is meant to encourage others, and I think it does that for many. But it has also caused a sense of exclusion for some (albeit accidentally). When I dig a bit into why that may be, a few reasons come to mind…

  1. Black Excellence is ill-defined.
  2. Black Excellence acknowledges things inconsistently.
  3. Black Excellence can feel burdensome & it doesn’t have to be.

I want to discuss each of those points.

I came across a solid Medium article on the subject titled “Whose black excellence is it?” It opens with a very interesting statement…

“The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is that white excellence is achieved without meeting resistance in the form of institutional racism.”

Whose black excellence is it?

Aside from my initial feeling of “Damn” (because I had never thought of it that way, there was a desire to try to understand more of what the author meant. I mean, if you open with something like that – you have to have a reason for saying so, right?

And then something a little more meaty came up later in the same post…

“Excellence, when it is too rigidly defined, leaves us valuing certain narratives and trajectories over others — floundering for the impossible instead of reaching for healthier, better ways of being…”

WHOSE BLACK EXCELLENCE IS IT?
(Paraphrasing Danez Smith)

How do we define Black Excellence? Who defines it? What standards have to be met for Black Excellence? Does the standard keep moving up? These are basic questions that I think go unaddressed, and that ambiguity can become problematic over time.

Look at it this way: At a certain point, knowing how to read was Black Excellence. And then completing a set educational curriculum. Getting a job. Home Ownership. Owning a Business. Becoming famous. Winning Awards. Becoming president. Haha – I say those last few jokingly, but I’m just trying to illustrate what’s being pointed out in that last quote.

Vector Illustration time line for Black History month with American flag. Slavery from 1619-1865, Jackie Wilson in 1947, Mahalia Jackson in 1952 and Barack Obama became president in 2009.

What about the regular Black professional employee working through career politics at their job? What about the older person who just completed their college degree? What about the person without a college degree who is still working and rising up the ranks at a local retail store? What about those who take on occupations like bus drivers, mail carriers, and wait staff? Are they excellent as well?

Another article from Essence points out that Black Excellence can possibly lead to anxiety and mental unwellness.

“Black exceptionalism is a specter of our community that harms us as much as we imagine it helps. It is the idea that by virtue of being Black, we are gifted, burdened or obligated to excel. Anything short of one’s best is a divergent off the straight and narrow set up for us by whatever generation suffered before us – and a dishonor to what we owe them.”

Opinion: Is Black Excellence Killing Us?

That’s a lot to unpack, I know – but it brought up thoughts that I hadn’t had on the subject before.

This same article points out that, “There is no register of what you need to do to obtain it,” going on to say that, “it’s better defined as what it isn’t: failure, which is sometimes incorrectly attributed to mediocrity.

What was intended to be a rallying cry of exceptionalism has, for some, become a stress-filled unobtainable platitude that still creates a very real sense of guilt. As the article goes on to put it – a survivor’s guilt. “An idea that we have not suffered as much as others of our community’s long-history and thus should be capable of excelling.”

That sounds really messed up at the first past of reading it, but I have really had conversations like this with people who beat themselves up because they just don’t feel like what they’re doing (which is great!) is good enough. If I had $5 for every time I’ve heard, “Well, people have done more with less,” when friends are justifying why their current level of suffering, pain, or effort aren’t enough (in the context of past generations of Black People)… It is a lot to unpack.

There is an oft-unspoken burden there to achieve. You don’t want to do ok, or well — people want the best. It is a solid unhealthy mixture of a degree of Americanism blended with an unintended consequence of Black Excellence. I did think that they made a good point in the final paragraph, though.

“It’s necessary for a Black community that’s proud of itself, and loves itself, to be okay with doing its own very best – rather than the best of the community.”

OPINION: IS BLACK EXCELLENCE KILLING US?

Openly discussing some of the drawbacks of Black Excellence will hopefully let people know that they aren’t alone if they feel some level of pressure from the term. I also hope that others take to heart that as long as you are doing YOUR best, you are in fact being excellent. Work at being better each day on your terms, not society’s. Encourage yourself through the term by making it more personal, don’t exclude yourself from it by holding it up in impossibly high regard.

Young Black man happy and excited and celebrating while looking at his mobile phone.

A Reading Recommendation

There was another article on this topic that I read in preparation for writing today’s post that had so much in it, I’d rather encourage you to read it for yourself than to just pull quotes from it. It is written by a Black woman in the UK, but the parallels intrigue me all the same.

In “We Need To Talk About The Pressure of Black Excellence” Elisabeth Fapuro, a Black woman in law, talks to three other Black professional women about the pressures of Black Excellence. It is honestly a fascinating read. Ideas around “individuality as a privilege of whiteness” made me stop and think. I loved the description of Black Excellence in the dualistic terms of: 1) A “defiant narrative that separates brilliance from whiteness”, but also 2) something that can “erode space for Black people as individuals to engage with mediocrity. Implying an unsustainable standard of exceptionalism in order to justify Blackness occupying space in society.” Wow.

The article talks about class systems where only certain Black People are valuable, Imposter Syndrome, “‘exceptionalism’ as compensation for our Blackness in white spaces”, and much more. There is A LOT in that compact read, and since it’s coming from the experiences of Black women in another country – I don’t want to sully that writing, but it’s worth a read if you’re interested.

Using Black Excellence

Remember how I said that I fully support Black Excellence, but there were ulterior motives for my opinion? Well, I’m about to show my hand.

Historically-speaking – Blackness has only been heard on two terms in this country: Suffering and Excellence. Considering that I don’t like to suffer (haha), I’d rather we go the other route as a people and just excel our way up in the world.

If Michael Jordan wants to be quiet about politics, but continues to fill his staff room with Black faces, I’m here for it. People listen to our athletes because they respect their skills first. If Tyler Perry wants to keep making movies that aren’t quite for me, while still creating opportunities on and off-screen for people who look like me – I’m here for it.

As the TIME magazine article of the same name put it, “Black Excellence Is Not Just a Hashtag. It’s an Economic Lifeline.”

“Do we need more rappers? We need the wealth rap generates, and the discursive space it creates. We don’t have a combination like that anywhere else in the economy. Do we need more athletes? We need to capitalize on the respect they command, and apply it beyond the sale of products that have nothing to do with our struggle… [W]e should concentrate on playing to our strengths and reinvesting our diverse skill set [sic] into the political bloc we find ourselves in by default. Black excellence is not just a hashtag: it’s an economic lifeline.”

Black Excellence Is Not Just a Hashtag. It’s an Economic Lifeline

I don’t want to discourage Black Excellence. I repeat: I’m here for it!

Black Excellence is a great thing for Black People and the world around us, I just don’t want it to slowly transform into an ironic heavy obligation because no one is willing to discuss the topic in its totality — the good and the bad.

Be amazing, be EXCELLENT – but be YOUR version of excellent.

Attractive business woman walking down the street.

Keep your eye on a larger picture and where you fit into it, and you’ll be fine. If you aren’t at the top of your field, a celebrity, or the most influential “Black First” out there – so what? A lot of us aren’t. Just remember that you’re not alone, and you can strive each day to be a more exceptional version of yourself.

Peace, and thanks for reading.

 

The soundtrack for this post provided by…

Image Credits:
– Cover Image © ujonline (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 1 © fizkes (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 2 © Basheera Designs (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 3 © i_am_zews (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 4 © Sata Production (Shutterstock)

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