This is a quote abstracted from one of my favourite films of 2019, Queen and Slim.
It is such a relevant question. I felt it needed to be asked to the Black community at this time of intensification of the Black Lives Matter movement and Buy Black movement. Why are we always thriving towards excellence? What does that even mean? We see this almost everywhere, especially during events that commemorate the performance of black people in one way, shape or form. You hear them say “Black Excellence” or caption their social media posts and statuses using that phrase or hashtag. Is #BlackExcellence a good and necessary concept or does it actually erode the equality we seek?
On the other hand, we are constantly reading reports about how black people have to work twice as hard as their Caucasian counterparts to get recognized, rewarded or promoted. And this is fact all over the world. And this seems to be normalized. Recent Twitter threads by Caucasian managers show that it is a culture that black subordinates are not expected to excel and in fact should not be encouraged or supported to excel.
“Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism.” Oprah Winfrey
So black excellence is a direct response to the inherent racism that black people face in all aspects of corporate or business world and beyond including in sports and the arts. Oprah Winfrey would be the first one to confirm that despite being excellent for decades as the leading talk show host in America with a global brand earning billions of dollars, her excellence has not shielded her from racism even now. I guess it is not too difficult to fathom what it means, black people thriving towards excellence in all that they do, becoming the masters of their crafts and leaders in that specific sector is not expected. But I just can’t help but think there is a negative aspect behind the term ‘black excellence’. I would hate to make a comparison between the black community and other communities because we do not all hold the same historical experience. It would seem only fair that we thrive for excellence after centuries that black communities globally have been suppressed and oppressed. It is only fair that we basically ‘yell’ into their faces that we are, in fact, thriving as a community even though it can be said that they wish we weren’t, considering all the measures that are still taken to ensure that we remain subservient to rest of the world’s communities.
Examples of the hurdles black achievers have to face are countless and can be downright discouraging. Look at Simone Biles, the American gymnast who has won more athletic awards than Usain Bolt and the likes, constantly has to face criticism because she is a black and female athlete. The same way that Serena Williams does too. So is ‘Black Excellence’ an even higher standard than excellence? To be black and excellent means we have to overcome so many more hurdles and challenges to achieve excellence, so we are doubly excellent? I believe so. Black excellence is a higher standard and should be celebrated until the playing field all over the world is such that all peoples have equal opportunity. But it is also exhausting!
But is there a negative side to this? A friend of mine who completely abhors affirmative action, who hates Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and does not understand #BlackExcellence asks why do we feel the need to inform the rest of the world that we are more than what they expected of us, that we are doing just as great as everyone else when they have been winning for years and centuries at our expense? There just seems to be some kind of approval and validation that we need from everyone else. Why can’t we just know that we are excellent, it almost comes across as if at some moment in our journey we doubted that we are great? Excellence and greatness should be inherent in us all. For example, a successful businessman or woman simply knows that she is the greatest, a humble sense of pride, she is the G.O.A.T in her craft. It’s a deep, innate and confident feeling that she has, and she experiences it on a daily. Others know she is great because her work speaks for itself. She doesn’t need anyone else validating this, she is doing her best and sharing her best with her clients. We thrive so hard to be excellent, but how excellent are we if it’s only a fraction of our community that is doing excellent things? The problem with the idea of ‘excellence’ altogether is that it is very competitive with a very narrow funnel allowing very few to qualify as excellent, it is not one through which the majority can feel that their best is enough. It is one that celebrates and normalizes that in life there ‘winners and losers’ I doubt that we would wave the excellent term around so commonly if this were a standard thing amongst everyone in our community, because we would just be right.
It’s as if we are always on a quest to prove the world wrong and how satisfying is that? Believing that all our lives, all that we do is to make a point, why can’t we just be ourselves, do our thing, excellent or not? How gratifying is it to have to always announce #BlackExcellence? I mean heck the Jewish don’t do it, and we know the Jews run most of the global economy, they aren’t out there punting #JewishExcellence, no one else does it, and they are excellent. It’s not to say that we should only do what other communities do, no, we should go about things our own way, but just not in a way that renders the majority of our community as ‘losers’.
I guess I’m a bit wary of the fact that it may put children of the black community under unnecessary pressure, constantly thriving for excellence, to feel like they matter only when recognized by others. There are all kinds of psychological and mental health problems that arise with the pursuit of external validation. Does it mean that if you are not labeled as excellent that you are mediocre or perhaps disappointing to the community? Does it mean that your work is insignificant, if they do not deem it as excellent? That should not be the case.
Something about #BlackExcellence connotes acceptance and normalizes that the world and we ourselves as black people, consider people of African descent as less than. I really wish there was another or term we used to celebrate our progress. My argument is not a denial of the fact that people of African descent all over the world have to work twice as hard to earn what others earn, and that we don’t have equal access to opportunities that others have. Yes, we should thrive for greater heights all the time, but we do not have to do so at the cost of seeking external approval for our right to be seen as enough as we are. It’s a mentality that we should have with us at all times, we are great whether somebody chooses to recognize it or not. I am enough, I am great, period.