Achievements should be celebrated, but we should create our own metrics of success.
Black History Month, which runs throughout October, is about celebrating the contributions Black people have made to society and honouring Black Excellence throughout history. Though the phrase ‘Black Excellence’ has no definitive meaning, it generally refers to Black people who have made impressive achievements. When we think about people who embody Black Excellence in the current zeitgeist we think of Serena Williams, Barack Obama, Beyonce Knowles and other prominent African American and British figures.
I have no doubt in my mind that we should be celebrating those that have achieved monumental feats, despite dealing with the added burden of racism. However, in celebrating and recognising ‘excellence’, I take issue with the way this has developed throughout the Black community and wider society.
Unfortunately, the mainstream idea of Black Excellence usually celebrates people who have achieved within historically racist institutions or white dominated sectors, for example Obama in the White House and Williams in tennis. In this way, too much of what we determine to be Black Excellence is defined by white institutions and metrics of success. Though these accolades are deemed prestigious, what we really mean is that they provide validation through whiteness.
Taking up space in these institutions does create a level of representation and inspiration that can have an overwhelmingly positive effect. But does this mean that as Black people, our excellence depends on gaining white approval? And there’s another drawback I can see. Unfortunately, the competition for the minimal representation we do have, say on boards, front benches and in the media, risks creating a ‘crabs in a bucket’ effect—where we clamour over one another to get there.
As an alternative, we need to acknowledge a diverse form of Black Excellence that isn’t reliant on white approval. The response is for us to build our own Black-led forums for celebrating excellence, which we often do. This can be seen with Black Entertainment Television Awards and the Black Girls Rock award show.
Yet when we do this, it is always seen as an attack on whiteness due to its exclusivity. When people speak about the need to promote and commend Black Excellence in such spaces, it is often refuted with the question, “What about ‘White Excellence’?” Frankly, white people do not need to be excellent, white mediocrity is rife at the top our society—whether that be politicians, CEOs or journalists—and it is hardly ever pointed out or dealt with. From politics through to media and business, these disproportionately white industries are not all-white by just by merit. By contrast, due to years of racism and harmful stereotypes, Black people have to work double as hard to be seen as worthy of opportunity.
The matter is urgent, because Black people are forced to live up to these exceedingly unrealistic expectations at the expense of our mental health, especially when added to a general culture that says ‘Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done’. This is something I can relate to entirely, striving to achieve excellence put my mental and physical health as well as my degree on the line. It is unfair to place this overwhelming pressure the shoulders of Black children.
For sure, celebrating Black people who have made it despite the racist odds is an act of resistance. It provides a much needed counter narrative to the current media that we consume. However, as much as we should enjoy these wins, we need to examine why we consider them wins in the first place and create our own spaces with our own rules. We should not beat ourselves up if we do not get the white validation we feel we need, or base our worth on these titles.
In fact, Black Excellence is about surviving and coping in a white societies that aren’t built for Black people to thrive. It is about being able to navigate necessary spaces in work and life that often fight hard to exclude you, and creating our own.