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Achievements should be celebrated, but we should create our own metrics of success.

White mediocrity is rife at the top our society—whether that be politicians, CEOs or journalists.

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.

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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.

This idea of Black Excellence is also seen in Black creatives being nominated for notoriously white awards like the Grammys, or Black students attending predominantly white institutions – such as rapper Stormzy’s plans to pay for Black youth to go to Cambridge University.

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.

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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.

Chanté Joseph

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.

October is Black History Month with a great selection of events all over the city. Check out: bristolsu.org.uk/Blackhistorymonth and Blackhistorymonth.org.uk for details

Chanté founded the Bristol BME Powerlist project.

For more information see bristolbmepowerlist.com

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  • Dr Carol Tomlin says:

    Excellent post Chante… I would like to cite your work in a joint book publication I am involved in …

  • Dr Carol Tomlin says:

    Where are you based?

  • Bart Wordsworth says:

    With respect to your personal experience of racism, that no-one should ever put up with… I worked with young people who could find no comfortable place in the school system from 1982 – 2002. White and Black, they all felt they were being asked to jump through ridiculous hoops ‘to fit in’. Some had major health problems (‘disability’), some just couldn’t grasp abstract maths, or measuring or spelling or even writing at the time it was expected of them in school (‘remedial’ or ‘dyslexic’). They thought of themselves sometimes as ‘uneducated’ (and almost all felt judged by ‘society’ to be ‘antisocial’). Of course, the ironic upshot is that some of them have proved to be amazingly creative artists and musicians and are now Bristol’s proudest boast; some never made it that far but are remarkable builders, craftsmen, artists, garage mechanics and entrepreneurs in legitimate businesses – and sometimes in illegal ones! Most people find they have the nous to know if they are getting a good or a bad bargain, making or losing money! Some have done crime and time; some still avoid penalties and remain ‘antisocial’. The abused girls and boys may have gone through therapy, or not, etc. and are mostly, completely unrecognisable as the shattered youths they were; as adults they are proud parents – in fact they are JUST LIKE YOU OR ME. Saddest, heartbreakingly so sometimes, they commit suicide or remain on the margins of homelessness and addiction. Statistics don’t lie, however: even some rich people do these things. The reason many black people feel they ‘have to perform twice as well ‘ in order to become accepted is not necessarily due to growing up in an antagonistic society (‘racist’). White youth feel just the same ‘chip on the shoulder’, just the same alienation and lack of self confidence that passes off with a swagger and false show of bravado, the damaged child painfully close below the surface. The problem is class society. That requires semi-educated scapegoats, cannon fodder etc – and then has the gall to call the poor ‘scrounger’, ‘migrant benefit claimer’ or whatever. Black people, and white people: your enemy is the same: those who keep you down. Join a trade union, make your voice heard! The task of rebuilding yourself alone is next to impossible if you start off without the money behind you for a BROAD EDUCATION – extra art, extra music, swimming and sports lessons of the highest quality, trips abroad – all the things in fact provided free for comprehensive pupils in the 1970s. Unity is strength. Don’t allow anyone to grind you down, resist. Things won’t change if you don’t change them. It is long overdue: turn round, and fight.

    • Matt H says:

      This article is not about class, it’s about race. Because class is a problem doesn’t mean that racism isn’t, think you missed the point a little. I think you are minimising Chanté’s experiences. Often class over laps with race but if you are a white person you were raised in a society steeped in racism you do propagate antagonistic behaviours and prejudices that further isolation and oppression of people of color.

      Things won’t change untill Bart you look at how you take up space and turn around to your white friends and look at how you can stop other white people propagating this sh*t. It’s long over due that we who fight class prejudices look at what we sow and who we push away.

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