I log on to social media, and I am greeted with a black girl screaming in delight as she opens her acceptance letter to Howard. I read about a young couple in their mid-twenties, signing the closing papers to their brand new house in an Atlanta suburb. I see a post with the caption “make this go viral” — a young scientist discovered a breakthrough or cure to some disease or condition I had no idea existed. All of these posts have the hashtag “black excellence”.
I love seeing black people do big things.
It’s the tail end of black history month. As I enter my mid to late twenties, I’ve been consciously and deliberately centering black voices and black opinions more in my worldview. I love seeing black joy.
But I am tired of #blackexcellence. As much as black people boost each other up, sometimes our outlook on success seems to have whiteness at its axis. What white people think of us, proving them wrong, or right, or acknowledging them in any way, shape, or form, is the prerequisite in which we view black success. Why is #blackexcellence always about overcoming the odds that are often placed there because of systemic racism?
I know there are very real structural issues that issues of race and discrimination cause for us black people — that is not what I am disputing. These achievements in the face of our societal disadvantages are great, to say the least. And I will never criticize another black person for being inspired or wanting to share a post of a black person doing great. Just like Issa Rae, I’m rooting for everybody black.
I just want us as black people to maybe back up and think about the definition of #blackexcellence.
Click that hashtag on Twitter, or Instagram. You’ll see tales of black lawyers and doctors overcoming steep odds, and finishing their degree. You’ll see Olympians and movie stars overcoming racism in their fields, and being great despite that.
I love it.
I just want you to know that statistically, a lot of us work jobs that don’t pay very well. Not all of us can be LeBron James, Beyonce, or Simone Biles. Unfortunately, many of us will never overcome the racist and anti-black culture and societal problems that are designed to keep black people back. Not everyone can be a business owner or sports star, or singer, or scientist.
I don’t believe black capitalism and entrepreneurship are the cure-alls or the baseline for black excellence. I don’t think black excellence means that we have free license to take advantage of other people, be it black, white, or any other person of color or any other marginalized identity.
Sometimes white people glibly and cavalierly share these stories on social media as inspiration. I see right and left-leaning outlets share an inspiring story, maybe of say an impoverished little black girl managing to graduate top of her class. There’s always an underlying tone of “well this person did it, so can you! This person beat systemic racism! Racism is over!”
No, racism is not over. Ignoring racism does not make racism go away.
I see it a lot in right-wing black exceptionalism, usually shared in some “viral” Facebook or twitter video with an accompanying caption that holds your hand and tells you how to feel. Their path to success is always vague, and usually involves essentially telling people that ignoring (or flat out denying) systemic racism unlocks the path to success. Yet, they’re also vague about their next steps after that declaration. They usually disingenuously talk about how they “aren’t a victim”. It’s insinuated that “other” black people calling themselves victims is why they aren’t successful.
Declaring “you’re not a victim” doesn’t remove your victimhood. The systemic barriers that keep black people out of wealth, support, education, and high quality of life are real and will affect all black people whether they want to acknowledge them or not.
In its own way, sometimes when we’re crafting our ideas of what black excellence is, we end up centering whiteness. These stories of excellence are always shared as a counterpoint to white ideas to the alternative. Going to an ivy league school or opening a lucrative business is good, but selling drugs or doing sex work is bad. Not to debate the moral implications of either (of course going to college is good), but more often than not the view is through whiteness. Doing what most (white) people think is good is better than doing what (white) people think is bad, regardless of the very real barriers and pressures that stand in the way of making either decision. This definition of “Black excellence”, in the cultural eye, is better than their default view of what is black squalor. This thought process does not take into consideration how black people live and navigate the structural problems that lead black people to make either decision. There’s no middle ground, nothing that articulates the struggle of being black in the US. There’s no leeway or us to fail, or much thought given to why we fail, other than a cursory glance at “gang culture” or “bad schools”. There’s no thought of how systemic racism affects us, it’s just important that we overcome it.
The fact of the matter is, that thousands, if not millions of black people will not overcome those structural barriers. You can even see it statistically; as of 2016 Black families’ median net worth was a scant $13,000, compared to white families’ median net worth of $142,000.
It feels like black people have to be a gymnast, or a singer, or a sports player, or exceptionally talented or smart, or else we will sell drugs or live in poverty. There’s never any real introspection of the journey of how any of these particular success stories worked. Many times, when asked, these successful people, they’ll tell you that many of their initial starts came from “being lucky” or “being at the right place at the right time”. That’s great, but we should stop lying and say that those processes apply to all, or even most black people.
Racism and antiblackness are global and oppressive. I hate the very white-centered idea that #blackexcellence means that we’ve overcome racism and that we don’t ever need to consider its effects in any meaningful way. I don’t think many white people get how racism affects people of color, or in this case, black people specifically. Racism is so much more than someone calling me a racial slur in a grocery store. Listen, being called the N-word in malice is not a pleasant experience, but it has little impact on the policies and such designed to disenfranchise black people.
Pretending that all black people are superhuman and can easily overcome those policies specifically created to lock us out, is dehumanizing in itself. We aren’t super people, and we shouldn’t have to be superhuman to get respect from others or for us to be considered “successful”.
I think about how the Pruitt-Igoe housing project went from being a paradise for black people to decimating their community with poorly maintained homes and welfare policies that essentially forced black fathers to abandon their families.
I think about how we have a presidential candidate that heralded in NYC the horrible and oppressive “stop and frisk” that terrorized black people and yet, left them with little to no police support when real issues did happen in their neighborhoods. And I’m disgusted when people talk over black people’s concerns, saying this rightful criticism is irrelevant.
I think about how the internet went out of its way to blame a pre-teen Tamir Rice being shot and killed by police for unwittingly playing with an airsoft gun. He was twelve. The police car wasn’t even at a complete stop before officers shot him dead midday in a public park.
I think about how black (and latinx) buyers still end up with higher interest rates on home loans, even when all other factors are the same.
I read all that, and I live and experience it, and I want people to relax a bit on that #blackexcellence tip. There are so many things stacked against us, and I think black “excellence” in a world against us is a relative concept. Not all of us fit that narrow, definition of “excellence”. It’s okay to recognize that maybe not all of us are exceptional in ways that are inherently consumable or palatable to white people. It is ok to admit that a lot of us will fall trap to the very real systemic racism and antiblackness that plague the entire planet. And that’s okay; as a fellow black person I don’t need you to prove to me (and white society) how good you are by your works — just be yourself authentically and try your best. I want you to be happy in everything that you do.
That’s enough for me.
And that damn well better be enough for y’all too.
I spent a whole 1000+ words criticizing #blackexcellence.
I don’t wish to denigrate so deeply a hashtag and a movement that brings so many black people and their allies joy in a world that is kind of joyless for a lot of people. Once again, just like Issa Rae, I’m rooting for everybody black.
What is #blackexcellece to me?
To me, it has always been black people doing the best they can with the circumstances they have.
Your friend who is following their dreams and they’re putting themselves out there, doing plays or painting, or writing, or acting, or making music — maybe they haven’t gotten their “big break”. But they put their heart and soul into their work. That’s #blackexcellence.
I think of the millions of black women who somehow make ends meet and make shit work for their families despite many of them being constantly denigrated by black men. That’s #blackexcellence.
It’s your homegirl working double shifts, saving up so she can get a beautician’s license. Now she can go from doing hair in her house to having a chair at a salon — that’s #blackexcellence.
It’s a black father doing whatever he can to make sure his kids get a good education and have clean clothes for their children. That is #blackexcellence.
Black people fighting hard for their right to be happy is #blackexcellence.
Black people doing the damn thing despite everything against us is #blackexcellence.
Black people are #blackexcellence.
Culled from medium.com