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Act 2: The conundrum of Black excellence

Art by Mia Walker

Here we have it! Black excellence. The ability to encapsulate the charismatic image of success, assurance, and self-confidence that Black culture has curated. For context, I come from a family of African immigrants who fled Ethiopia during a land grab that destabilized the economy and uprooted a number of ethnic groups. However, my parents had hope that by coming to the US, they could find a place where Black people could succeed and flourish with the help of a stable environment. They followed this image of Black excellence by gambling their past lives hoping for a more promising future. Throughout my life, I've internalized the same vision of Black excellence that everyone in my community aspires to reach.

Art by David Kumcieng

The story of the western dream is a lie. A capitalistic myth of near impossibility perpetuated by white people who have already established money, foundations, and social normalcy in western society. They often utilize their privilege, spewing stories of grandeur- specifically the “you can have this too” rhetoric and pretend to be ignorant of the privilege they’ve already achieved and cemented in society. The same money, social status, and well-being Black people depict as success most of the time is normal for white people. For example, let’s say your goal in life is to try to have a stable life from nothing. Right, okay, you don’t have a house? I’ll give it to you under the conditions you live in a crumbling townhouse in a community surrounded by drug abuse. Oh, plus you're in crippling poverty because to get here you have to get tens of thousands of dollars in debt that continues to go up every year. Oh, plus there’s going to be ten police officers in a regular patrol around your neighborhood that continually racially profile you. Plus, you probably don’t even know how to talk “proper” English. Essentially, life’s difficulty is set with your skin tone.

Image Credit: Eden Ils via Pinterest

Understand that in a traditional sense of academia, very few people make it out of the system of poverty. For many Black people, especially African immigrants, their rationalization for attempting to reach the picture-perfect image of Black excellence is that there’s a method to the madness, yet they always seem to be fighting both the method and the madness. The madness is the idea that America is the land of opportunity in which if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps you’re able to succeed. In reality, the methods of doing so are one, impossible, and two, very puritanical in their process. That’s why many Africans, both east and west, that come to the US end up doing so well—the idea of pain for-profit ties with our spiritual ethos. This causes the association between overworking oneself and pushing ourselves to the absolute limit with Black excellence. The notion of excellence has become a marker way of saying, we the hegemony have more power than people who we don’t believe uphold the idea of excellence. There’s a generational war occurring now due to how we feel towards Black excellence, in that it feels like a double-edged, second-place trophy. Wherein the younger generations are realizing that yes, we do good work, but we don’t like that society says I “do good work despite being Black”. What starts to happen is that we all start vying for Black excellence rather than Black solidarity and community. We end up stratifying ourselves in the same way that the white capitalist patriarchy does us.

Image Credit: Jahi Chikwendiu via Washington Post

When entering spears of hegemonic white success, there’s an aspect of tokenism that becomes a survival mechanism, which stems from the ingrained anxiety of being the only Black person in the room. Adjusting your humor to appease those around you, having to conform to the professional atmosphere, not fully endorsing or immersing in Black culture– these are all things that result from occupying space in places that weren’t built for us. An example of this is people that are Black famous. People that have accomplished several achievements in their careers would make you think that they would have some sort of critical acclaim or visibility in the entirety of their medium, but they’re only known to Black people. That’s the tension of Black excellence. Asking, who are we acknowledging as Black and excellent? Why does there seem to not be enough space for others? Others who speak and reflect more towards the community? The pinnacles of Black excellence such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Jay-Z all went through a period of being hyper-focused on being the best token they can be within their industry to feel needed. This begs the question, what’s the point of aspiring to reach an excellence that doesn’t want me there in the first place?

Rihanna’s first Vogue cover, Image Credit: Steven Klein via Italian Vogue

It’s easy to believe the allure of Black excellence when Kobe Bryant, Zendaya, and Viola Davis are the cornerstone figures we’ve grown up watching and aspiring to be. Even academically speaking, teachers always advise us that the simplest way out of disenfranchisement is education– without taking racism, economic stability, or privilege into factor. This works to trick Black people into thinking we have the same level of opportunity as our white counterparts. Western privilege is telling disenfranchised, poverty-stricken people to "just go to school" to obtain the same status white people have, then giving them bottom-of-the-barrel academic material while keeping the majority of wealth and resources in white educational spaces. And even then, when you do beat a statistic as a Black person because of Black excellence and societal standards, you’re not expected to beat another one. Systemic racism is intricately woven into the western world, meaning it affects all systems of a Black person’s life. The myth of working to beat the odds is perpetuated by more than just the education system, there’s disenfranchisement is prevalent both socially and financially. Jobs will be less reluctant to hire you the closer to Black proximity you are and will dictate how professional you appear to the white gaze.

Image Credit: Style Curves via Pinterest

Black excellence is asking, how close to the model of white comfortability can I get? When we fantasize about reaching the heights of privilege, white America sells the rhetoric that work ethic will bring you everything you’ve wanted– cynically tricking us into keeping us in the same trains of capitalistic thought. White negligence due to comfortability allows them to be praised for being in positions of wealth and looking down on disenfranchised, poverty-stricken individuals when the reality is they aren’t better or working any harder than that homeless, poverty-stricken immigrant. White people not being able to see or acknowledge their privilege perpetuates ideals of elitism, which is becoming more of a problem in society. The driving point is that white people can do ten times less work, yet be societally rewarded ten times more than Black people. Act three will delve more into white privilege and Black perception- stay tuned!

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