I used to be an advocate of Black excellence, perhaps not an unwavering advocate but one who acknowledged it’s place in my life and my community. Black excellence to me was and still is an expression of greatness within Black communities but I realised that the general definition became tied to a level of expectation that I could not always maintain. On a societal level it seemed to be tied to the white gaze despite appearing to be an empowering force for change for Black women, men, boys and girls around the world. It also limited self-expression, it became part of the perfectionism trap that does not allow us to grow as individuals. I know growing up working class in Hackney, as a child of the diaspora, how much pressure I put on myself (and the level of expectation externally) that I had to aim for Black excellence but that came at the cost of having NO ROOM for mistakes. My view was that since we, that being my immediate community and family, were already “disadvantaged” financially (and lets be honest class is a HUGE influence) in this country, the pressure to get those grades and excel was ingrained.
We definitely need to talk about class more within Black Communities in the UK.
Also how our desire for social mobility can often erase and undermine the experiences of groups within our communities who don’t fit the “Black excellence” narrative.
— Ronke (The Professor) Lawal (@ronkelawal) June 19, 2020
I didn’t realise how much those pressures were ingrained until I became an adult reaching for that Black excellence mantle. I wanted to escape from the limitations of being working class but I learnt that there were so many complex issues at play than simply earning more money and networking with the “right” people. Being in spaces where I have felt like I have had to over-perform whilst I see others just ride the wave of mediocrity, slip up, fumble and fall and yet STILL succeed. I can’t even put into words how that feels – let’s just say it was challenging.
The intense pressure to not even be able to make a mistake, or carrying a burden of guilt when I have failed, all so I could constantly prove my excellence to the wider world, a world which often still wanted me to be invisible regardless. It’s taken me a long time to embrace the fact that it is OK to make mistakes, that I can do the work, work hard and be great but sometimes society works harder against me. There is an African-American term call “John Henryism” which basically states that Black Americans push themselves harder to address structural and institutional racism but the stress and burden of working ‘twice as hard’ causes physical and mental health challenges. There are many instances in which Black excellence, whilst powerful and inspiring to many Black people, is not enough to protect us from structural racism – the story of Tidjane Thiam is an important reminder of this. I made this video to discuss my thoughts on Black excellence and how I feel about it now.
I cannot always control how society chooses to put up barriers against me but I do know that I deserve to find joy and happiness where I can and that means I cannot carry the burden or pressure of being excellent every single day. Because there are days when I am not perfect, I am not excellent and I am absolutely OK with that.