The burden of black excellence

Karabo Poppy, Thando Thabethe and Petite Noir on the 2019 cover of the Forbes 30 Under 30 feature | Image: Twitter

While black excellence may serve its purpose in the grand scheme of things, it can be a double-edged sword for some and a barrier for others.

The simultaneous publication of the annual Forbes Africa 30 Under 30 list as well as the Mail Guardian Young 200 list has once again put the burdensome concept of black excellence in the spotlight.

However, one particular aspect of this concept has been haunting my thoughts for close to a week and that is the fact that the undue emphasis placed on black excellence has left many a young black person feel as though they cannot aspire to an average life.

The origins of black excellence are rooted in a desire to subvert white supremacist and racist ideology by disproving the factually incorrect and unscientific beliefs that were used as a justification for the subjugation of black people.

It has also since evolved into the desire to prove the worth of black people to white people by being better at everything; sports, academia, performance art, beauty, and so forth.

Almost as if to say: I am the number one tennis player in the world so your racist beliefs about the limitations of my race are wrong.

We also live in the age of the hyper-visibility of black firsts, but this is only because as a people, we were systematically prevented from participation in many areas on a global scale.

And even when laws and declarations were appealed, the effects of institutionalised racism remained so pervasive that events such as the Oscars would see nothing wrong with having little to no black candidates in a category – and not for a lack of trying on the part of black people in the entertainment industry.

The systematic exclusion of black people coupled with the hyper-visibility of our recent wins allows those who cannot make it to the upper echelons of success to live vicariously through those who do.

These things give the global community of black people a front row seat to the wins. The positive imagery.

White people, whether they are racist or not, often lament the use of the prefix “black”.

They question why everything has to be black? Black Twitter, black beauty, black excellence, black fashion…

A simple answer to this question would be that when the prefix is absent, the subject is unconsciously assumed to be white. A side effect of the widely hated concept of “white privilege.”

To prove this, simply Google anything and see how many black faces pop up. Woman on phone, man smiling, friends laughing, family.

To some, these search results match the imagery they imagine for these very concepts.

That assumption, coupled with white privilege, also affords white people the opportunity to be average and in most cases, mediocre, without that affecting their lives in a majorly negative way.

Still not sure what I mean?

Let’s use John Steenhuisen as an example.

In recent years, his lack of a matric certificate has been the subject of many a debate, with the resounding call being to just look at how far he has come and how much he knows as a sign that a qualification is not the biggest barrier to entry.

By that same token, the lack of formal education or their performance while in high school has been used to discredit Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema respectively.

Steenhuisen is given the benefit of the doubt because he has proven that he is capable of filling his position without the backing of the national quality assurance council in general and further education and training.

Zuma and Malema on the other hand, despite their positions in government, are still perceived to be blithering idiots and their successes are explained away and diminished using things such as luck and corruption.

The only black people who are marginally safe from this treatment are the black people who play by the rules and work themselves half to death just to rack up a set of acceptable entries on their biography that will not subject them to scrutiny.

Additionally, the fact that most spaces in which one can be an excellent black were previously “white only” spaces affords one a little slack because it is assumed that you have to be a hard worker, a good person and an acceptable black to have earned your way in.

It is assumed that you cannot do all these things if you were not. And because this assumption reigns, the black person who just wants to live an average life has no business aspiring to the perks enjoyed by the black excellence elite.

The average black girl from the township (let’s call her Lesedi for the purpose of this conversation) cannot be fine with getting a decently paying job and getting her own home down the road from the home she grew up in.

Wanting to continue her life in the township will not be widely viewed as wanting to improve the circumstances of the place she comes from – Lesedi will be perceived as someone with no ambition, and not just by people from a particular ethnic background either.

The girl who will be called ambitious is the girl from next door (let’s call her Amanda). But only if Amanda, with her English name that lends itself to assimilation, works hard enough to make it into a tertiary institution where she studies towards a degree. She then has to use that degree to get a prestigious job in the city which will pay for her fancy car and home in a suburb nearby. Along the way, all the work she has put into getting where she is gets her a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

It will be upon visits back home that she is bestowed her new title as the ambitious girl because she was able to move away and the people she grew up around barely see her. All they do is hear about her exploits and successes in the big city where she lives among white people and counts them as friends. In her office, she is the palatable black girl because she does not present in the stereotypical way most black girls from the township are imagined.

What they all do not hear about or consider is all the work she has to put into maintaining her new position and how this stresses her out and has exacerbated her depression.

What they will not care about either is how content Lesedi is in her decision to stay close to home and contribute to the change she wants to see in the area.

While black excellence may serve its purpose in the grand scheme of things, it should be noted that it can be a double-edged sword for some and a barrier for others and that not every black person has to aspire to the ever-changing bar set by black excellence.

For more news your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.

today in print

today in print