There is a belief among some black people that to eradicate racism, they have to work twice as hard, be smarter, be better, act better. Only after they have given 150%, through “respectable” blood, sweat and tears, will white people recognise that their blackness is not dangerous, uncouth or an attack on white people.
The caveat, however, is that once it is recognised, this black excellence is then supposed to be forever performative, with good manners and turning the other cheek in the face of any racist or bigoted slights.
This black excellence is not supposed to be emotional, as it pulls itself together to win after overt and covert attempts to diminish or dismantle it. It is aware that it is subject to terms and conditions, questioning and censure should it swagger or be aware of itself.
This black excellence ought to be “grateful” and “humble” — it cannot make a bold statement of simply existing. In other words, it exists through the shuttered lens of white people’s comfort. It is, in reality, an obstacle.
The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is that white excellence is achieved without meeting resistance in the form of institutional racism.
Judging from history, white excellence is a given: it will happen without too much effort and is often seen as a natural. It’s 2017 and globally we are still living in a time of “black firsts”. First black achievements also come with a certain amount of pressure. We’re “free” now, right — what’s taking so long?
Black excellence is hard to define, judging by our own definitions of what it means to be successful.
When I see black people, especially black women, striving and thriving in their respective fields, I’m loath to use the word “excellent”. Excellence and meritocracy can be dangerous — just ask the University of Cape Town’s Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
Racism is weird in that it believes these little pockets of success mean it’s on the wane. It goes so far as to say that one black face in an ocean of whiteness is progress. The Obamas were the picture of respectable black excellence, but what followed? Black people in the United States are still getting killed for scaring white people by just being.
Lately, I’ve been trying to be more aware of what and whose metrics I use to define excellence. I don’t want a definition of greatness to be dictated to me by the very systems used to denigrate black people.
I don’t see the value of being the only black person in the room.
Black excellence can’t only be when we succeed in “respectable” ways, in ways that require us to split from other parts of ourselves. Wearing a suit and tie and having nice things won’t change much.
I celebrate all ways of excellence, including the seemingly mundane.
Working a regular nine-to-five job, making rent, feeding yourself — that’s also black excellence to me.
Excellence, when it is too rigidly defined, leaves us valuing certain narratives and trajectories over others — floundering for the impossible instead of reaching for healthier, better ways of being, as Danez Smith rightly points out in this February 2016 article. It leaves us mired in inadequacies, instead of making our version of excellent a reality. Excellence isn’t always what we produce or own, but what we did while holding a losing hand.
Everything black people do is excellent because it’s a near-superhuman feat to live in a world that profits from and necessitates our subjugation.
Literacy is excellent, when you look back to June 1976 and see how this country responded to black children demanding the bare minimum. Demanding your due is excellent when black men were murdered for asking for fair wages at Marikana.
Survival is excellent when anti-poor “urban rejuvenation” leaves you battling to pay rent only to make way for coffee shops. Excellence is singing, laughing and dancing loudly enough for the neighbourhood watch to keep an eye on you. It’s making your mom happy for being gainfully employed and being able to buy groceries when you can. Paying your own way is excellence.
Black people’s existence is enough and our successes and losses have context.
It’s a constant process of unlearning, but my blackness will be defined only by itself, without explanation and without looking for outside validation. Black excellence is inherent — all we needed to do was be black and alive to ever be enough.
Kiri Rupiah is the Mail & Guardian’s social media editor