What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “Black excellence”? Usually it’s a doctor, lawyer, or college graduate. It also may be the Black business owner, or a child who did some major charity work. For most, it may be Black actors and singers or just generally wealthy Black people. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s extremely limiting. It can easily make the rest of us who will never reach those heights or who don’t want to feel like we don’t mean as much. It also reeks of respectability politics to limit Black excellence to academia and business.
When we limit our definition of excellence to doctors, lawyers, and the like, we leave out the majority of Black people. Being honest, most of us will not reach that level. Everybody can’t be a doctor or lawyer, and not everyone wants to be one. We need an expanded definition of excellence that includes those most overlooked in our community.
I am a Black single mother. I believe that we are an example of Black excellence. We do what most in our society cannot do. We raise our children by ourselves, sometimes with little to no help, while also working jobs and/or attending school. Raising one or multiple children is not an easy job, and yes it is a job. It’s even harder when you have to do it alone. Everything rests on your shoulders. You are the one who has to keep it together to get it done because there is no one else. You are the one who has to provide because there is no one else. Instead of admonishing us because we “fit a stereotype”, we should be celebrated for surviving despite the obstacles put in our way.
That is just one example of Black excellence that is rarely lauded in the Black community. Others include Black people coming out of the prison system, trying to make a way for themselves and their families. Black sex workers who work long hours in sometimes dangerous jobs to get money to survive. Black TBLG+ people who exist and sometimes thrive in a world that would see us erased. Black mentally ill people who navigate a world that tells us we either don’t exist or that actively tries to kill us.
I could easily list so many more examples of the excellence I see that go unnoticed. Some may say that honoring these people would be “lowering the bar”. To that I say, no. That is just respectability politics talking. That is the misguided thought that we must hide our “flaws” from the white gaze in order to be seen as human by them. That kind of thinking, living our lives that way, has done no good for us over the years. It has instead done active harm.
Respectability politics causes us to ignore the most vulnerable parts of our community. Respectability politics causes us to buy into certain stereotypes (e.g., the Strong Black Woman) that damage our mental and physical health. Respectability politics has caused things like homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny to fester in our community. Respectability politics causes us to live our lives trying to be absolutely perfect for people who will never see us as human or worthy of respect. We need to cast aside those ideals and embrace every bit of our community if we want to grow as people.
Black excellence comes in many different forms, not just what you see celebrated by most. Recently, there has been a push to celebrate those normally overlooked and I appreciate that. It gives me hope that we are learning and growing and will soon fully embrace and uplift those who need our love and support.