By Tobi Dada
In the movie Queen and Slim, Slim, played by Daniel Kaluuya, asked a crucial question: “why do Black people always have to be excellent, why can’t we just be ourselves?”. Throughout my life, I have always tried to excel at everything, so when I heard another Black man questioning the very notion of Black Excellence, it got me thinking. Do Black people try so hard to be perceived as excellent that we lose ourselves in the process?
This question is difficult to answer, because excellence, especially Black Excellence is subjective. But because the majority of people reading this are probably from western developed countries, it is fair to say that there is a standard set of characteristics that give off the impression of excellence within our society.
These characteristics are as followed:
1) The perception of wealth
2) Working at a prestigious company
3) Being a successful entrepreneur or having a successful side hustle
4) Studying at a prestigious university
5) Going pro in a sport
6) Becoming a successful public figure or influencer
But before we can assess the problems with the term Black Excellence, we must first look at why it exists.
Why Black Excellence exists?
The term Black excellence was born out of the civil rights movement. Before the likes of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, no matter how gifted you were or how hard you worked, simply being black meant that you were inferior to your white counterparts. But where did this notion and other negative stereotypes about Black people come from?
Like with many things that involve race, it all started with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. But first, it is essential to understand why Black Africans were selected to work on the plantations and mines of the Americas over East Asians and Europeans.
Firstly, the geographical location of Africa meant that it was more economically expedient to transport Africans to America. Admittedly, if the same white European capitalists that, in the 19th century, sent working-class children up chimneys, found that it was cheaper to transport large swathes of the European peasantry to the Americas: they would have. Capitalism,by virtue of being built on the exploitation of human labour, gives no thought to whether those being exploited are Black, White or Asian.
Secondly, Africans had developed an immunity to many of the diseases found in the Americas. Immunity from malaria and yellow fever which had killed thousands of European settlers made Black Africans better suited at working in tropical locations and thus a better investment than their white and Asian counterparts.
Like many capitalists today, European capitalists in the 16th century saw the importance of PR. So, to justify the exploitation of an entire race of humans’ white institutions, namely the Church and scientists created a series of myths designed to denigrate the existence of Black Africans.
Christian scholars who, at the time, had a significant influence over the thoughts of most Europeans taught that Africans descend from Ham, son of Noah, saddled by his father with a curse that his offspring would be slaves. Enlightened philosophers argued that blacks were less intelligent than whites and their moral sense less developed. Doctors alleged that blacks live in filth and spread diseases. All these institutions started and perpetuated many of the negative narratives about Black people we still see today.
It is logical to assume that over time many of these myths would be debunked, not least because the Church has adopted a new stance and has significantly less power today. Slavery ended over 400 years ago, so in all this time shouldn’t Black people have been able to prove themselves as competent and law-abiding citizens?
Well, since white people held all the best jobs, it became easier to believe that Black people were inferior. We hear it all the time from the right-wing media, ‘Black people have been free for generations, yet there are hardly any Black professors, lawyers and doctors. Isn’t that proof that Black people are simply less intelligent and hard-working?’. But the very reason that Black people aren’t hired for top jobs is that they are seen as inferior. And the proof of this inferiority is the lack of Black people in top positions. This vicious cycle that points the finger at Black people while also failing to give them opportunities has made it incredibly hard for black diasporas to build wealth.
The perception of black people as being less intelligent and lazy is what fuels the notion of black excellence. Centuries of oppression and the denigration of the black race has meant that black people need to work twice as hard as white people to get level. So, in an attempt to disprove white minimalistic expectations and negative stereotypes about black people, many black figures in the 60s and 70s coined the phrase ‘Black Excellence’. They were challenging for the first time, the notion that Black people could not excel while also giving the black community a much-needed sense of encouragement.
The achievement of Black people in the UK.
An increase in black pride and self-love, along with many anti-discrimination laws, has significantly increased in the number of successful black men and women in the UK. Despite Black people making up 3% of the entire UK population, Black people have been able to make the following contributions to British society.
British Ghanaian and Nigerian boys on free school meals, academically outperform and are more likely to go to university white and mixed-race children in similar socioeconomic circumstances. The four youngest children to ever take GCSEs are all black, one of which was 8. Romario Wolfred, a young black boy from east London, has a higher IQ than Einstein. Young black men are more disproportionately represented in professional football than any other race in Britain. Just think how much this contributes to the tax base and the economy. Anthony Joshua, a Black British man, is the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. These facts alone should be enough to disprove many of the negative perceptions of Black people, yet rarely are these facts acknowledged and commented on by the British media.
Furthermore, it is difficult to find a rational explanation as to why the media continues to publish negative stories about Black people.
Political commentators who use Racial buzz words like ‘Black on Black Crime’ and call for drill music to be banned are making a conscious attack on black British culture. With full acknowledgement that serious youth violence is a huge issue in London, it is ridiculous to assume that banning a particular type of music simply because it is produced and consumed by a specific community will do anything to reduce crime in London.
Proposing a ban on black expression, specifically drill music as a serious policy to tackling violent crime in London is indicative of the racial power structures in Britain. Glasgow, which has a prominently white working-class population, was dubbed as Europe’s murder capital in the early 2000s. The response there was a public health approach that saw poverty, the lack of education and domestic violence as the cause of the high murder rate. So, the fact that now an entirely different set of policies should be proposed for London simply because the majority of perpetrators are black is nothing short of racist.
It wasn’t until a drill artist by the name of Drillminister made a song only using quotes from MPs that politicians realised their hypocrisy. The quotes included in the song, such as, “the day that it becomes you are hurting us more than you are helping us I won’t knife you in the back I will knife you in the front” – MP Jess Philips, were proven to be more violent than most other drill songs.
Indeed, the media’s attack on black culture is indicative proof that racism in the UK is alive and kicking. In the words of Akala, in today’s Britain, it is easy to see that whenever a black person commits a crime their race and the entire black community is to blame, but when a black person wins gold at the Olympics, suddenly they gain the right to be viewed as individual and race is not offered as an explanatory factor for their achievements. Conversely, although white middle-class men disproportionately commit acts of paedophilia, an innocent white middle-class man will never be called to explain the actions of a small minority of middle-class men. So why are black people frequently held accountable for acts committed by a small fraction of the community?
Problems with Black excellence
Despite its positive origins, some within the black community are not huge proponents of the term Black Excellence. These people believed that the phrase has moved away from celebrating the success of all black people and now limits the options of ambitious black people. The focus is now on start-up founders, Investment bankers, software engineers, lawyers and doctors. Meanwhile, black, teachers, creatives, social workers and mothers are often not respected. It is as if black people that are striving for excellence are in a box of limited options. And anyone who falls outside of that box is not excellent. So just like white people pushed the narrative that blackness was inadequate, black people, today, who use the term Black Excellence are similarly spouting that black excellence is an attribute reserved for a limited number of people.
Why Black Excellence is still needed.
This being said, there is still so much importance to be placed in the use of the term Black excellence. Instead of the term being used to celebrate a handful of limited careers, it should be used to commemorate all black people who are striving to be the best version of themselves. In my opinion, the only way to counteract the centuries of negative myths about black people, is to celebrate and praise all black people as excellence. Regardless of what a black person chooses to do with their life, merely existing is excellent.
Tobi Dada is a final year Computer Science student at the University of Surrey.