Article written by Olamide (Olly) Tolu-Ogunpolu
In the process of Black Liberation, the idea of Black Excellence in its many forms (see Black Girl Magic and Black Boy Joy) has become a key aspect of the movement and for good reason too. Black Excellence is a celebration of Black people as entrepreneurs, academics, musicians, athletes… you name it. And I love that for us. In a world that has continually discredited, exploited and attempted to diminish us, it’s high time we applauded ourselves for our achievements in the face of oppression.
What I have a problem with, is society and white supremacy’s tying of Black Excellence to our worth. This means that excelling is often for the sake of ensuring our survival; I, along with many other non-white people, will remember our childhood mantra that we have to work twice as hard, just to make it through the door. This is even more common in the case of immigrants; not only is there a ‘desired’ type of immigrant, Western arrogance and xenophobia inserts itself as another barrier to success. Qualifications and degrees from non-Western or, for lack of a better term, economically developing countries are implicitly ‘less than’ any British ones.
Outside academics and the corporate world, in spaces such as sports or entertainment, we’re viewed as commodities that are ‘allowed’ to be in those spaces because our abilities have value to whiteness financially or as amusement. When we step outside those ‘boxes’ that are assigned to us, there is no hesitation to remind us of our ‘place’ and we’ve seen this often where hyper-visible Black people talk about issues outside their industries (for example, footballers sharing their perspectives on politics or racial issues).
What I’m trying to say is that Black Excellence doesn’t – can’t protect us.
It didn’t protect Marcus Rashford from being racially abused after a football match. It didn’t protect Sheku Kanneh-Mason MBE, born and raised in this country, from having his passport cancelled with no explanation. It didn’t protect Christian Cooper from being harassed, with his life being knowingly placed at risk because he (rightly) told a white woman to leash her dog.
Why? Because just like respectability politics, ‘Black Excellence’ relies on society for approval. And again, current global society was built on a bedrock of white supremacy – our achievements and capabilities have value, but we as human beings do not.
Sure, Black Excellence allows access into exclusive spaces, that can’t be denied. And it would be naïve to behave as if Kanneh-Mason’s platform didn’t help in resolving the issue. But within those spaces, an excellent Black person is stylised as ‘the good Black’ as long as they ‘stay in their lane’. And what about those of us who aren’t so ‘excellent’ or hyper-visible? What do we do when the government holds on to your passport for far longer than they should? Or when we receive racial abuse in public, with spectators dismissing it as just another ‘wild night’?
The frustrating thing is, we just can’t win when it comes to our successes. Black Excellence is tolerated as long as whiteness isn’t overtaken. The historic failings of the government when it comes to the educating of the white working class (boys, especially) are pinned on recent buzzwords like ‘wokeness’, despite the fact that non-white ethnicities are more likely to be unemployed. This is in addition to the further education Awarding Gap (formerly known as the Attainment Gap) that affects non-white students disproportionately.
So, what’s the point of all this then? I’m not going to stop excelling at what I’m good at, no way; I enjoy pushing myself and I love achieving. But I don’t want that to be the centre of my perceived value or a prerequisite to being respected. I want us to be able to excel because we can and because we want to. Not out of some sort of scrabble for survival.
And I want all of us to be respected and valued in our classrooms, workplaces, local communities, wherever, even if we’re not so ‘excellent’, ‘mediocre’ or just plain bad at things.