Whose black excellence is it?

‘Re­spectable’ black­ness be damned – just sur­viv­ing in a world that beats us down is a feat

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Kiri Ru­piah

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. 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 an­tipoor “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.

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