Refinery 29 UK
We Need To Talk About The Pressure Of Black Excellence
I am a fraud. Or at least…I think I am?
Last year, I – a frustrated law school student at the time – wrote an essay challenging #BlackExcellence and a year later, it’s been published in an anthology alongside essays by 19 other very Black and very Excellent British women. Believe me, the irony is not lost on me.
Hear me out. I wrote in Loud Black Girls that complexities surrounding Black Excellence required nuance and – without wanting to break all literary rules on cliché – it’s turned out to be even more complicated than I thought.
(Insert dramatic pause.)
For me, the notion of Black Excellence remains problematic. As a Black woman in law, I regularly find myself underrepresented in corporate legal spaces. As a result, my visibility makes it feel like I have unwillingly consented to amplifying a standard of Black Excellence that just doesn’t seem sustainable.
I’ve previously warned against prominent Black voices becoming ‘authorities of Blackness’ and the need to counter the homogenisation of Black experiences to ensure that individuality does not remain a privilege of whiteness. So in the spirit of broadcasting our diversity of thought, I spoke with three Black British women in an attempt to navigate the conversation. Damola is a 27-year-old product manager at an investment bank, Niara is a 23-year-old influencer and legal professional, and Adanna is a 28-year-old obstetrics and gynaecology doctor.
Black Excellence is dualistic. On one hand, it is a necessary and defiant narrative that separates brilliance from whiteness, realigning and centring it on Blackness. This realignment must occur both within and outside Black communities in order to change mainstream perceptions, as Damola told me. “I think it’s a great thing. The media has done a fantastic job in portraying everything but Black Excellence. They’ve given a lot of screen time to all the ways in which Black people are supposedly substandard. It’s a necessary counter to the messaging that we’ve been getting historically, globally, for hundreds of years,” she said.
However, within Black communities, criticisms regarding Black Excellence often centre its capacity to erode space for Black people as individuals to engage with mediocrity. Implying an unsustainable standard of exceptionalism in order to justify Blackness occupying space in society. This has two effects, the first being the creation of a narrative that makes Black humanity contingent on exceptionalism.
An example of this occurred in May. In response to being asked by Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper to abide by Central Park’s dog-leashing rules, park-goer Amy Cooper weaponised her whiteness, falsely claiming to police that an “African American” man was attacking her. Media outrage centred on Mr Cooper’s possession of a Harvard degree but surely a Black man shouldn’t need an Ivy League degree in order to avoid racist abuse.
And then, of course, there’s Breonna Taylor, an African American emergency medical technician (EMT) who was shot dead by police in her sleep on 13th March. Media discourse soon turned to whether Breonna was actually working as an EMT at the time of her death, as if this detail regarding her achievement would negate the brutality of her murder.
I spent the first year of my career trying to not get fired because I felt like they’d all find out that I wasn’t quite good enough and just get rid of me. The only reason I didn’t get an annual Oyster card when I first started at the firm was because I was so sure that I was going to get fired.Damola
Both Cooper and Taylor’s stories highlight society’s reluctance to allow Black people to access their own humanity unless they exhibit what society categorises as markers of ‘exceptionalism’. As a Black woman, my birth certificate proves I exist but should I have to appendix my CV to it to justify that existence? Damola’s sentiments on this resonated with me. “People need to be mindful of believing that Black Excellence will be their protection from the world we live in. So that we don’t end up risking getting in – for want of a better word – a class system where only certain Black people are valuable because they’ve achieved X,” she reflected. “All Black people are valuable by virtue of them existing. Just like the world tells us that all white people are valuable regardless of where they’re at in life.”
The second effect of unsustainable ‘excellence’ is the alienation of Black individuals who believe that they cannot achieve this standard. This lack of belief is less attributable to the actual academic or professional ability of Black people as individuals but rather the centring of white achievement across societal institutions structured around whiteness. Adanna explained how this issue manifests in the medical profession: “I think more and more universities now are hopefully trying to sort of inadvertently ‘decolonise’ the medical teaching system. Because our textbooks don’t really cover pathology in Black, Asian or ethnic minority communities. So how do you expect a new junior doctor to identify certain diseases in Black people if they’ve never seen them before?”
All of this combines and converges. The absence of Blackness in its myriad forms perpetuates the falsehood that Black achievement is anomalous. The most recognisable consequence of this alienation is imposter syndrome.
“Imposter phenomenon” was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in reference to high-achieving women. According to them, women imposters experience a chronic self-doubt which overrides any feeling of success or external proof of their competence, in part because they have internalised the negative stereotypes that float around in society about what women are and are not supposed to do.
Sitting at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood and battling both race and gender stereotypes, this definition bears closer proximity to the Black female experience, as Damola humorously put it. “I spent the first year of my career trying to not get fired because I felt like they’d all find out that I wasn’t quite good enough and just get rid of me. The only reason I didn’t get an annual Oyster card when I first started at the firm was because I was so sure that I was going to get fired.”
The latest 2020 statistics on Black women in corporate America reveal that 40% of Black women need to provide more evidence of their competence in the workplace compared to only 28% of white women. If equivalence is made to the UK, these statistics show how Black women’s lived experiences go beyond Clance and Imes’ diagnosis. This is because our self-imposed ‘imposterhood’ is constantly legitimised by external questions regarding our competence. Crucially, the 1978 study found that repeated success – or ‘excellence’ – alone was not sufficient to break the ‘imposter’ cycle.
Niara gave some insight as to how she navigates ‘imposterhood’. “I really have to refocus myself on what I want to achieve to remove those doubts,” she told me. “At the end of the day, even though we all do experience imposter syndrome, you have to remember that we’re all on our own journeys of success and we all get there at different times. It doesn’t mean that we can’t achieve it and that we’re not capable.”
As Black women, we experience two opposing realities. We have come from cultural backgrounds that encouraged us to engage with ‘exceptionalism’ as compensation for our Blackness in white spaces, with the opposing reality that even if we reach ‘exceptionalism’, our ‘imposterhood’ is amplified by exclusionary workplace cultures. This self-perpetuating cycle positions Black individuals between performing excellence as justification of our right to occupy white spaces and a feeling of fraudulence which stems from the fact that, despite the odds, we have become what we don’t often see: Black success.
And of course it’s very hard to become what you don’t see – just 3% of the UK’s most powerful and influential people are from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups despite accounting for 14% of the population. Adanna summarised this perfectly in our chat. “Imagine, when you’re a child, you learn by observation. So when you see someone achieving something that you want to, subconsciously you feel the goal is more attainable. This was something I didn’t have as a medical student.”
Navigating this boundary between excellence and imposterhood begs a crucial question: where does young Black women’s mental health fit into the discussion? Mental Health Foundation research suggests that Black people in the UK are more likely to be diagnosed with a severe mental health condition or encounter mental health services than any other ethnic group. We also know that Black women are more likely to be affected. Aside from social and economic inequalities, the research attributed this to Black individuals’ exposure to racism and discrimination.
There are systemic and historic barriers to entry for the things that we want to do but it’s not something that we can’t overcome and Black Excellence truly shows us that.Niara
As a young Black woman, safeguarding your mental health is vital in pressured professional environments. Damola explained to me that she has to work hard at this. “I spent a lot of my initial career at work with a massive facade over the top of my real personality,” she said. “Two things happened that took me out of that place. The first thing was I decided that work was no longer going to be the most important thing in my life. I needed to deprioritise it, which I actually did. I just started doing more things that I liked, like reading, travelling. Secondly, bringing a bit more of my true feelings to work in the most professional way that I could possibly do it without feeling inauthentic.”
This sounds simple. But when you’re constantly being told that you have to ‘excel’, you feel like you can’t take any time out. It’s also important to note that Black Excellence discussions can themselves be problematic in that they presume that all Black people have equal opportunity to access ‘excellence’ in the first place. This assumption is partly due to the fact that race and class are often discussed in opposition to one another, rather than in cohesion. (Cue the classic ‘race or class’ debate.) If we accept that Black Excellence is typically bestowed upon Black individuals who achieve academic and/or professional success despite the societal erasure of Black brilliance, we must acknowledge that excellence is somewhat tied to our social mobility.
Runnymede’s research on race and social (im)mobility demonstrates that social mobility in the UK continues to be low, with those from working class backgrounds remaining more than twice as likely to end up in working class occupations as those from professional backgrounds. This potentially creates a barrier between socially mobile Black individuals who achieve ‘excellence’ and marginalised individuals who sit at the intersection of race and class. Despite the déclassement of our immigrant parents in the British labour market, often due to a lack of recognition of their foreign qualifications, many of us second-generation Black Britons have been able to outperform our white counterparts academically in spite of our lower starting point. That said, when thinking about access to excellence, some of us second-generation Black Britons must remember our relative privilege compared to later generations of Black immigrants to the UK, who continue to experience the same déclassement when entering the British labour market as our parents did.
In the end, I can’t help but feel that we need to be objecting to the idea of being palatable to whiteness because of perceived ‘excellence’. Adanna articulated this scepticism: “I think that it’s really important that people don’t use the reference standard as white and Black Excellence doesn’t rely on white approval,” she said. “Because it really should come from us wanting to create our own spaces and thrive within our own spaces, and not be defined by whiteness.”
My discussions with all three women made me realise that when we deconstruct #BlackExcellence, we don’t underestimate its necessity. Niara puts it perfectly: “There are systemic and historic barriers to entry for the things that we want to do but it’s not something that we can’t overcome and Black Excellence truly shows us that.”
And on that hopeful note…
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