On The Limitations of Black Excellence

By Shameem Razack

tw: sexual abuse

Recently there has been conversation around Simone Biles’s announcement of withdrawing from the Olympics gymnastics tournament due to her mental health. Biles now has announced she will continue to compete. However, throughout much of the discourse, many could not fathom the possibility of Biles withdrawing from the Olympics. I completely understood her leaving without even needing further explanation. First, let us acknowledge that a world sporting tournament is happening in the middle of a pandemic with an increase of Covid cases globally. People do not seem concerned about that, but I digress.

Furthermore, historically and currently, many people feel entitled to Black women’s existence and labor. For many, it is impossible to believe a Black woman is focusing on her well-being. As the societal expectation is, we, as Black women, are in continuous service for others. I related to Simone Biles as I have experienced people and institutions, including; work, school, family, and friends, feel entitled to my existence. The entitlement to our labor and bodies, in turn, makes people believe it is a burden for us to create boundaries, limits and ultimately divest from spaces that exploit our labor.

Let’s be clear Simone Biles should not feel guilty to step away and take care of herself. More importantly, we need to be critical and question our current social and societal structures that offer us nothing but exhaustion, resentment, and stress in every part of our lives. Additionally, we should acknowledge our current work culture that is detrimental to our health. Let us normalize rest. We have internalized capitalist rhetoric that expects us to provide labor in an endless mode to the point of it negatively impacting our health and, worse, causing premature deaths. It is not a coincidence during the pandemic with some jobs being remote and the rollout of stimulus checks (that the government begrudgingly sent out) resulted in many people not returning to work. Yet many people find it impossible, almost blasphemous, that a black woman needs to rest or space. Unfortunately, Biles and other Black women are only valued by the labor we produce, such as athletics, intellectual labor, and caregiving. Let us also not forget it is U.S. gymnastics that failed Simone Biles to protect her from sexual abuse. How dare anyone have the audacity to be entitled by this Black woman’s existence after the trauma she endured. How can we proclaim we as a society are more open to addressing mental health while ridiculing Simone Biles and others? If someone can publicly acknowledge their mental health and are dismissed in a moment of true transparency, how do we expect others to follow suit and be aware of their mental health?

I recognize the origins of #Black excellence have become an initiative to curate corrective self-images that challenge historical stereotypes of Black people and uplift the achievements of those within the community. I am in full support of giving someone their flowers and congratulating people for their accomplishments. However, there is a thin line between admiration and demanding unrealistic expectations of achievement from others who share a similar racial identity. It is not only white and non-black people of color who have lacked understanding of Black women like Simone Biles. Some Black people have joined in ridiculing her. Yet, these same Black people would protest the need for representation.

Have we, in this process of curating corrective self-images, created limited possibilities for Black people?

Suppose the concept of Black Excellence is for Black people to continue to achieve at high standards and fit into high places while also not acknowledging the structural obstacles Black people endure for the sake of representation. In that case, I do not aspire to that idea of Black excellence. Why would I desire to have a seat at the table when that table is rooted in white supremacy? Should it not be enough to be Black and exist without having to be measured by whatever value or skill set you obtain? I want to reiterate the point that there is nothing wrong with acknowledging achievements. I argue that we hold space for those we admire to be fully multifaceted people outside of just their accomplishments. I firmly believe that we can admire a Black person without reducing that person’s value solely on skills such as intelligence, strength, and leadership.

As we continue to demand representation, I fear we may be creating more limited possibilities for Black people as a whole. What happens to all the Black people who do not ‘fit’ into the category of Black excellence? Do they become easily disregarded and disposable? We can proclaim representation matters, but these statements can ring hollow if we continue to play into exclusionary ideals of achievement. If we genuinely believe in representation, we cannot continue to dispose of Black people, who are not college-educated, fat, disabled, single parents, unhoused, incarcerated, working class, part of the LGBT community. We see this in recent pop culture with the public shaming and constant policing of Lil Nas X and Lizzo. Black people will always shine. I hope we enjoy these moments of joy and pride outside of expectations of what society has already deemed excellent, only leading to more exclusion instead of inclusion of various Black people. 

Shameem Razack is a Contributing Writer for the Pedestal Project, LLC. Shameem recently earned a Bachelor’s degree in Gender and Women’s studies at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Outside of being a student, Shameem is involved in various organizations that focus on social justice. You can also find Shameem on youtube, Sincerely Shameem, where she discusses all things pop culture, makeup, and book reviews. Be sure to connect with Shameem on Instagram (@SincerelyShameem) and Twitter (@box_hijabi)!

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