Black Excellence Is Harming Our Mental Well-Being & It's Time to End This Health Crisis

At an early age, Black children are indoctrinated with the mantra to be twice as good to get half of what they have. It is in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the handprint on our souls. While I don’t remember being specifically told that I had to be twice as good as my white schoolmates, I got the message in other ways. Living with drug-addicted parents made my early childhood unstable. But once my grandparents “Black adopted” my brother and me, I felt I had to prove that I was like everyone else. I earned my spot in life proved through honors courses, top grades, and matriculating into the #1 public university in the nation. 

One degree, however, was not enough. I dipped my toe in law school and then earned a graduate degree. Becoming a history professor was on the horizon, but then I broke ranks with the safe route to Black excellence. It was the mid-1990s, and echoes of follow your passion reverberated in my heart. I did just that and joined the first cadre of Black romance writers to be published by a mainstream publisher. Many years later, I segued into nonfiction with a #1 Amazon bestseller Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America, the first parenting book by a Black writer that focused on race and adoption.

I have unconsciously attempted to live up to the idea of being twice as good, feeling the constant pressure to seek excellence for myself and for my ancestors who did not have the opportunities I have. As a mother, I find myself replicating this generational philosophy but have begun to rethink the cost of putting so much pressure on my children, especially after surviving a worldwide pandemic and racial reckoning.

Decades later, I think of the ways Black people are still trying to prove our humanity to white people. We accomplish this through excellence in sports, education, and the arts. We prove our worth as the “only” in C-Suites reserved for white male power brokers in corporate America or by becoming the first Black President and Vice President. Blacks in the corporate world face daily microaggressions and “the inequalities Black women face at work often lead to an emotional tax,” in which Black women are always “on guard to protect against bias, discrimination, and unfair treatment,” says Dnika Travis, the vice president of research at Catalyst.

And yet, we continue to pay the Black tax, wanting to please our parents who instilled in us that we need to be twice as good to get half of what they have. They being white, Christian, cis-gender Americans, for whom the system was built. 

Our ancestors, however, were not wrong and actually thinking ahead of their time. They knew that being twice as good would be the wind beneath our wings to carry us up and over racial barriers to certain levels of employment, educational institutions, and neighborhoods. But there’s only so much a person can take before the constant high expectations for exceptionality put a crack in our mental armor. Because being twice as good falsely assumes that we can overcome systemic racism with our dignity and mental health intact. 

The dark side of Black excellence

When Black people seek validation from white people, we circumscribe our dreams, believing that Black excellence will shield us from anti-blackness, racism, sexism, neurodiversity, corporate invisibility, and mental breakdowns. Essentially, we are ingrained with the notion that we only get one chance. There is no room for error, doubt, or do-overs. The gift of failure is not for us, as we carry our entire race and gender with us wherever we go. 

Black exceptionalism encourages Black people to sacrifice their health, mental well-being, and welfare for the sake of greatness, writes Janice Gassman Asare for Forbes. It is a superficial badge of honor from people we do not know. It feels good to be recognized and emboldens us to believe that what was once beyond our reach is now attainable.

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