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.
There is, however, a dark side to being placed on a pedestal only a few can access. The high bar of expectation leaves little chance for others who are capable but come in second or don’t finish at all. It reinforces racial stereotypes that we do not work hard enough, lack the talent, or acumen to succeed. What people cannot see is that Black excellence doesn’t account for the burnout, imposter syndrome, and quiet desperation many Blacks endure so as not to disappoint family, community, and race. “The pressure of Black excellence can lead to elevated stress, anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health concerns,” states Akua Boateng, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Pennsylvania.
The mental stress of modeling Black excellence
Even celebrities are not immune to the pressures of maintaining the image of Black excellence. Four-time gold medalist Simone Biles, for example, pulled out of the team finals during the 2022 Tokyo Olympics because she developed the twisties—the inability to determine up from down. Rather than risk serious physical injury, Biles chose her mental health. In her words, “physical health is mental health.” She is not ashamed of tending to her mental health and is transparent about taking psychotropic medicine for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), a psychiatric disorder that affects executive functioning skills like planning, focusing, and the ability to sit still.
Another example that stirred up the sports community was tennis Champion Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open. She shared her anxiety about post-game interviews and said, “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
Biles and Osaka have redefined what it means to be mentally tough. They find strength in being vulnerable and share that rest, reflection, therapeutic apps, and medicine that have helped them manage their mental health.
Both women are exceptional athletes who’ve exceeded what’s possible in the gym and on the court. Their representation is some of the voices we need in a post-pandemic world where we’re open to talking about mental health and the problematic narrative of being twice as good as everyone else. Sports isn’t the only arena where depression in the Black community rears its head. Cheslie Kryst, 2019 Miss USA, lawyer, and television personality, died by suicide in 2022. Ms. Kryst was at the top of her game professionally but also living in darkness from high-functioning depression. Her Black excellence was not enough to save her.
There are limits to being twice as good, and this was felt when Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina. Ms. Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winner, three-times National Magazine Award winner, MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient, Peabody Award, two-time George Polk winner, and Knight Award awardee for Public Service winner. Despite being the pillar of not just Black excellence, but general excellence in journalism, she did not reap the reward of being twice as good. This is mainly because of her 1619 Project, a rigorous examination of the erasure of Black people from American history. This project colored outside the lines of respectability politics. Coined by Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, respectability politics is a strategy for racial uplift and political advancement used by 19th-century Black women to achieve social change. Without question, 21st century Nikole Hannah-Jones unapologetically defied being in alignment with mainstream ideals of civility, behavior and success, and paid the price.
COVID’s psychological toll on Black women
Without question, the Covid pandemic and racial reckoning of 2020 have made the situation worse for everyone. According to the US government, the pandemic has spurred a second national crisis in mental health. It also shined a light on the Black community, which was assumed to be more resilient than white people, and therefore less prone to mental illness. Black women, historically laced with the mythical ability to “keep it pushin’,” are finally admitting we can no longer hold up the world. From ages 10 to 34, suicide ranks among the top ten causes of death for Black girls and Black women. These statistics, culled from a CDC study, represent the exigent crisis Black girls and women are currently experiencing.
Shaking off the idea of being twice as good does not mean we won’t be respected in this world. If you could follow one piece of advice, it’s the words of Ms. Hannah-Jones, who said in a recent commencement address to Spelman graduates, “it is our duty to work towards a world where we are not exceptional, where every person in our community has the opportunity to work towards his or her full potential.”
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