At an early age, Black children are indoctrinated with the mantra of being twice as good at getting half of what they have. It’s in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the handprint on our souls. Though I don’t recall being specifically told I had to be twice as good as my white schoolmates, i got the message in other ways. Living with drug addict parents made my early life unstable. But once my Black grandparents adopted my brother and me, I felt I had to prove I was like everyone else. I have earned my place in life demonstrated through honors coursework, high grades, and matriculation in the #1 public university. 1 in the nation.
One degree, however, was not enough. I went to law school and then got a bachelor’s degree. Becoming a history professor was on the horizon, but then I broke ranks with the sure route to Black excellence. It was the mid-90s, and the echoes of Follow your passion reverberated in my heart. I did just that and joined the first group of romance writers to be published by a mainstream publisher. Many years later, I transitioned into non-fiction with a #1 bestseller. 1 by Amazon So White Motherhood: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in Americathe first parenting book by a black writer to focus on race and adoption.
I subconsciously 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 didn’t have the opportunities I do. As a mother, I find myself replicating this generational philosophy, but I’ve 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 achieve this through excellence in sports, education and the arts. We prove our worth as the only C-Suites reserved for white male power brokers in corporate America or by becoming the first black president and vice president. Black people in the corporate world face daily microaggressions, and the inequities Black women face at work often lead to an emotional tax, where Black women are always on guard to protect themselves from prejudice, discrimination and unfair treatment, says Dnika Travis, vice president Researcher at Catalyst.
Yet, we continue to pay the black tax, wanting to please our parents who instilled in us that we have to be twice as good to get half of what they have. They being white, Christian, cis-gendered Americans, for whom the system was built.
Our ancestors, however, were not wrong and indeed thought ahead of their time. They knew that being twice as good it would be the wind under our wings to carry us across racial barriers to certain levels of employment, educational institutions, and neighborhoods. But there’s only so much a person can handle before the constant high expectations for exceptionalism create a chink in our mental armor. Why be 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 White validation, we circumscribe our dreams, believing that Black excellence will protect us from anti-Blackness, racism, sexism, neurodiversity, corporate invisibility, and mental breakdowns. In essence, we are rooted in the idea that we only have one chance. There is no room for mistakes, doubts or redoing. 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 health and well-being for the sake of greatness, writes Janice Gassman Asare for Forbes. It’s a superficial badge of honor from people we don’t know. It feels good to be recognized and it encourages us to believe that what was once out of reach is now attainable.
There is, however, a dark side to being placed on a pedestal that only a few can access. The high level of expectation leaves little chance for others who are capable but finish second or don’t finish at all. It reinforces racial stereotypes that we don’t work hard enough, don’t have the talent or acumen to succeed. What people can’t see is that Black excellence doesn’t explain the burnout, imposter syndrome, and quiet desperation many Black people endure in order not to let down family, community, and race. The pressure of Black excellence can lead to high stress, anxiety, depression and other serious mental health problems, says Akua Boateng, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Pennsylvania.
The mental stress of modeling black excellence
Even celebrities aren’t immune to pressure to maintain an image of Black excellence. Four-time gold medalist Simone Biles, for example, withdrew from the team finals during the 2022 Tokyo Olympics because she developed twists, an inability to determine top from bottom. Rather than risk serious physical injury, Biles chose her mental health. In her words, physical health is mental health. She is unashamed to take care of her mental health and is transparent about taking psychotropic medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a psychiatric disorder that affects executive functioning skills such as planning, concentration and the ability to stand still.
Another example that rocked the sports community was tennis champion Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open. She shared her anxiety about her post-match interviews and said, “The truth is, I’ve been suffering from long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018, and I’ve had a really hard time coping with them.
Biles and Osaka redefined what it means to be mentally tough. They find strength in being vulnerable and share that rest, reflection, therapeutic apps and meds that have helped them manage their mental health.
Both women are exceptional athletes who have surpassed what is possible in the gym and on the field. Their representation are some of the voices we need in a post-pandemic world where we are open to talking about mental health and the problematic narrative of being twice as good as everyone else. Sports aren’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 she also lived in obscurity due to high functioning depression. Her black excellence wasn’t enough to save her.
There are limits to being twice as good, and that was felt when Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina. Ms. Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winner, three-time National Magazine Award winner, MacArthur Genius Grant winner, Peabody Award winner, two-time George Polk winner, and Knight Award winner for public service. Despite her being the pillar of not just black excellence, but general excellence in journalism, she hasn’t reaped the reward of being twice as good. This is mostly due to her 1619 Project, a rigorous examination of the erasure of black people from American history. This project colored outside the lines of political respectability. Coined by Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, respectability politics is a strategy for racial upliftment and political advancement used by 19th-century black women to bring about social change. Without a doubt, 21st century Nikole Hannah-Jones unapologetically challenged alignment with traditional ideals of civility, behavior and success, and paid the price.
The psychological toll of COVID on black women
Without a doubt, the Covid pandemic and the racial reckoning of 2020 made it worse for everyone. According to the US government, the pandemic has triggered a second national mental health crisis. It also shed light on the black community, which was assumed to be more resilient than whites, and therefore less prone to mental illness. Black women, historically linked to the mythical ability to keep pushing, are finally admitting that we can’t hold on to the world anymore. From ages 10 to 34, suicide is among the top ten causes of death for Black girls and Black women. These statistics, culled from a study by the CDC, represent the urgent crisis Black girls and women are currently experiencing.
Shaking off the idea of being twice as good doesn’t mean we won’t be respected in this world. If I could take one piece of advice, are the words of Ms. Hannah-Jones, who said in a recent commencement address to Spelman graduates, it is our duty to work for a world in which we are not exceptional, in which every person in our community has the opportunity to work to your full potential.
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