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February 4, 2022

4 Ways Black People Continue to Pay an Unfair Price for Black Exceptionalism

In a recent LinkedIn post, I shared a bit about my life story of personal and professional struggles, setbacks, and accomplishments, as a part of a content campaign LinkedIn was doing entitled #ThisLittleGirlIsMe. 99% of the comments I received were positive. I even got a few private messages of people sharing the post’s personal impact on them. And then there was this one, from a party whose identity I will exclude. 

It bothered me. 

I wanted to reply then, but I slid it to the back of my memory instead, vowing to one day write about it. Hoping to provide some enlightenment for this individual and others who may be thinking this way.

It was textbook Black exceptionalism and it was harmful, regardless of intent. 

What is Black Exceptionalism?

Black exceptionalism is the idea that black people who are educated, intelligent, articulate, poised, and/or highly accomplished in their field are atypical or rarities among the general Black population. It implies that Black people who fall into any of these categories are exceptions to the norm, and worthy of the decency given to white folks and any status. This exceedingly high bar has become an unnecessary fixture imposed on Black people to shroud inequities that have existed for hundreds of years — and still do. 

Black exceptionalism, and its built-in expectations, have been passed down through generations and is a function of white supremacy. Black parents for decades have taught their children that they have to work twice as hard to get half as far. This is no untruth, but it is woefully unfair. For many Black children, it is deflating, devastating, and disheartening. And to tell them to just suck it up, deal with it and work harder is precisely the harm Black exceptionalism breeds. In my case, my ambition, paired with the systemic inequities requiring me to work twice as hard led me to valedictorian seat and an executive role in my 20s. But it also led me to the hospital, burnout, and an early onset of epilepsy. The race simply wasn’t the same and I didn’t realize it until I’d tripped over barrier #849. 

Yes, Black people are strong, and we persevered through hundreds of years of abuse and oppression — and still are today. But that doesn't validate the existence of any equity, unfairness, injustice, mistreatment, or discrimination. The mere idea that hardship is necessary and for the best to make Black people stronger is simply preposterous — and it only serves to excuse and normalize the unnecessary inequities and abuse imposed by others. As a result, inequities continue to go unaddressed and unremedied.

The clear truth is hard for many to acknowledge and accept: Black exceptionalism has been causing harm to Black people for far too long.

4 Ways Black Exceptionalism Harms Black People

Black exceptionalism is seen by most as a positive thing, but it’s critical for all people, including Black people, to recognize that it’s damaging and has significant and enduring consequences, such as these. 

  1. It insinuates that the Black people who are considered exceptional in our society are the only ones who are worthy of dignity, respect, justice, fairness, and all other liberties granted to humans in many parts of the world. They are the ones spoken to with respect and delight in public. They are the ones deemed safe in moments of disagreement. They are the ones whose homes our kids can visit. You know… 
  1. It asserts that all Black people have had the same access and opportunity to be “exceptional” and, therefore, minimizes the myriad of inequities Black people face. To revere one group of Black people as exceptional and make them the rule, completely disregards the different lived experiences across the full range of Black folks and also ignores intersectionality.  
  1. As Dr. Janice Gassam Asare so eloquently put it, it “encourages Black people to trade their health, mental wellbeing, and welfare for a chance to be exceptional.” Chasing exceptionalism simply to be respected and regarded as a human being is exhausting in every sense of the word. It is active, leading so many to burnout, depression, anxiety, and even self-harm. 
  1. It asserts that being exceptional somehow exempts one from racism and that, of course, is not true. Majority of us have heard of exceptionally famous, educated, or gifted Black people who, even after being exceptional… reaching the highest of bars….the pinnacle of success, were subjected to racism. 
  • Remember In 2004, Oprah Winfrey, one of the most famous and powerful women in the world, was racially profiled at the luxury fashion brand Hermès and denied entry. In another incident at the Swiss boutique Troix Pommes, a store clerk refused to show the billionaire a $38,000 purse, saying it was “too expensive” for her. For context, Oprah was worth over 1.2 billion dollars in 2004. It’s safe to say, she could afford to buy the purse — and the store.
  • Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Black studies scholar at the Ivy League university, was arrested as a burglar in his own home just for looking out of place in his neighborhood — sadly, it was one of his own neighbors who called the police.
  • Recently, Amanda Gorman, a young poet selected by President Biden to read her original poem “The Hill We Climb” for his Inauguration, was followed by a security guard as she walked home because the guard felt she “looked suspicious.”
  • Last year Caron Nazario, a Second Lt. and a member of the U.S. Army Medical Corps, was profiled and accosted by police, while in uniform, for simply “driving while Black.”

Despite reaching the status of Black exceptionalism, stories like these still affirm that racism is well entrenched and that achievement is no equalizer.

So, We Can’t Celebrate Amazing Black People Now?

At this point, you might be thinking, “Wait so we can't celebrate amazing Black people now?” Of course you can. It’s perfectly fine to celebrate incredible Black people. It is critical, however, to understand they aren’t the only ones deserving of respect, fairness, and dignity, as to behave accordingly.

Secondly, Black exceptionalism has essentially stripped away Black people’s right to just be normal. So absolutely celebrate Black accomplishments but do not make them the bar to which all Black people must aspire. After all, expectation, by definition, is not “normal.”

Thirdly, when celebrating Black people in your workplace, communities, etc., who are excellent, how about simply celebrating their excellence…not their Blackness, and then their excellence. Let's celebrate the excellence of Black people, not Black people who are excellent.

Back to My Story  

I’ve personally carried the weight of Black exceptionalism and many other hardships on my back, and while yes, it has played a role in making me stronger, it doesn’t mean they should have been there all along.   

I recognize that as a Black woman, growing up in a single-parent home with real challenges, I faced institutions, policies, and procedures filled with inequities that should never have been and that my white counterparts simply did not have to endure. These inequities are not hardships. They are intentionally designed, systemically supported barriers to fairness and equal access to resources, opportunities, and so much more. 

Today, I’m a Black woman who excels at what I do, not because of the obstacles and hardships that I’ve had to overcome — but despite them. I own my entire story; the hard parts, the good parts, the scary parts, and the joyful parts. I’m also committed to self-care and self-preservation, and to therapy to process my pain and identify the unhealthy patterns that Black exceptionalism and white supremacy have instilled in me.

“Today, Black excellence or exceptionalism has mutated into something horrifying: ill-defined expectations of grandeur,” and it’s destroying us — Steven Underwood, Essence.

To the gentlemen who wrote me the private message and to others who say, “Those who don’t fight the fight will never have the grit to be strong,” I say….if only we were fighting the same fight… and running the same race. Just because I still won, doesn’t mean the obstacles (hardship, inequity, or unfair treatment) were good. 

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Raven Solomon

Raven is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Speaker, Author, & Strategist who helps organizations understand generations, racial equity, and their intersection.

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