If you ask a colleague today to name a black activist doing humanitarian work, or a black painter in the arts sector, or a female black CEO – chances are they’d struggle to respond. Ask them to name black politicians, or black leaders in the medical field and education system, then it’s game over. When we think of successful black people we often think of athletes and musicians (or the people married to them), rarely do we think of black individuals who are breaking boundaries and making real change out there in the big wide world. It’s a sad fact that black success has come to be stereotyped in this way.
The portrayals we see of successful black people in the media adds to public perception of those individuals, and can cause people to alter and strengthen their views on what black success looks like. As a result, the overrepresentation of black people in music and sports isn’t necessarily a good thing. A large portion of society will believe that black success in these industries has something to do with genes, athleticism, and socioeconomic status – for these reasons it’s hard for people to fathom that black people can be good at anything else. If you succumb to this theory then most likely you’re going to believe that white people are the only ones who are good at things such as engineering and mathematics – you’d be surprised how many people think black individuals don’t have the capacity to excel in these fields. When you reinforce these attitudes by not properly funding black education and not fairly representing black success, you reinforce stereotypes and assumptions about race. The concepts of success and the people defining those categories stem from a place where everybody looks the same, it’s policed by whiteness. How are you supposed to break down doors and dismantle stereotypes, when the people behind the doors won’t even let you in?
Black culture is inspiring, so much so in fact that it’s continuously copied and appropriated. So why aren’t successful black people being represented more fairly, and across more industries? The achievements of black individuals are never talked about as much as their non-black counterparts, an unending loop that reeks of subtle racism. If black culture and representation can be made palpable to a white audience then it’s accepted, but as soon as black people start to take ownership those same individuals deserving of recognition are left out of the conversation. Black success a lot of the time is swept under the rug, because for some strange reason recognising black talent and rewarding black people for their success makes others uncomfortable. Many industries are still living by age-old standards that they deem normal, but these standards are not inclusive or fair – underscoring the fact that black people are still largely underrepresented.
Black success is so much broader than what we see represented in mainstream media. We’re all too familiar with the #blackexcellence hashtag that began as a way to celebrate stories of black people being the first in their family to graduate university, and the first of their generation to make ground-breaking discoveries and changes in society. “Black excellence” is a way for black people to distance themselves from negative narratives, and to reclaim ownership of their stories. There are many black individuals who fall into this category; Vanessa Nakate a climate activist from Uganda (who was cropped out of a Davos photo featuring other young white activists), Yolanda Renee King an 11 year old anti-gun violence activist (granddaughter of MLK Jr.), Tarana Burke founder of the #MeToo movement and Executive Director of the Me Too Organisation, Ruth E. Carter a costume designer and visual storyteller who was the first African American woman to win an Oscar for her costume design work in the Black Panther movie, and Sheila Johnson co-founder of the BET Network and the first black female billionaire to make the Forbes list in 2000 (she’s also the first/only black woman to have stakes in their professional sports teams; the Wizards, Capitals, and Mystics) – that’s just to name a few. Why don’t we hear about these trailblazers more often, seeing as there’s so many varying stories of black success? Your guess is as good as mine.
Black success is still looked at as being very one-dimensional, a large portion of society will try to test your worth due to the colour of skin and you have to know how to act appropriately. Industries across the globe are known for making very surface-level changes and not doing anything to fix institutional problems, but don’t dim your blackness just so you can have a seat at the table. Speak up against unspoken cultural biases at every opportunity you get – regardless of the colour of your skin. The stereotypes of black success need to be demystified; successful black people deserve to have their moment in the spotlight.
Written by J’Nae Phillips