Black Excellence, White Currency

A beautifully phrased meme graced my Facebook timeline this week. The spacing, just right, framed the words “Black excellence is still measured in white currency.” It hit home for me in the most lucid way.

  1. Stop asking black women to conform to white beauty standards.

    It’s rarely, if ever, a white counterpart wondering why I don’t straighten my hair or lay down my edges like they’re the deacons burdens. It’s my extended family, my boy on the block or the other black person in the office who imposes white respectability on my existence. Before my interview to my current job my aunt asked “you going to flat iron your hair?” My eyes made the rounds and my tongue cut her with a swift “My hair can’t do the job.” It is the ultimate passive-aggressive insult and command to conform to the white currency of beauty.  People demand the taming of black wild hair as if black beauty should be measured by white standards. My hair don’t lay flat, despite what black women on white magazine covers show.

    Magazine covers with black women are something to marvel at but in the back of my head, thanks to Values in Media class, I’m wondering: Why is she so light? Why is she wearing a wig/weave? Why is she wearing a white designer? I’m not suggesting that black women aren’t light, don’t have straight silky hair or shouldn’t don white designers but that those should not be standards to conform to. Most of the black women I see on magazine covers are covered in white designers, baked to their believably lightest tone and have a straight weave or wig. Black women with straight hair are the standard of black beauty. When myself and my curly haired peers decide to go straight and caked we notice the glow up love we receive from our black peers and our curly hair do’s become subversive messages of black excellence. It’s radical to be natural.

  2. Stop limiting the culture of black people to their knowledge of white history.

    In terms of entertainment, especially music, I could pay my student loans if I had a dime for every respectable black person tweeting the details of a classical measure, the secret signature of an impressionist or Scene 5 Act 2 of the white play. I know black people read, write and create. What I’m saying is the lack of knowledge of classical music, impressionism and neoclassical theater is not damning to ones respectability. I’m sick of black youths being expected to know classical artists but not jazz, being scolded for not knowing the difference between Manet and Monet and for not having “classical” training in any tradition. Or for being praised when they do.

    It’s condescending and exclusionary of other art and work during the period to label something as classical. (The rest of the world had art during those periods.) I’ve made jokes about my most memorable classical music experiences being from cartoons and been mocked several times over for assumed limited musical knowledge. I don’t tell those peers I’ve played more classical notes than they’ve heard because, embarrassingly, I stopped music study, at Jazz, when shit got real… hard. I’m not proud of knowing more classical music than Jazz, Soul, Folk, Blues or African tradition. I ain’t got time to validate my white cultural awareness because my excellence does not lie in my knowledge of culture not belonging to my ancestry.

  3. Stop assessing the value of black people based on their grasp of formal English.

    The Queens English is a second language. The dialect I speak on Schoolcraft and Grand River is not the same as that in my formal education. Many code switch or “talk white” as needed. Talking white has become synonymous with proper language but is very different. White talk has a different cadence than speaking properly. American language has a mélange (👈🏽like this one) of foreign language expressions that are used in common tongue. Black expressions though, while widely accepted for entertainment, are not accepted professionally or academically. They are deemed ghetto, hood or ignorant. Black people who are said to talk black in professional or academic environments are ridiculed.

    Conversations about how one should straighten up in the workplace and learn how to talk to white people are taking place, in this century, among black people. I am not making this shit up. There are people who still subscribe to higher respectability standards for professional white people. They are as bad as the people who speak slang only to their black leaders. Yes there is a universal language needed to communicate ideas but we live in a land with many unofficial borrowed phrases. Why do we exclude black idiomatic expressions? The height of literacy and communication does not lie in what’s commonly understood but in the dialects of the people who are misunderstood.  Moreover how is it that black people understand the limitations of education in poor black communities but cry shame every time they see they’re, their and there out of place? Take your educated ass to these communities and teach if it bothers you so.

I took care not to attack the memes and hashtags of #BlackExcellence because they are wonderful examples.  The problem isn’t that black people who excel in a predominantly white world of sports, academia and business are conforming but that those who don’t meet the criteria are deemed lacking. Black beauty, culture, and language are all worthy of mastery but to excel in areas not recognized by the white establishment well, that’s not as respectable.  It’s often a measure of white currency that comes along with black excellence. Awards, magazines, education systems and professional hierarchies are designed to be measured in white currency. I’d like to argue why we’re still fighting for white Oscars, Grammy’s and Espy’s, and medals but I have no alternative to argue for, yet.  Black excellence doesn’t rest in how well we master the rules of their game but how we live according to our own, unapologetically. If I have to change my hair, forget my culture and speak their language then I am just performing excellence in white currency.


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