We’re all for excellence and for having the confidence to strive to be excellent. In this essay, Vanessa Babirye, star of Ackee and Saltfish, asks if the pressure we place on ourselves can sometimes be destructive.
In a society that profits off of your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act. Particularly if you are a black woman. How dare you love yourself every day? Don’t you have some nurturing of everybody else to do? How dare you put your needs first? Think of how you’re representing your family, your ‘race’. Because, of course, one black woman is the blue print for all black women and of course if you’re not the epitome of ‘black excellence’ all humanity will cease and hell fire will inhabit the earth killing us all.
I was emailed at the end of August by somebody asking for advice. She is a queer black woman who had just come out to her family and she wanted to know if I could advise her on what her next steps should be. I came out via social media abruptly. My mother has passed away and my father lives in the states so that was something I never had to think about. I’m also fairly impulsive with the things I post on social media generally and whether my father checks my social media (he does) does not affect the content I share. But that is just my experience and in some ways I felt guilty that the nuanced situation of my coming out wasn’t as hard as the brave woman in my emails.
As a black woman, I’m sure, she had seen plentiful examples of how black women have been surviving
She explained that her family said they would stop helping her financially if she continued to choose to act like a ‘disgrace’ and that she wouldn’t be able to continue with her business plans and future investments. I was rattled. First, I am in no way an academic of any sort, or a health-care professional, or any type of ‘expert’ on this topic and I didn’t feel like I was the best person to ask. But she reached out, and I didn’t want to be that person providing another black woman with generic advice that can and has been to our detriment.
My mother gave me love in the way she knew how. Very often in the black community the way mothers give love is through demonstrating the survival tactics that they were shown. Surviving life and living life are too completely different things and I didn’t want to give her advice for survival because as a black woman I’m sure she had seen plentiful examples of how black women have been surviving. So I advised her that money can be raised with the right people and minds behind it, and that she could still pursue her passion but it would have to be a different way to what she had originally planned.
We spoke about LGBT groups she could join and the importance of surrounding yourself with people that don’t make you feel oppressed or policed. We spoke about self-care. We spoke about acceptance. When I stressed that mental health is important, particularly at a time like this, she replied: ‘I need to be excellent’. My heart wept.
She was being pretty tough on herself if Serena Williams was her yardstick at that point in time.
I asked her what she meant and if she could elaborate. She spoke about Serena Williams and how, for her, Serena is the epitome of ‘black excellence’. She is the best at what she does. And she’s right. I can’t disagree. Serena Williams is the greatest athlete of all time. So I was stuck. But I couldn’t help but think that she was being pretty tough on herself if Serena Williams was her yardstick at that point in time. Comparison is an act of violence.
It made me think of Instagram. Why do we need to see the amount of followers somebody has if we’re just using it to look at pictures? What defines excellence – hyper visibility?
Does Serena’s success take away from Venus’s? Of course not. So what happens when you are not the best? What happens when you are not excellent? What happens when you are a black woman and you are not the best in the field you are in? What happens to second place? What if you don’t actually want to be excellent? What if you can’t afford to be? Surely joy is radical? Surely your mere existence and resistance to white supremacy is excellent. Surely the revolution can only happen with all of us and not all of us can be the best because the best can only be one. Does that make the force of the movement less impactful?
The woman in my emails is excellent because she exists.
The woman in my emails is excellent because she exists. She is excellent because she is the best and she is the best because she is herself with her own unique finger print and there will never be another her.
Sway. I’m not an academic, I did not go to university and my education stopped with an acting BTEC. I have no desire to continue with education and I am really okay with that. Those that have completed university; honestly hats off to you. You’re valid. Just as those who didn’t or couldn’t.
Living out your passion is a privilege. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
I have many black women I look up to and many of them are hyper visible/celebrities and many of them are people I actually know in real life. It’s important to have a balance between the two and if being the best at what you do truly fulfills you then you have the answer.
But not all of us are leaders; not all of us are activists. Not all of us are curators. Many of us are abled differently and many of us are living with mental health conditions that can stifle our desire for change. To the leaders, influencers, activists, artists’ and curators: you are loved and supported and so very important to the resistance. To those who attend exhibitions, buy tickets to shows, retweet links and support the content, you are loved and supported and so very important to the resistance. You are excellent. We are excellent.