The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked an international conversation about racism, specifically anti-Blackness. It is a conversation that has drawn in people from across countries and generations, and within the Black community we’ve been looking to our elders for history, guidance and comfort during this time when our pain is amplified and visceral. Many Black people, myself included, have expressed that we don’t want our children to grow up experiencing the same struggles that we, our parents, and our grandparents have experienced. Understandably, young Black people don’t want that to be their experience either. On 9 July Shaun Bailey, the Conservative London mayoral candidate, tweeted that a young Black boy called John asked him what we can do to defeat racism in the UK.
Shaun Bailey’s response? “Be as good as you can be. Be excellent. There’s massive talent in the black community. Use yours. And prove the racists wrong.” In a short video clip attached to the tweet, he goes on to say that he believes “in the talents of the Black community and we want our children to do as well as they can and that means us working as hard as we can in school and professionally and making sure we can move forward positively.”
For the sake of transparency, I will admit that I have very little in the way of respect for Shaun Bailey. In my opinion, he talks a lot of pandering nonsense when it comes to race – his recent performance on ITV’s “Has Britain Changed?” programme is a case in point. This tweet is also a case in point, although Bailey is not the first Black person I’ve heard express a similar sentiment with regard to #BlackExcellence.
Like every other Black person who is not bad mind, I love seeing Black people win. I love seeing Black people achieving amazing things in our respective fields, despite the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that we are forced to navigate. However, being happy to see Black people excelling despite racism or in the face of racism, is not the same as believing that individual stories of excellence will somehow “defeat” racism, and it is an inaccurate narrative to perpetuate. Black people cannot achieve their way out of racism, and with the following three points I will explain why.
- Black excellence has no positive impact on racist minds, the opposite is more true
Shaun Bailey told this young Black boy that to defeat racism Black people should be excellent. Not only is this some insensitive, tap-dancing nonsense, it is demonstrably untrue. There have been, and are still, many excellent Black people in the UK who have worked hard “at school and professionally.” Diane Abbott attended the University of Cambridge and was the first Black woman to become an MP. Ian Wright was an exceptional footballer who worked hard to be at the top of his game and retired as a legend. Despite their hard work, both of them were subjected to racism throughout their lives and careers. Why have I chosen these two as examples? Because to this day, they are still receiving racist abuse. It is a well-documented fact that Diane Abbott received over half of all the abuse sent to women MPs in the six months leading up to the 2017 General Election. In May, Ian Wright was sent racist abuse on Instagram by a teenager. If what Shaun Bailey claimed was even remotely true, racism in the UK would have ended years ago. Yet here we are in 2020, still out on these streets protesting against police brutality towards Black people. Here we are in 2020, with Black women still being five times more likely to die in childbirth in the UK because of medical racism. Here we are in 2020, still having to speak up about systemic racism across all institutions here because racism is such an integral part of this country’s anatomy that it may as well be its heartbeat.
What makes it worse is that a few days after Bailey tweeted this senselessness Edward Enninful, the (first) Black editor of British Vogue, spoke out about being racially profiled by a security guard at his own workplace. People like Shaun Bailey believe that Black faces in high places means that we will be exempt from racism, but we can’t even go into our workplaces without being treated like second-class citizens. Black people making successes of themselves, especially financially, may insulate them on some minor level from some of the impacts of racism due to fame and class, but it doesn’t protect them from it entirely. If it did, Raheem Sterling would not have had to lead the charge in speaking up about racism in football last year. Stormzy would not have had his own neighbours call the police and report him as a burglar when he moved into his home in Chelsea.
Additionally, Black success does not “prove the racists wrong.” In fact, in both the US and the UK, examples of Black excellence have been weaponised by racists as “proof” that racism does not exist.
“If the UK is so racist how come [insert talented Black person] is so successful?”
“The world isn’t racist anymore, Barack Obama was president.”
Racists will use our own achievements to gaslight us and make it appear like systemic racism is all in our heads. As far as they’re concerned, we haven’t excelled despite the barriers in our way, we have excelled because the barriers simply aren’t there.
Irrespective of class, talent or hard work, racists will always find a way to subjugate Black people because that’s what racists do. No amount of #BlackExcellence will change that.
- Black excellence should not be the basis upon which Black people deserve respect
The most infuriating thing about this tweet for me is the insinuation that being excellent should be the basis upon which Black people’s humanity should be seen and respected. It should not matter whether a Black person is talented or untalented, employed or unemployed, excellent or average. No Black person deserves to be subjected to racism. We know our elders have always taught us that we have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good, and I completely understand how white supremacy has dictated the need for that logic. However, true freedom means that Black people are able to live freely, however they please, without having to work to some abstract standard of “excellence” as defined by whiteness. Excellence is a subjective term, and if a Black person wants to strive for it – whatever it may mean in the context of their life – they should do so because it’s what they want to do, because it makes them happy, not because they need to do it to avoid being treated as subhuman by racists.
- Black people do not have anything to ‘prove’ to racists
This is, in some ways, related to the point I’ve just made, but I wanted to address it separately nonetheless. Implicit in this idea of ‘proving’ racists wrong is that as Black people we should aim to be the ‘good Black person.’ This idea was also part of the discourse around racism in football when it reared its ugly head again last year. England players were prepared to walk off the pitch in protest if they were subject to racism when they played Bulgaria. This caused some debate in football when it was announced and Howard Gayle, Liverpool’s first Black player, wrote an article in The Guardian arguing that if the players were to do that then “racism wins.” Even though I understand where he was coming from, taking into account the context of his life and the state of English football when he played, I found the article disappointing. I haven’t got the space to break down the entire piece here, so I’ll simply highlight the main point that I took issue with.
Gayle argued that walking off the pitch is “tantamount to submission,” and that his advice to players like Tammy Abraham is to “play well…score a goal. Score a hat-trick. Then go and stand in front of them again to say they cannot beat you, they cannot affect you.” If you have a lick of sense, you can see the similarities between Gayle’s argument and Shaun Bailey’s.
Be excellent. Prove the racists wrong.
But again, that clearly doesn’t work. If it did, Black players would not still be receiving so much racist abuse, not just from fans of other European teams, but their own. Furthermore, I take issue with encouraging young Black people to pretend that racism doesn’t affect us. Howard Gayle comes from a generation where Black people had to fight in every way to survive and to obtain basic rights. I understand why, when he played, walking off the pitch was not an option. As he says in the article, the manager would have probably just brought on a substitute, and I expect that player’s chances of starting the next game would have walked off the pitch with him. That kind of outward resilience was key, especially because there was no internal support for them.
But if there has been any progress at all in football, it’s that individual managers are a tad more aware and more willing to show understanding and support to their Black players. Also, as Gayle states in the article, players now have access to psychologists. These are all good things, and players should utilise them fully to enable them to evolve the ways they show resistance to racism, instead of pretending they are not affected by it.
Walking off the pitch is not tantamount to submission, it is tantamount to going on strike, and that is a legitimate and effective form of protest. I do not think it is fair for people like Gayle to insinuate that the players are mentally weak for taking that route instead of staying on to “prove” a point to racists who don’t care anyway. As I explained earlier, our excellence will not change them. Black people should not have to sacrifice their mental health to “prove themselves” to racists. Howard Gayle and the players of his generation had to, but they shouldn’t have, and we have to find a way to break the cycle. I know people love to see Black people being ‘strong’ and being ‘dignified’ in the face of racism because it is very palatable to see us acting like it doesn’t matter, because then they can act like it doesn’t matter too. But it does. It does matter.
Racism subjugates us. Racism dehumanises us. We should not be encouraging children to make it their aim to circumvent it via this flimsy, subjective construction of excellence. We should be the ones working to tear racism down so children like John don’t have to. Black people deserve to be whoever they want to be, however they want to be, for their own personal happiness and fulfilment.