The paradox of Black excellence

by Abigail Williams

I am a big supporter of rest and relaxation. As a Black student at LSE, having this opinion almost feels like heresy.

I wasn’t always like this. I often think back to a moment I had in secondary school. My friend and I had just finished a chemistry class and it was now break time. Most sane people would use their break to relax, but we had a different idea in mind. We collected our things and walked down towards the library. Another friend asked why we were doing this. We had just finished a class; weren’t we tired? Didn’t we need a break? Our response to her was almost instinctive, “We can rest when we’re dead.” 

Looking back on this memory, I laugh, but only half-heartedly. Although our dedication to our GCSEs was admirable, we were exhibiting a deeply concerning attitude. Many of us at LSE are guilty of it, sacrificing our mental health and wellbeing at the altar of hyper-productivity and hard work. But why?

I highlighted my Blackness at the beginning of the article, not just because it’s Black History Month, but because it played an integral part in shaping my outlook on rest, relaxation and hyper-productivity. Again, referencing my secondary school days, I remember sitting in an assembly hall listening to a motivational speaker. We repeated his mantra: “No grind, no glory.” The atmosphere was electric. At a time when morale in the school was low and students were beginning to feel drained, it was almost like a war cry. As beneficial as this was, part of me wondered, and still wonders, whether this glorification of the grind can instead have adverse effects. 

I know some of you may be reading this article wondering what on earth this mystical ‘grind’ is. To define it, to grind is to work unrelentingly. It is a sentiment permeating many Black communities, particularly those burdened by poverty and low social mobility. But why is this the case? 

One of the biggest reasons is that hard work and ‘grinding’ feels like the only escape route from difficult circumstances. Whilst I never intend to speak on behalf of all Black people because the ‘Black experience’, like any other race or culture, is not monolithic; it is common knowledge that the institutional cards are stacked against us. Though some are reluctant to admit it, the lack of representation and mobility for Black people is prevalent. For example, reflect on your experiences at LSE – how many of your professors have been Black? How many of your essential readings are written by Black academics and authors? Now think about your latest internship or your dream job – how many of your interviewers were Black? How many of the people working in that institution looked like me? And so the response for many Black people is to work harder to beat these odds. 

Even at a cultural level, this same need to work hard unfolds before our very eyes. It is encapsulated in this phenomenon called ‘The Black Tax’; the reality that as a Black person, you may never fully enjoy the fruits of your labour, as the spoils of it need to be divided to help the rest of your community. It’s an idea that South African comedian and presenter Trevor Noah articulates so beautifully in his book Born a Crime. He argues that “the generations who came before you have been pillaged” and so “rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up from zero”. I asked my mother whether she felt this same burden, and she said she felt an obligation to work hard and support other people in the community. Whether that meant sending money back home to pay for school fees or hospital bills, it was simply standard practice for people to “take from those who have more”.

I believe that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and I think this constant need to work is a massive one. I now take a personal issue with the idea of productivity. In the words of the great Elsa Majimbo, “I AM NOT A MACHINE.” This was, unfortunately, a lesson that I had to learn the hard way. My desire to constantly be working and achieving meant that by the end of my first year, I was experiencing dissociation due to anxiety, as well as physical and mental exhaustion. Although I am more than aware that this is a significant problem across the board at university, research highlights that Black people, for the above reasons and others, are not getting enough rest. Using sleep as a key indicator of this, it show that Black people are getting less sleep on average than any other racial group. 

Accepting that it’s okay to rest is quite a difficult pill to swallow, especially within various Black communities where it is strongly believed that you must “work twice as hard to get half as much”. As much as I want to fully embrace resting and finding a work-life balance, it can often feel like a luxury that life has not been kind enough to afford me. And so we, particularly as Black students, are forced to strive to be the best, to achieve ‘Black excellence’ – to defy the odds and be extraordinary. Often the term is used as a form of empowerment. Seeing so many Black people in history and around you defying the odds, becoming the first university chancellor or C-suite executive, is empowering. It is a constant reminder that anything is possible through hard work and determination, in spite of the odds. However, we must be careful to prevent this from becoming a noose. We must try not to get so caught up in the pursuit of excellence that we deny ourselves the right to simply exist.

My experiences have allowed me to realise that I don’t need to bow to the pressure of constantly working to succeed. I’ve decided that this is my radical rebellion. In a world that seems intent on denying me the right of a simple existence, I’m making the conscious decision to rest. Rather than seeing it as a reward, I am deciding to remind myself that I deserve it by virtue of my humanity. Yes, there are times when working is necessary, but I speak to my fellow Black students in particular when I say: You cannot come and kill yourself for this degree. 

So, how do you do this? Imperative to embracing this mindset is reminding yourself that not everything is urgent, that it’s okay to let some tasks fall by the wayside if it means preserving your own sanity. This may make you feel a bit anxious at first, especially when you’re used to living life in perpetual ‘grind mode’. However, some things that help me are using mindfulness techniques such as journaling, yoga and reaching out when I need help and support. I have been a peer supporter for the past two years and the help that scheme provides is invaluable. Above all, it is essential to remember, in the words of Dr Thema Bryant, that “you are a human being and your wellness and balance is important”. And so you must give yourself “grace, compassion, patience and love so that [you] do not add burdens to [your] own back, that [you] do not participate in [your] own dehumanisation”.

Abigail is ethnically Ghanian and Sierra-Leonean, and grew up in North London. She was the President of the Social Mobility Society and Ablaze Officer at the African Caribbean Society last academic year.


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