Is the Pressure of Black Excellence Hurting Our Kids?

Black youth are excelling in academics and sports in record numbers. Still, parents are asking, what are the unintended consequences of #Blackexcellence on our kids?  

Frustrated girl sitting at desk with laptop and books
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"If it was a 'B' minus, I was scolded about why it wasn't a 'B' or 'B' plus,'" says Chatima Hughes. The mother of three who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, says her parents expected her to bring home nothing less than a "B" from school.

Hughes's experience describes the long tradition of Black communities expecting their youth to challenge anti-Black narratives about their potential by excelling, no matter the cost. #Blackexcellence and #Blackgirlmagic have become mainstream rallying cries and this sentiment has resurfaced with particular fervor. There are a record number of examples of Black youth showing up and showing out, with their full potential on display. Still, it's worth asking, what are the unintended consequences of #Blackexcellence on our youth?

"As a Black female, it was reiterated to me regularly that I have to work twice as hard to achieve half the things my non-POC counterparts do," she says. "I think this has contributed to my anxiety and my reasoning for not expecting my kids to be perfect."

The pressure of Black excellence weighs particularly heavy in Black communities. Oddesty K Langham, LPC, a licensed clinical mental health therapist, says Black parents' push for exceptional children often comes from systemic racism. She says they may also feel pressure to raise children who will not be a statistic, or will not be looked down on, and who may stand a chance of not being seen as a threat.

She also notes that pressure to meet certain expectations may have unintended consequences, if not done healthily. "This may look like children battling mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression [due to] the pressure, stress, or failure to meet the expectations," says Langham. "This may also look like children who grow up to lack self-compassion, grace, and the ability to navigate failure in a way that is healthy and conducive to living a joyful life."

The American Psychological Association says Black youth are facing a mental health crisis—significant illness, poverty, and discrimination. They also note Black youth face a higher risk for suicide, depression, and other mental health problems. It's also harder for Black parents to locate therapy for their children due to a lack of accessible, culturally relevant, and affordable care. All of these issues make it even more important we evaluate the pressure we put on our youth.

Recently, 18-year-old professional tennis player Cori "Coco" Gauff highlighted the pressure Black youth feel to "be the best" in an interview with the Telegraph. She reflected on the tears she shed at Arthur Ashe Stadium. She was under immense pressure to succeed in the match against Naomi Osaka after beating Venus Williams at Wimbledon at 15 and being the youngest player to progress to the fourth round in 29 years.

"It wasn't that I believed I could win the tournament," she said. "It's that I expected to. The Naomi match [at the US Open], now I look back at it, I'd say there was no chance that girl would beat her, but in my head at the time, it felt like I had to win. At 15, I just put so much on myself."

She didn't name race as a factor. But her statements make it clear that #Blackexcellence creates nuanced pressures and vulnerabilities in Black communities.

"I don't like what the whole concept of excelling or even 'Black excellence' does to my insides," says Tracey Michae'l Lewis-Giggetts, an author and mother to a ten-year-old who lives in New Jersey. "I've been [working] to unravel and unlearn from this idea that my value and worth are tied to my productivity. That pressure pushes that message and it doesn't feel good—I'm not sure it's a motivator for me anymore."

There are signs and behaviors that let parents know the pressure to achieve negatively impacts their children. "Parents may notice children having difficulty regulating their emotions, especially emotions that arise as a result of any type of failure, such as making a poor grade," says Langham. She notes tendencies that look like perfectionism or unhealthy desires to be the best at everything can bring negative emotions. "This can look like aggressive behaviors as a response to failure or losing," she says. "Children may also have a fear or shame due to not doing well. This can look like hiding their report card from their parents or fearing how others will respond when they do not do well."

She suggests that parents who seek to motivate their children to do their best without pushing them toward perfectionism work to create a supportive environment where their children feel seen, heard, and understood.

Like Hughes, Lewis-Giggetts resists the pressure to demand excellence from her children. "I don't know if children even know what their best is," she says. "How do they know when they are falling short of whatever 'best' is, and whose standard for 'best' am I giving her?" Instead, she supports her daughter in doing her personal best and combats this pressure by teaching her to pay attention to her body. "When she's doing her school work, does she feel clear-minded? If not, is there something she can do—breathing, movement—to help her feel better? I think this sets her up to enter whatever she's doing with a mind and body primed for what we call 'doing her best.'"

Their household is actively discussing how to find joy in learning this year. She tries to help her daughter—who's an artist and a creator— apply her learning style to what she's learning, even if it's not presented in that way initially. This looks like asking her to explore math and formulas in ways that connect with her, like creating a video or drawing. It's paid off.

"Her eyes light up and the proverbial lightbulb turns on. The joy returns," she says. "As her parent, I also choose to advocate for her with her teachers. In essence, if her teachers do not know how to differentiate their classrooms, they will have [after] talking to this mom."

Langham says it is important to get to know our children and their strengths and weaknesses. This makes it easier to help them get any needed help to feel confident in every area of life. "When children know that they are cared about, they are more likely to thrive," she says.

She continues, noting parents should encourage academics—like the importance of reading—from an early age and incorporate things their children already enjoy. It's possible to be supportive while knowing our youth don't have to be the best at everything. "Make sure they know and accept what their best is," she says. "Get them any needed support if you are unable to assist with areas of difficulty, but also pay attention enough to know what is a need for support and what is simply a situation where they are doing the best they can."

Hughes does this. "I expect them to live up to their capabilities, and if they are having a rough time and a 'C' is the best they can do, then I'm glad they put in that much effort and are happy and healthy."

Unrealistic standards can cause mental and emotional damage, says Langham. "Our children need to know that it is OK to make mistakes, and it is OK to not always be the best," she says. "Teach them how to navigate conflict and times when they are not perfect, so they don't grow up dealing with unhealthy perfectionism and lacking self-compassion."

In the Telegraph interview, Gauff said she's learned a lot since that loss, and given a chance, she would tell her 15-year-old self she had taken on too much. "I would say, 'You're crazy. You're putting so much pressure on yourself,'" she said. "It was definitely a lot to deal with. The biggest thing I've learnt is you don't have to care about what other people expect from you. Just enjoy the moment. I wasn't enjoying the moment then."

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