The ‘Exceptional Negro’

In Think, Watch

Three years ago I wrote about an issue close to my heart – the experience of being a teenager in high school who had been singled out as a ‘high-achiever’ among my black peers, made to feel as if I had succeeded academically in spite, not regardless, of my skin colour. I may have called it positive discrimination then, and I wasn’t entirely wrong, but in retrospect, there is something darker and more troubling that pervades this culture of rewarding non-white youth who are doing better ‘than expected’.

I must admit, this retrospective thinking was majorly inspired by my recent experience of living with a closet racist. You see, my (now former) housemate wasn’t your run-of-the-mill bigot. She was a well-cultured Taiwanese woman who played the violin (albeit, horribly), drank expensive whiskey and had travelled the world both for business and for pleasure. I genuinely liked her, and she also had taken quite a shine to me – but nobody says bigots can’t be likeable or smart. That doesn’t change the fact that they are bigots.

During a conversation one day, my former oh-so-worldly housemate casually dropped the bombshell that she normally doesn’t let black people live with her. “Don’t take this the wrong way”, she prefaced. She then went on to explain that she had negative experiences with a black housemate before, which had put her off ever letting one live with her again. When she met me, and heard me speak, however, she was so impressed that she decided to give me a chance.

“You reminded me of Obama”, she joked, “You seemed so intelligent and focused.”

There was a nugget of a compliment there. But the idea that I was somehow remarkable, different, from other black people, simply because I had a decent job and spoke decent English, was A-grade racism at its finest. It’s the good old-fashioned ‘exceptional negro’ phenomenon. A mythology, as old as chattel slavery, that still, to this day, is ingrained in our society’s subconscious – and manifests itself when schools reward their ethnic minorities for doing well, or when white friends comment on how “not Black” you sound.

Take Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, for example. Our tragic protagonist, as soon as he appears on the screen, dazzles us with his finesse on the violin and his immaculate diction. No wonder he is a free man, you can’t help but think, shamefully. He is not like the other bovine slaves of that time, and only by a vicious and criminal act of betrayal does he later on become their companion in bondage and misery.

In 12 Years a Slave, director Steven McQueen really brings to the forefront this ironic dichotomy between the erudite free men and the uncultured slaves. Everyone, from the slaves, to the pampered free men, to the monstrous slavers, seemed to genuinely believe that intelligence was a trait wholly and entirely ‘un-black’; and any black person who possessed such qualities clearly did not belong amongst the ranks of the mindless African chattel.

Sadly, while slavery may long have been abolished, even nowadays, too many black high-achievers aren’t lauded just for their talents, but the fact that they are good at something, even though they are black. It may not be as explicit or openly exhibited as it was back during the days of Solomon Northup. But it still persists.

It’s not just crusty old white politicians referring to Obama as a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”. Or Quentin Tarantino’s problematic depiction of Django in Django Unchained, the ‘black avenger’ that rises above his helplessly shackled companions to take up the banner of abolitionist heroism, of course not without the guidance of ‘white saviour’ Dr King Schultz.

It’s everything from that small look of surprise somebody gives you when they hear you talk – not in some thick patois, but clear crisp English – to the way they compliment you for having done well at university. Well done, you, for beating the odds. Well done for not ending up on the streets.

Time and time again, you are reminded that you are exceptional, but only really because you are black.

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