Recently, for The Guardian, Naomi Campbell shared an excerpt from a limited edition, two-volume book that chronicles her life as a groundbreaking and highly successful supermodel and all of the opportunities stemming from that. Yet for all that is shared in the excerpt—her as a supermodel, her speaking with world leaders as a contributing editor to various publications—the article’s title homes in on what I’ve come to see as a well-meaning but no less flawed line of thinking. The title in question is, “Naomi Campbell: ‘At an Early Age, I Understood What It Meant to Be Black. You Had to Be Twice as Good.’”
Campbell writes: “When I started out, I wasn’t being booked for certain shows because of the color of my skin. I didn’t let it rattle me. From attending auditions and performing at an early age, I understood what it meant to be black. You had to put in the extra effort. You had to be twice as good.”
Picture it: Me, yawning at both the headline and the sentiment that inspired it. Of course, Campbell is not the only person who echoes this statement. However, I’ve only heard the “twice as good to get half as much” mantra by the mediums of pop culture or the bougie black folks I encountered later in life after attending Howard University. When I was a child, not a single person ever told me this. I thank my Lord and Gyrator Beyoncé every single day for this.
Growing up, I was told to be great, but not from the perspective of doing so in order to attain an imbalanced portion of what some white person was getting for half the effort. When I think a lot about my childhood—well, besides the chaotic portions that often consumed it—I now have a greater respect for many of the values my mom instilled in me.
I did not grow up with a lot of money at all, but I was never raised to believe that there wasn’t anything I could not do. My first doctor was black. My first dentist was black. I had a black priest when I was still a practicing Catholic. I went to black schools, and when my mother aspired for me to go to a better school, it was not some white-populated institution; it was a private black school. She couldn’t afford it, but the school of her choosing denotes that something simply being white did not constitute as better.
Was racism explained to and experienced by me? Certainly. However, I never thought that to be black, I had to be twice as good as a white person. Likewise, I never operated under the impression that in order to see myself, I had to see it through the lens of whiteness or the prejudices forced upon me by white supremacy.
White people were just not the factor. Being black was always enough. To be fair to Naomi Campbell, she has always advocated for the inclusion of more black models. And Campbell takes great pride in being black. Still, when I hear people—good intentions or not—play into this kind of folklore, I find it troubling and saddening. No one should ever define themselves in that way. None of us should put that kind of unnecessary pressure on any nonwhite person.
It may be rooted in some nominal level of pragmatism and the notion of how the world actually functions, but it feels like a fruitless gesture. In my own life, I am thrice as good as many of my white male counterparts. There are countless others I know of who could say the same about theirs. Nevertheless, it never stops the racially coded language I read in my emails or hear in meetings about my bigger ambitions. It doesn’t negate the fact that I’ll always have to contend with this on some level.
Even so, while I know we have to live in the world, as it is, not how we want it to be, I will not allow this world’s mores to dictate how I view myself and my contribution. Thankfully, I had a mother who never made me center white people or whiteness or white people’s ignorance. I am great because I want to be great. I work incredibly hard because I am a hard worker. I dream my dreams because I feel worthy of them.
To be black is be excellent—not in spite of white people, but just because of us. I am not doing anything to show up white people, especially not for the sake of only getting crumbs from their plate. I do this for me. I want more of us to do the same. It’s not about them. It is about us.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.