The Witness

Problems with the “Exceptional Negro” Concept

Jarvis Williams

Against challenging odds, many African-Americans have been able to achieve tremendous accomplishments in their American experience. In an age in which there are still many challenges plaguing certain African-American communities (e.g. broken families, violence, poverty, etc.), we as African-Americans must remind ourselves of our many amazing achievements in U.S. history. Especially since African-Americans had to endure slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow; and since in certain (and especially in poor) African-American communities, there are still many challenges. African-American conservative economist Thomas Sowell once stated that the social progress of blacks in the U.S. during the days of discrimination was quite an accomplishment.

The successes of many African-Americans in the areas of industry, education, law, business, sports, etc. convey there are many African-Americans who are proven to be great at what they do. But the concept of the “exceptional Negro” assumes that African-American success is abnormal. This concept also suggests that successful African-Americans “aren’t like those other blacks,” because they break the stereotypes by their so-called exceptional qualities. Famous African-Americans or middle class and affluent African-Americans are often labeled as “exceptional Negroes,” because they are able to transcend certain racial stereotypes by their exceptional accomplishments.

Abnormal and Exceptional
In a country that normalizes whiteness and white experiences and that identifies non-white experiences as “ethnic” or “raced,” the “exceptional Negro” concept implies that successful African-Americans are abnormal—hence the phrase “exceptional Negro.” African-American success and the unusual accomplishments of these African-Americans, this concept suggests, distinguish the exceptional Negroes from the normal underachieving African-Americans.

Those who believe in the “exceptional Negro” concept might often think that it’s normal and nothing “exceptional” when folks from other races and ethnicities achieve success, but rather abnormal when members of non-African American races and ethnicities fail to achieve what an outer group thinks it should achieve (e.g. when someone from a certain ethnic group becomes a preacher, instead of a medical doctor when that particular group is well represented in the medical profession).

The “exceptional Negro” concept is often believed by both black and non-black people. This is perhaps one reason why certain middle-class, educated, and affluent blacks at times look down upon and ostracize themselves from those poor and uneducated blacks who do not share their social privileges and who have not had the same accomplishments.

Accepted Blacks
The “exceptional Negro” concept is likewise perhaps why certain whites who are in fact racist dislike black people, but yet love President Obama, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, or Denzel Washington because of the “exceptional” attributes they possess and exhibit in society. An example of the “exceptional Negro” concept is Senator Harry Reid’s remarks about President Obama in 2010; that he was “light-skinned” and “didn’t speak with a Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” This, said Reid, is one reason the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate.

At a more basic level, the “exceptional Negro” concept is often the culprit when someone from a different race says to a black friend: “You’re not like other black people”— or as a dear white friend once said to me after seeing and hearing another black person acting and speaking a certain way (and what he thought was a blacker way than I): “Jarvis, why don’t you act like that.” And, on another occasion, a white high school classmate said to me,“We view you as one of us” because of the privileges I had as a black athlete, while the other black students in my school were not viewed well, because they did not have the same athletic privileges as I.

It is true: there are people within different races who are exceptional and who achieve exceptional accomplishments. Michael Jordan, in my very biased opinion, is the greatest basketball player ever to play the game of basketball. And I get very upset when anyone tries to tell me otherwise, not because he’s black but because I grew up watching him and the Bulls and because his accomplishments prove he’s simply the greatest player ever! But Christians ought not to think that it’s unusual when black people achieve exceptional things, because African-Americans are not biologically and therefore ontologically predisposed to being mediocre. To suggest otherwise is to fundamentally be a racist.

A Christian Worldview
The concept of the “exceptional Negro” might seem harmless. But it is, in my view, a racialized category that perpetuates fallacious ideas about black people that are based on racist myths. The perpetuation of the “exceptional Negro” concept also fuels the flame of an already racially tense country, divided over race.

As I said above, yes, certain African-Americans face many challenges in the current social climate. Those challenges could be because of poor choices and, in certain cases, because of systemic challenges. Yes, certain African-Americans and people from other races have done exceptional things!

But Christians ought not to think that when African-Americans perform exceptionally well, they are “exceptional Negroes” or normalize the so-called “unexceptional blacks” as what’s to be expected of most African-Americans. A more uplifting way to approach the conversation about the different social challenges facing certain African-Americans is to affirm there are many African-Americans who have the God-given potential to be brilliant, and with God’s grace, hard work, and opportunities, they will be able to achieve their special potential as image bearers created in the image of God.

1 Comment

  1. g

    It is a privilege to comment to your writing here. To many of us, you speak what God has shown us before you write it. And to that end, God uses you to encourage us in the hope of a better Church. Some of us think that a better church influences culture. Perhaps the fault and hope is in the church. What if American church leadership reflected the ethnic makeup of the non exceptional “cloud of witnesses”. Some think God would be please. If God were pleased with His church then maybe we would not be so dependent on, or so disappointed in, the “horses and Chariots” that are failing her now. Praying for us now.

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