When my parents decided to move our family from East Africa to Canada it wasn’t in the hopes that I would become an astronaut or a CEO or any other kind of elite standout. They didn’t hope for a wild success story. They simply wanted their son to achieve what they saw so many achieving in the West; which is a high degree of comfort in spite of being completely average.
More than anything, this is what my mother loved about her new adopted home. Unlike the places she grew up as a refugee—where one failed exam could mean the end of all future opportunities—she was enamoured by how much Canadians could fail. From driver’s tests to school applications, the fact that Canadians could fail a virtually unlimited amount of times on their way to some moderate success and a peaceful existence filled her with warm-hearted patriotic feeling.
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My parents were only saddened to realise after some time that Canada did not seem to extend the same grace to its Black residents. They were very surprised to discover the North American stereotype that Black people were outliers— either pretenaturally talented or pathologically incapable—and consequently given less permission to simply exist, be ourselves, and thrive in spite of our human imperfections. My song ‘Black Averageness’ is primarily about this; about the freedom to be who we are which, for most us, is just average.
I’ve heard Chris Rock among other comedians and many other cultural analysts too brilliantly describe this phenomenon—the freedom to fail, the luxury of mediocrity—and how these privileges are rarely afforded to Black people. I won’t reiterate their already perfectly crafted points but I would add to them that our society’s fraught relationship with “averageness” is more broadly harmful too. Sadly, I’ve noticed many Black and non-Black folks alike suffering under the burden of a vague pressure to prove they are among the outliers.
This social pressure appears to me to be rooted in a curious logical error. Some people are truly extraordinary and I, like many, am naturally inclined to celebrate excellence in general and Black Excellence in particular. But this is precisely because most of us are, by definition, average. The vast majority of us fall somewhere in the normal range of human ability. But this is not bad news. It means that most of us can do most things. For example, my ability to run fast might get me laughed out of Olympic trials but I can still run after the bus if I need to chase it down, I can play soccer with my nephews, and I keep up on most local basketball courts. In other words, I can do every single thing in daily life that involves running fast. In our culture, “being average” somehow carries a connotation of inadequacy. The opposite is true. Average means that, practically speaking, you can do almost anything.
In Grade 4 when I told my mom I was selected for a gifted program she scoffed and kissed her teeth. The term “White Nonsense” hadn’t yet been coined but this was clearly her sense of this assessment. She said, “You’re normal” and laughed mockingly at what she viewed as a very unscientific and unwise label to place on children. As I grew older, she continuously reiterated to me how normal I was and also constantly repeated that normal was all that she wanted for me. I was and am very glad for this because her repeatedly telling me how unremarkable I am didn’t diminish my talents at all. Quite the opposite actually; her message liberated them. It gave me permission to fail, to not feel the need to live in reaction to stereotypes, and also to just generally not be so concerned with my own abilities or achievements.
Interestingly, I don’t think Martin Luther King Jr, for example, saw himself as exceptional. I don’t get the impression that most of our other truly outstanding cultural heroes viewed themselves as exceptional either. And I don’t think this is false modesty on their part. History seems to suggest that while some are definitely born with otherworldly talents, truly transcendent human achievement is usually the shaped by external conditions more than innate abilities; the times demand it, a beloved community needs it. So even many of those whom we deem clearly exceptional are often actually fairly ordinary people who happened to have been filled with extraordinary inspiration and also buoyed by the love and devotion of those around them.
If we could embrace the simple reality that we are most likely just about the same as everybody else, I think we might treat each other much better. I also think it would also give us more compassion for ourselves, freeing us from the need to prove that we are more than we are, that we are more than others. And ironically, that freedom might allow us to soar much higher. While “Black Averageness” has a specific message of joy and freedom for Black people, my hope is that, along with a few laughs, the song might be liberating for anybody.
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Shad’s new album ‘TAO’ is out now.
Photo Credit: Justin Broadbent