We can all agree that 2020 has been a horrible year. So far we are wrestling with COVID, we are witnessing repeated attacks on black bodies, many people are dealing with unemployment challenges while others are deciding whether to return to their essential worker job and then some must weigh staying at home and not earning a paycheck with sending their kids back to school in the middle of a pandemic. Daily we are contending with all of these things and due to the lack of leadership and the absence of clear messaging from this administration, we are all left confused about what the future holds.
Collectively, 2020 is taking a toll on all of us, but the effects on communities of color, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBTQ+ communities of color are far worse. Stating that fact does not diminish the experience of others, but instead, amplifies the needs of the most underserved populations: “While they make up 12% of the population, African Americans account for 26% of public-transit workers; 19% of child care workers; and 18% of warehouse, trucking, and postal workers, according to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic Policy Research. Overall, about 17% of America’s front-line workforce is black (Ivanova, 2020).” So not only do Black people make up the majority of the essential workforce, our communities are being infected with COVID at higher rates, we are dying at higher rates, and we are contending with all of this while also feeling the heaviness of a policeman’s knee on our collective necks.
Many of my working professional Black friends and I have not only had to deal with the stressors of living in our current society, but on top of it, we have been asked to serve as sounding boards, “What can I do to be a better person” advice-givers, “Validate my ‘wokeness’” approvers, social justice experts, and committee representatives in our workplaces. Often in these spaces, we are silenced in an attempt to make room for other voices or opinions rather than having our lived experiences and voices amplified and centered. We are surrounded by “woke” white folks who want us to praise and recognize their newly acquired knowledge about these issues with a pat on the back or an “atta boy,” rather than them actually working to examine how problematic they are as individuals.
At the beginning of quarantine, I argued with one of my longtime white girlfriends who was lamenting on Facebook about how it was stressful and hard for her to have to explain/advocate for Black people in her white women’s spaces. Immediately, her post struck a nerve as it was indicative of so many other types of posts I see white women make. First, I was insulted, as many of my Black female friends can relate, because we understand that as Black women, we have collectively had to educate our white girlfriends and others about issues ranging from cultural appropriation to systemic racism to racial bias to the pay gap, etc., for as long as we can remember. We do this, which in itself is already problematic, to gain buy-in from the power brokers/gatekeepers as to our relevance and importance as human beings, all in an attempt to facilitate needed change. So you can only imagine how irritating it was for me to hear a white girlfriend, someone I consider an ally, be so steeped in her white privilege that she would feel it okay, to suddenly express her sadness after minimal attempts at having to amplify Black experience, to her white friends. My immediate question was, “When do black women get to be tired?”
We have seen the deaths of Black folks like Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, and Sandra Bland play out across our television screens over and over, and are now again met with new players–George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean. These are the SAME story. We have raised concerns in the past regarding police brutality only to be met with racial gas lighting, and “All Lives Mattering”, but now these same friends, who were quick to dismiss/minimize our lived experiences before, are suddenly having an awakening and for this, we as Black people are expected to be grateful.
According to some, we should be glad that white folks are now acknowledging the 400 years of oppression we have been shouting about, marching about, dying about, for centuries. Now white America has its eyes open, but open eyes alone are meaningless. America is still filled with people and systems invested in maintaining oppression, but according to the newly woke, those of us who have been disenfranchised, better be grateful to now have the ear and the eyes of the oppressor.
This is just one of many examples I have seen involving well-meaning white women. I have also seen white women at work dub themselves social justice experts and push forth initiatives without even considering or consulting experts in the field or waiting to get buy-in from Black or Brown folks. I have seen Facebook book groups made up of good-intentioned white women in which they discuss/unpack problematic books like White Fragility all while in the safety of their white bubbles, free from the Black gaze. When challenged on their thought processes outside of these spaces, these women are more interested in proving how knowledgeable about racial issues they are than actually listening to Black folks or truly examining their implicit biases and how they benefit from and are complicit in upholding white supremacy.
I experienced this dynamic firsthand when I recently found myself chairing a social justice committee at my workplace. I did so reluctantly but felt that given the racial climate at work, and the sudden push for racial justice initiatives throughout the organization, I needed to be involved for real change to occur. Immediately, I questioned the motives of the committee. My workplace recently experienced backlash from its members of color regarding its mishandling of the BLM protest and George Floyd’s death and like many other organizations around the country, they are now rushing to address these issues, these gaping festering wounds, with essentially no more than band aids. In my committee, we were charged with coming up with ways to make our environment more inclusive for its Black members. We were not given any data, a budget, or a real directive as to how to address these issues. We were just told that “We need a plan” and given about a month to come up with immediate, intermittent, and long-term strategies to effect change. Given the sudden almost manic urgency about addressing these issues, I was apprehensive about joining and expressed that I wanted an opportunity to bow out at any time should I feel that the committee was not moving things forward in the way that I deemed productive. The next thing I know, I am no longer being asked to just serve on the committee, but instead, I am being asked to chair a subcommittee. I accepted for the reasons I mentioned above but couldn’t help but feel annoyed as I expressed my wanting to be able to bow out should I not feel the committee was seriously addressing these issues. I, like many other Black folks I know, was being asked to do what so many newly woke well-intentioned white people and organizations are asking us to do, devote our time and energy for no compensation, to fix a complicated and deeply rooted problem that we did not create.
During our meetings and my interactions with the committee’s leadership members, it became clear that my organization was not serious about effecting real meaningful change. Also, the committee was made up of several newbies to social justice, one of whom made several statements during our meetings that were extremely problematic and disconcerting to the committee members of color. He said things like, “When I first learned about what was happening to the Blacks…” or “We need to trust that our leader is going to make changes,” which every Black person knows not to trust leadership just by what they say but rather the trust happens after we actually see them doing the thing they promised. Then there was the time spent explaining to this individual what an HBCU is or having a general discussion with the whole group about how Black people are a not monolith as if that is something one on such a committee would be asked or expected to explain to people who are in charge of generating social justices and equity initiatives within a predominantly white institution and organization. All the time I spent with this group felt like an introductory course, “Black People in America 101,” rather than a committee fully engaged, knowledgeable, and ready to talk about or address the real issues and challenges that Black people face. At no point did the well-meaning white folks check this individual on his inappropriate language, seemingly out of fear that we might “offend” one of the benevolent white folks trying to help the “Blacks.”
In our final committee meeting when discussing the next steps, I saw the initial focus of the committee slowly move away from BLM to All Lives Matter, so at that point, I tried to redirect the focus by explaining how Black people are the group disproportionately being affected by police violence. Instead of stopping to consider this, I was Othered by our white leader and tone-policed by a Black woman in our group, who was brought in by the same white leader as a consultant. A younger white woman surprisingly stood up for me and talked about the importance of making space for people and listening to what they have to say. Yes, Black women, some of y’all are problematic too.
I can safely say that what I experienced is not the exception. I have talked to several Black and Brown friends undergoing similar situations in their workplace. They too have been energized by their organization’s willingness to address systemic racism and other issues, only to later feel emotionally exhausted, unheard, underappreciated, and again, UNPAID. I have been trying to process my recent experiences and in doing so, I have had to examine my commitment to social justice issues and have decided that I am no longer willing to occupy spaces where my voice is stifled in the name of perceived movement/progress. It is not my job to educate white people on how to be better people/allies/human beings. All I can do is try to find ways to fight this historically racist environment that is America. I will work with those who are serious about dismantling systems of oppression, who are willing to acknowledge and address their privilege and biases, who see change as necessary for ALL people, not just groups of people or “those people.” I am not interested in sharing spaces with “Saviors,” or uplifting well-meaning white folks who should be interested in effecting change because it is the RIGHT thing to do, not because they are doing me or my people a favor.
I understand that we do need to have others involved in the fight. We cannot make meaningful change alone, but at what cost? Is it okay if “the help” is cloaked in white supremacy? Do we need to continue to recruit well-meaning white people without requiring them to adjust or address their years of learned problematic behavior? I am not writing this to discourage potential allies from contributing to the fight. There are many unproblematic allies who regularly challenge their thoughts and belief systems, who surround themselves with people who do not look like them, and who actively listen and amplify the voices of Black and Brown folks. I just told you about one earlier. These individuals understand the fundamental truth that oppression is not only the problem of the Oppressed but it affects the Oppressor as it limits the promise that an inclusive and just society brings. I concede that we cannot change things without the help of others and specifically without the help of the power brokers but real change does not occur if those individuals do not want to be challenged or they are unwilling to acknowledge or recognize how they contribute to systems of oppression. Without recognition, change cannot occur.
Reference: Ivanova, I. (2020). As states reopen, black workers are at greater risk for COVID-19.Retrieved from: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/black-workers-lives-essential-frontline-jobs-risk-coronavirus-reopening/
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