White-dominated institutions pay lip service to inclusion, but they don’t want to listen when we speak uncomfortable truths
By Koketso Moeti | The Guardian | April 9, 2018
American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick silently protested racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games. He’s since been sidelined, receiving treatment that has recently been shown to be harsher than that of other NFL players, such as Johnny Manziel, who have substance abuse issues and allegations of domestic violence. This disproportionate penalty for Kaepernick reveals how white-led institutions expect black people within them to either remain silent about our struggles, or only take these struggles up on their terms.
ESPN SportsCenter is another example of a company that punished someone for speaking out against racism. When co-anchor Jemele Hill took to Twitter last year to call US president Donald Trump what he is, “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists”, ESPN publicly reprimanded her. The White House called for her to be fired.
Diversity and inclusion initiatives should not be white people’s act of charity or done as a favour
The reality is, Trump has a long history of racist behaviour, ran a racist presidential campaign supported by white supremacists and failed to condemn neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Hill was later suspended after she condemned Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones for saying he would ban players who participated in protests against police brutality and racial oppression. In January she left the role.
And these expectations of black people exist even in institutions that deploy inclusivity and diversity as marketing tactics. Last year British transgender DJ and activist Munroe Bergdorf was dismissed by L’Oréal Paris, a few days after being announced as one of the faces for a new campaign championing diversity. The reason for her dismissal? For daring to write a Facebook post after the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, calling out racism and white supremacy, for daring to talk about systemic racism using the words “…yes ALL white people”.
The response from L’Oréal suggests that while the company wanted applause for having a black, transgender woman as part of its campaign, it did not want her responding to what was happening in the world from that perspective and possibly alienating white L’Oréal customers.
The kinds of backlash exhibited by the NFL, ESPN, L’Oréal and the White House are examples of attempts to exert control over how black people respond to racism and how white feelings of discomfort are prioritised over black people’s understandable outrage.
This kind of backlash is only part of the problem. The over-representation of white people in decision-making positions is another part, and something to which the global development sector is not immune.
In 2013, an analysis of the top 100 NGOs for that year found “a clear disjunction between the world these NGOs seek to create, and the world their governance structures reproduce”. While their activities spanned the world, most of their headquarters were based in the western world. The senior leadership at these institutions were mainly white men and people who graduated from western universities. Even so-called development agencies, such as the World Bank, have a long history of failing to address the systemic racism within their ranks.
This has in turn led to white, western-based experts being over-represented in global development spaces, even on issues not affecting them. The best example of this is the viral Kony 2012 campaign, created by white Americans, which was widely criticised for spreading factual inaccuracies about the suffering experienced by African children. In response to this, over the last few years there’s been an urgency to the push for inclusive development, to ensure that the marginalised and excluded get the proverbial “seat at the table”.
While there is no doubt that there have been some improvements since then, there is still reason to be skeptical. My own recent experience of initiatives that are meant to bring the “unusual” suspects into global development or spaces often assumed to be progressive, is that there is unspoken pressure on black people to talk in what are considered to be well-behaved ways about our struggles.
Most of these spaces that I have been in have adopted what feels like a cut-and-paste model of white people in power inviting in people from the majority world and expecting applause simply for including us. Any critical engagement from people like me results in labels such as “dangerous”, “divisive” and “launching personal attacks”. It’s worth noting that these words are all stereotypes that have both historically and in contemporary times been used to dismiss justifiable anger as mere tantrums or to shoot down attempts to expose uncomfortable truths.
And my experience is not unique: Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa was invited to give a 2017 TEDWomen talk, and then was asked to “cut Black Lives Matter” from it by the curator of the conference. She aptly describes it as being made to feel like we black people “should be grateful for the sound bites they choose to hear when it is comfortable for them, even though we are hoarse from shouting these truths daily. As if we shouldn’t demand more. As if we are not deserving of more than they offer”.
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Diversity and inclusion initiatives should not be white people’s act of charity or done as a favour. Those claiming to want more voices at a table need to be humble and recognize that this may mean having voices that make them feel uncomfortable, with whom they may disagree, and that they need to openly listen to those voices. They also need to expect and accept that we will not simply accept the table as it is, we will also push back to rearrange it – as and when necessary – claiming and asserting our space.
Enforced civility is the antithesis of diversity and inclusivity, as it reinforces the silencing of those who are already excluded. And with the rise of an emboldened rightwing politics, alongside global inequality and environmental devastation, which are both deeply racialised, this is no time for white people to force black people to be silent. And history has taught us over and over again that it never has been.
Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. She was a 2017 Aspen New Voices fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti