Guest essay / when it works intro: I have previously referred to the fact that, I, as a white person with privilege, can’t necessarily speak to the experience and effects of racial harm that can be prevalent in practices like community engagement.
This essay has been brought to my attention as one that can. I’ve sought permission to share it:
Reflections: Three years since the global uprising for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder
– An essay from and for Melanated/Global Majority folks in London’s environment / ecology / socially engaged arts arena
A few of us have been encountering some challenges in the arena of green space/environmental and cultural work, and have been having conversations for a couple of years. We feel disillusioned about some dynamics we’ve been experiencing and witnessing. On the one hand, performative changes by white or white-adjacent folks is to be expected – the level of deconditioning required to chip away at white supremacy is enormous. On the other hand, we wonder about our own role in problematic dynamics, and it’s this in particular that we seek to flag up and offer some ways to prevent. Our starting point is the basic principle of minimising harm, derived from ‘first do no harm’. It’s near impossible to do no harm in the overarching capitalist paradigm we inhabit, but we can first cultivate attentiveness to possible ways we can cause or are causing harm. By cultivating this awareness when we initiate projects or enter into collaborations, we would be more able to prevent and minimise harm.
We also want to emphasise that sharing what we share here is in the spirit of love. We do not want to dehumanise or cancel anyone – all of us have accrued wounding and deep conditioning as we traverse life in a capitalist, white supremacy paradigm. Unprocessed, these experiences can create gunk that ideally needs composting and morphing into something life affirming. As Resmaa Menakem states in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands(1), “Clean pain is the pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth…Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial. When people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically or emotionally run away, they experience dirty pain. They also create more of it for themselves and others.”
White supremacy culture is what all of us breathe and enact, and it takes deliberate, conscious effort to divest from. White people who perceive themselves as progressive/on the ‘left’(2) are particularly sensitive to being flagged up for causing racial harm, though they tend not to dispute the fact of structural racism at a cognitive or intellectual level. There is an embodied aspect to this; unpacking privilege may feel, at some level, threatening a deeply ingrained aspect of self, and causes fear or anxiety. Naturally, there is resistance to going toward what one fears, or causes discomfort or anxiety, even though the only way to liberation is to befriend the ‘negative’ feeling or sensation and learn from the lessons it holds.
So we share our reflections out of care for all – those with greater and lesser privilege – and with the hope of collectively amplifying solidarity with each other to catalyse more liberatory paths forward. We also invite you to reflect on your own experiences and share learnings in the various collective spaces that exist.
In the following sections we cover some relevant concepts and dynamics, interspersed with links to thinkers we’ve learned from, before concluding with some practical recommendations. If you’d like to skip to the recommendations, they begin in section 5.
01 White Saviorism
One feature of white supremacy culture is ‘fixing’ inequity without engaging with the root issues; this could be considered ‘white saviourism’. As Teju Cole stated stated in his widely shared series of posts on white saviour industrial complex, “This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.” Saviourism stems from deep conditioning, and this can only change with ongoing internal work that feeds into collective work. It’s far easier to set up projects and initiatives supporting melanated folks and/or befriending some melanated folks (or folks with any other marginality) than to divest from the power dynamic of whiteness. We don’t need to judge people bypassing this work as ‘bad’ people; they are, as we all are, products of deep socialisation and programming, and are at a different place in the journey of deconditioning. We can’t force people to process the gunk; however, we can try our hardest to prevent harm from the uncomposted gunk.
Another aspect is white folks’ pride in giving space to melanated folks, which is important, but not enough. As Anastasia Reesa Tomkin puts it,
They often allow space for concerns to be “heard,” then carry on with their own plan and pat themselves on the back for the act of hearing POC staff and colleagues. It needs to be said. Simply being heard is neither a gift nor an honor when they do not seriously consider what we contribute and take steps to implementing it. The refusal to implement the sound ideas of POC staff is an act of white power itself, since it means they consider their ideas as a white person with a white lens to be better than those of us who have a lived experience closer to that of those we serve.
(emphasis in original)
In our experience, white folks may go so far as support (or take) our ideas for tangible projects that are likely to get kudos, but do so in a way severed from the deep root work suggested by us – as dissociated, compartmentalised feel-good projects. It’s also not uncommon for the lineage of ideas to be disappeared.
02 Sometimes we need to be more specific than BPOC
The lumping together of different melanated peoples under BPOC, and how we engage with this usage, can cause harm. Endeavours to advance equity need to occur according to context and the identities of the groups most marginalised need to be named. While Black and Indigenous people have borne the worst atrocities globally in the sense of enslavement and genocide, the epigenetic harm of this, and present-day violence, the people most marginalised vary by location. Without specificity, the use of BPOC or BPOC/BAME is likely to not advance equity in relation to that particular group of people, or at worst, increase inequity.
If you or a group that you are involved in, benefit from a resource, initiative, etc that the most marginalised racial or ethnic groups in proximity to that resource or initiative face barriers to, you/your group may be entangled in a colonial dynamic, even if non-specific melanated folks ultimately benefit. The initiative or project will gain literal or metaphorical points for engaging melanated folks, without actually having shifted anything for the people most marginalised and, probably excluded, in that area. This is especially problematic if that project/initiative is established.
One way we’ve been seeing this happen, and have been implicated in ourselves, is by assuming that the presence of a melanated person on or in a project, organisation, or group means that that entity is equitable, is enacting generative, equity-conscious relationships with marginalised communities in their locality, and/or that the melanated person/people has or have power at a strategic level. Or assuming that because said person and other folks involved in the project are ‘nice’, generous, etc., that problematic dynamics don’t exist. People may stay within a problematic project for many reasons, such as:
– They need/desire the experience – whether paid or voluntary
– They need money for survival
– They are trying behind the scenes to raise and address issues, most likely while also navigating white (or other) fragility
– They are unaware/have cognitive dissonance – probably a survival mechanism – They have internalised oppression
– They are ambitious and will comply with white supremacy culture to advance in their voluntary/freelancer/charity sector etc. goals
There is also the reality that not all our skinfolk are kinfolk, to paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston.
Another way we’ve been implicated in harm is when a white person (who may or may not have a marginalised identity) invites melanated folks to collaborate on projects/initiatives, benefit from resources they can provide, etc.
If, in these situations, melanated folks most marginalised in the project’s locality are excluded from the project (or only engage tokenistically or by chance) – especially if these are places of socioeconomic deprivation – then our participation (assuming we are not local residents) is harmful. How? Because we are benefiting from resources that the areas’s residents of marginalised identities face barriers to. A further harm is caused by our participation or collaboration giving the veneer of the project, group, or organisation having done equity work. And each time participants in the activities we do in collaboration or at these spaces further tell their friends and contacts, usually not from the area, about this space and more melanated folks from elsewhere access and benefit from these resources, we perpetuate harm. Note that performativity/tokenism, as with any act that can cause harm, does not have to be intended as such. Harm is harm, regardless of intention.
Just to be clear – it’s not that people not as local to the area should never benefit from said resources, spaces, or opportunities – the presence or absence of harm depends on the quality of relationship (or lack thereof) with marginalised local residents and communities. It is also contextual. For example, it makes sense for a large, well endowed entity based in an affluent area, such as Kew, to offer opportunities to BPOC folks generally.
03 Intersectionalities & Picking a Priority
While there are many isms and phobias to tackle, trying to tackle everything at once in advancing equity is usually not constructive. If we are focusing on racial inequity, then racial inequity should constitute the baseline focus of equity efforts, and intersecting identities can be layered onto this. This is different than, for example, recruiting across several separate marginalised identities, e.g. queer irrespective of race; people with disabilities irrespective of race; etc.
As Dr. Robert Livingston, a Harvard academic and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practitioner has stated,
“When you’re given a problem to solve in any situation, you have to figure out your order of operations: we’ll do this first, that second, and that third. Just like with a television mini-series, you can’t cram the content for all 12 episodes into one; you have to figure out a sequence and divide up the story in an order that makes sense, one episode at a time.”
“That’s how anti-racism, DEI, and social justice initiatives have to work, too. So, which episode do we start with first? In other words, who is the focus of Episode 1? And will watching Episode 1 help us understand Episode 2, or would it be a waste of time for those who are primarily interested in Episode 2? In deciding where to start, a whole host of factors come into play, including demographics, geographical location, history, and cultural context.”
He goes on to assert:
“Prioritising DEI efforts in a logical sequence in no way means that you’re leaving everyone else out. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. By addressing the issue with the longest-standing historical and cultural significance, you pave the way for achieving justice for every other socially disadvantaged group thereafter. How so? All social justice issues are connected. Justice for one group will necessarily bleed into justice for another group. “
(emphases in original)
04 Patriarchy, toxic masculinity, sexism, misogyny don’t always come in a Trump-like package
These are dynamics many folks not socialised as male have experienced, usually with cisgender men (but other genders can also exhibit these patterns), including with melanated cisgender men. Such individuals are often very charismatic and in many ways caring and generous, and attentive to your or your group’s needs. The reason why racism and sexism, to take just two dynamics, are so pervasive lies not so much on the people enacting the most egregious expressions of these (think Trump), but because of the far greater number of people silent or subtle complicity. People who say the ‘right’ things about racism, sexism, decoloniality, etc. Some of them may elevate marginalised genders or races in some contexts, but in other contexts enact oppressive behaviours. Their behaviour may depend on how compliant or challenging the person they are in relation with might be; how much of a perceived threat the person might be to their ambitions; and other considerations.
Patriarchy and other systemic patterns are not about individuals of this or that identity, e.g. men. In a long and tender essay laying out her understanding of the emergence of patriarchy – a severing of needs-based societal organisation – and its relationship to capitalism and colonisation, Miki Kashtan states,
None of us chose to be conscripted into whatever role of privilege or dominance we have any more than any of us chose positions of oppression or victimization….
There is no more blame of anyone in the term patriarchy than there is in racism, antisemitism, privilege, oppression, or genocide, because none of them are individual characteristics of anyone or any group. All of them are systemic phenomena that can only change, in full, systemically, though we can do things individually and at the community or organization level that mitigate and subvert them locally. When it comes to patriarchy in particular, all of us enact patriarchal patterns to various degrees.
Just like white supremacy culture, patriarchal culture is upheld by all of us in different ways and extents. Let’s be conscious of it in our own groups and organising, and how it shows up in collaboration with others.
05 How to prevent harm?
- Do your own work of deconditioning and deprogramming, and approach it as an embodied experience. This is a great resource.
- Sit with and absorb the fact that the presence of compassion, kindness, and generosity does not indicate that an individual or group has done, or is doing, deconditioning work. These qualities can and do coexist with racial harm, sexism, misogyny, and transphobia. Advocating for marginalised identities and also causing harm to the people with such identities is not uncommon, though we may not witness both sides in the same person.
- Sit with the fact that doing ‘good’ can co-exist with doing harm. Much harm, is in fact, caused by well intentioned people (of whatever identity). And while we cannot always prevent harm, we can always do some inquiry and checks to minimise harm and make informed choices, and embed regular feedback, reflection, and review into our voluntary or professional work.
- Continuing from the last point, get up to speed with the now well known reality that environmental improvements can trigger rising property values, and thus gentrification. Read about a recent report on this here. And that arts, even socially engaged arts, can serve as gentrifying forces – more on this here. Let’s raise our awareness of these and collectively consider and work toward more liberatory ways of ‘doing good’ that take into account unintended consequences.
- Being human, we will make assumptions, so check if they are valid – assumptions based on presence of Global Majority folks, even at leadership level; assumptions based on a project being set up or recommended by your trusted friend; etc. We are all vulnerable to limited perspectives, biases, and tendency to empathise with those we have some relational or identity based bonds with. We all need accountability mechanisms.
- Don’t assume that the presence of someone or some people of Global Majority heritage at any level of an organisation or group means that person or people understand the situation of marginalised folks in the area, much less are actively cultivating generative, decoloniality-minded relationships with such local communities.
- Don’t assume that an ostensibly flat or less hierarchical structure means that entity or project is immune to problematic power dynamics.
- Don’t assume that because you or others have a wholesome time in a green space, or collaborating with a green space / environmental / arts & culture entity, that this means all is well within this entity and with its relations with the communities it’s situated in.
- Don’t assume that even an all melanated folks group does not enact power-over dynamics. Stratification exists within all identity groups. Shared marginality or multiple shared marginalities does not automatically result in power- and equity-consciousness.
- If you find yourself in a situation where someone from a marginalised identity is sharing their experience of a marginalisation different from yours3, listen and sit with their story. It’s generally preferable to refrain from offering help unless it is asked for; or if the situation calls for it, ask if they would like advice or help, or what they need. Avoid the pervasive feature of white supremacy culture of not listening to understand before rushing to ‘fix’ things.
- If you or your group is planning to start a project or initiative, check your intentions and interests. This is a helpful riff on the white saviour industrial complex written by a Nigerian person working as a creator.
- Even if you share the same marginality, different people can have different experiences. So listening deeply is still relevant.
If you are being offered opportunities or resources at/with a place-based entity
- Do some research about the local context. You can easily find out local demographic info online. Walk around the area and observe. For digital projects, consider how accessible the digital project will be across different types of access issues.
- Look into the origins of the founders and projects or organisations. ‘Good’ green/environmental or ‘socially engaged’ art/culture initiatives can be associated with gentrifying dynamics – raising the value of the surrounding area and pricing existing residents out over time. Be aware of who tells the stories of the origins and of the present situation.
- Ask the individual/group/organisation offering you resources or collaboration opportunities how they are embedding equity work. Ask this regardless of their identity – melanated folks need to do the work, too. Who have they worked with; what books or other resources have they used to guide their practice? At this point in time, people engaging in the majority Global Majority city of London have little excuse not to have started an ongoing practice of reflection and deconditioning from harmful patterning.
- What accountability mechanisms does the project have in place to be accountable to affected communities? What accountability mechanisms are in place to ensure equity efforts are appropriate and not tokenistic?
- If the area is significantly Global Majority-populated, and the main contact person is white, ask if you can liaise with any other people of Global Majority status who work there, although bear in mind points 3 & 4.
By leaning into these reflective practices, including for projects led by melanated folks, and caring enough to do some basic observations, you can help shift performative, low-hanging fruit ‘allyship’ toward genuine decolonising.
Lastly, if a person, project, or organisation seems too good to be true, lean into curiosity to fend off cynicism. Maybe the person/organisation is ‘doing the work’, but please dig a bit deeper to find out. ‘The work’ is lifelong, no one ever arrives at a neat endpoint of having deconditioned from deeply embedded white supremacy and patriarchal cultures.
Please send your comments or suggestions to improve or build on this to firstname.lastname@example.org
1 In this groundbreaking book, trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem writes about trauma of white supremacy embedded in all our bodies, and how white people carry unmetabolised trauma that can be traced back to brutality white bodies enacted on each other in Europe before the transatlantic slave trade. He asserts that white (body) supremacy can only be undone by white bodies healing their (albeit different from that of melanated folks) trauma. The book also includes reflective practices for different bodies; we highly recommend people of any identity to read this book.
2 We find the left/right binary another form of separation, and not helpful in cultivating liberatory paths.