Op-Ed: What if my job is to be a savior? How non-Black people working in racial justice can be allies

Tuesday, July 14, 2020 - 6:21pm

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A classic illustration of the problematic side of racial justice work is highlighted in the hit HBO series “Insecure,” where the leading character Issa Dee finds herself, a well-intentioned Black millennial, navigating her unfulfilling career in a hilariously tone-deaf, mostly white nonprofit organization. “We Got Y’all,” the name of the organization, is in itself a play on words that complements the performative, hand-waving saviorism in which the non-Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) who make up the organization use their mission of social justice to ultimately seem “heroic,” or like they’re “good” people, all while ignoring Issa’s opinions and consistently shutting her out.

Like Issa, I am also a Black millennial female philanthropist. Like many University of Michigan students, I have spent my time on campus doing numerous outreach events to BIPOC youth in the Washtenaw County area and beyond, including Metro Detroit. I am also a director of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides free music education in New York City to underprivileged children, the majority of whom are BIPOC. When the pandemic rattled New York City in early April, my organization was quick to leverage our privilege and influence to start a new virtual initiative with professional musicians and a focus on students in homeless shelters. When it came to COVID-19, our response was swift, intentional and unanimous. Then, the protests started. And, rather unsurprisingly, crickets chirped.

At first, I was hesitant to break the silence. Why wasn’t anybody saying anything? Isn’t the community we serve largely Black? Were they waiting for me to say something — the sole Black person? Once I started composing my feelings, I realized I had more to say than I had for the last seven years of serving on the board. I finally realized that I had never really had a voice to begin with; I had never been listened to or approached for my opinion, and my voice had been consistently ignored and diminished.

As we continue to be incited by anger and pain surrounding the untimely, unjust deaths of Black people at the hands of police, we have become so much more empathetic. For those of us already working in the racial justice space — whether that means as philanthropists in nonprofits focused on racial inequity, as student volunteers in educational initiatives, as public school teachers or even as civil rights lawyers — the Black Lives Matter movement strikes a particularly stronger chord, since the pain and unjustness of systemic racism hit closer to home.

The question then becomes: If I am not Black and it is my job to address racial injustice, how can I be an ally to Black people without being a savior? The answer, quite frankly, is surprisingly uncomplicated, and at the risk of sounding cliché, it starts by taking a look in the mirror.

The only fail-safe way to avoid being a savior to Black people is by first and foremost recognizing the fact that you are, in fact, not Black. The oppression of Black people and the anti-Black experience is not yours. The BLM movement is not yours to co-opt — you may not use it to seek praise or recognition for literally just doing your job when that job is to address racial injustice. Ask yourself this: Before the BLM movement, was the purpose of your work to highlight your accomplishments, or to gain attention or notoriety in your profession? What, if anything, has changed now? Are you seeking to further yourself at the expense of Black people and a movement about the oppression of Black people to seem heroic or virtuous?

The racial justice space needs to revisit how we even approach racial inequity. The saviorism inherent in our work that might have once motivated us must now be actively undone. Even if the actual work we do does not change as a result of this movement, it is time our philosophy does. Now, we must accept that it is not enough to provide a “helping hand” based on our privilege to address inequity. Instead, we must identify the root causes of these inequities and actively dismantle them. As for my organization, my advice to the board was to hire (and generously compensate) a Black professional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant who is highly literate to help guide us. While it’s my job to address racial injustice as part of our organization’s mission, it’s not my job to fix our racism problem. And until my organization starts to look like the communities we serve, we’ll need to give more Black people a seat at the table. Let us speak. Listen. Don’t silence us.

Black people, who have been consistently dismissed, marginalized and exploited, are now facing a new threat: virtuous non-Black “allies.” If your job during the BLM movement is to address racial injustice, then treat it as such — your job. For once, this isn’t about you. This is not your story to tell. Let us tell it.

Nisha Hollingsworth is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan and can be reached at nrhollin@umich.edu.