White person on the board?

Q: I’ve been invited to serve on a board for an organization focused on POC. How can I best be helpful on the board without feeling like the white person trying to have greater influence or voice in an initiative that is not about me?

A: That is great that you are doing the work and have been invited to be in a position of leadership. As white people serving in organizations focused on work with and by people of color we need to really take care, especially if you are the only white person in the room, and even more if you benefit from multiple positions of privilege. Obviously, as people who benefit from white supremacy we always need to take care; but, if you are a cis, straight, white, upper-middle class, male for example, you will need to really examine the work you do. This is not to say that you shouldn’t speak up or participate, or challenge people or the organization, just that you will need to examine your motives, and how much your voice is being valued/heard.

As white folks we are often not aware at how much we are listened to compared to people of color. Personally, I work in an office where I am the only white male in the office. I really have to work on listening and opening up space for other voices to be heard. I notice that a woman of color can say something and be ignored and then I might say the exact same thing and people are like, “wow, what a wise idea Mr. white man.” My role at that moment is to then say, “it was actually her idea, not mine” and then I will often ask if she has anything further to add since it was her idea in the first place. Ideally I might just say something like, “can you state your idea again cause I’m not sure everyone heard it?” that way I hopefully don’t even get any credit at all. These dynamics can happen even if you are the only white person in the room.

Asking how you can participate is a good idea, but also look for things that need to be done, especially the tasks that are less glamorous, and are in the background, and get them done. For example, people of color are often expected to clean (because of white supremacy) not hold the mic or be in charge. I have heard many of my friends get asked if they are “the help” at fundraiser events, or just get handed an empty glass. How can white folks step into some of the cleaning roles (not the organizer of the cleaning, but do the dishes, pick up the dirty cups)? Members of the media and others often will look to the white guy for the “official word” on an issue, or to speak for the organization. If that happens, you can hand off the mic to the correct person. However, if a person of color in your organization asks you to speak up, do that too!

Thinking more about this, it is important to note that the phrases “standing in solidarity with” or “in the struggle” are often better phrases, from an anti-oppression framework, than “ally”. If you are in the struggle for racial justice than you are getting your hands dirty in the work. This means not just doing the flashy fun bits. It means not always being recognized for what you do. It also means being in a place to get arrested, harassed, yelled at, etc, along with the folks you are in solidarity with.

Speaking of solidarity, it is important to mention that the phrase has been misused and abused, Anthea Taderera talked about this on Feminspire when discussing feminism.

How many times have we cringed when yet another feminist organization acted “in solidarity” with a group of women, without consulting them? Many of these attempts at one-sided transnational solidarity have led to very embarrassing situations where the “rescuers” and the “rescued” were at cross purposes, and words and phrases such as “brainwashed” and “cultural bigots” were thrown around. Not great times.

Anthea goes on to say,

Now the word “stand” sounds pretty straight forward – it does mean speak up and be counted when awful things are happening. Do no just roll over, shrug and mumble something about the unfairness of life. The amount of action required to constitute “standing” differs with each particular context. Here is where the tricky intersectional and transnational bits come in – you must recognize how you may or may not be contributing to the system. Yes, it is our old friend privilege again. What makes it extra important when it comes to transnational solidarity is recognizing those circumstances where powerful nations *cough* the global north *cough* have contributed to the prevailing situation, and starting from there. These situations arise more often than one might think, particularly when it comes to women in the global south asserting their economic and environmental rights. If you’re going to stand with, say, women fighting against the environmental degradation of their land which threatens their livelihoods, and you live in a country where the corporations who are doing the polluting are headquartered – standing with these women may not mean lending them a tweet. Rather, standing may be actively petitioning said organizations in your country as a means of complimenting the efforts of the other women.

Note: you cannot declare yourself an ally! It isn’t a a state of being, it is a type of action. You exhibit ally behavior. And it would be an overstep to say, “The other night when I exhibited ally behavior.” Only someone you are exhibiting ally behavior with, or standing in solidarity with, can delair you an ally (does that make sense?)

Jamie Utt, on Everyday Feminism talks about Mia McKenzie’s fabulous article“No More ‘Allies” (BTW, support Mia, buy her book, she explains this stuff about the differences between ally and standing in solidarity much better than I do). Jamie brings up a very important point, “If you truly want to act in solidarity, you cannot simply retreat into your privilege when you just don’t want to engage.” This is important when serving with predominantly people of color organizations.

Ultimately, listen!, pass the mic, be in the struggle, and invite accountability.

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