Hey White People! We Are Sick of Your Tokenism
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
This week, August 23-29, 2020, has shown us yet again that black lives still don’t matter. Another unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back by police officers in the USA. To add even more pain to the collective grief of black people, Chadwick Boseman, a talented black actor and star of the hit Marvel movie Black Panther, died of colon cancer. The black community is in tremendous pain.
As a therapist, I have been sitting with upset black people for quite some time and, this week they are reporting that they can’t take any more. One of the recurring themes in my sessions with members of the black community recently has been the lack of action by white led organisations to support their black employees in the face of everything we are confronting. Most have cited that their organisations either have said absolutely nothing at all or, they are sending out beautifully worded messages that “condemn racism in all its forms” while not actually doing anything to make the organisation any less racist. Even when we tell our organisations what we would find helpful, the management team nods and smiles politely and then takes no further action on the suggestions made.
This “fake wokeness” does not serve the black community. Instead, it simply allows people to assuage their unhealthy white guilt, (for a full explanation of this idea, see here). The truth is, white people get to continue their lives as if nothing happened as soon as they hit send on these emails. They get to engage in performative commiseration with their black colleagues and then head out to dinner on the patio with the members of their COVID bubble without ever giving their black colleagues another thought.
White people, we see what you are doing and we are sick of it. Even though you think we can’t see your “ducking and hiding” from the discomfort you feel having to face the fact that you benefit from institutional racism, not one black person is oblivious. Despite the perspective put forward by eugenics decades ago, we are not mentally inferior and, our powers of observation and critical thinking are spot on. Recognise that when you avoid talking about racism or, you dare to carry on as if you are more offended by racism than we are, you are taking the issue and making it all about YOU. However, understand that your feelings as a white person are not more important than our lives.
The flip-side of this is that many black clients are telling me how fed up they are of working for organisations where the higher up the hierarchy one looks, the whiter the managers become. They are starting to work with me on how to gather the courage to start writing business plans rather than resumés so they never have to report to a white, and often oblivious, manager ever again. This response is perfectly valid and is born from the abject misery of being expected to turn down our “blackness” all day, every day so as to cater to oversensitive white people, while parts of who we are slowly die.
It is also worrying because as we saw in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the Japanese internment camps of Canada in 1941 and in Hogan’s Alley Vancouver, Canada, prosperous people of colour are intolerable to white people and can result in the destruction of that prosperity to keep us “in our rightful place” at the bottom of society. Black success has historically been a double-edged sword. We are punished for excelling and we are stigmatized when we don’t. When we point out that we are systematically disenfranchised, successful black people are highlighted to show us that if they can do it, then we are simply being lazy for not also thriving. No matter what we as ambitious and hardworking black people do, it is not acceptable to power hungry white people who have the power to destroy us.
One of the things I have heard from white co-workers and clients is that the black people they know have never told them that they had any problems with how they were treated. This is another way for white people to engage in intentional ignoring of the fact that black people don’t trust you enough to tell you anything because most of you act as though we asked you to swallow cyanide and nails rather than to hold space for us. We talk to each other and you will never be privy to those types of conversations simply because we know that most of you don’t actually want to confront your privilege.
To those people who engage in performative allyship, we see you and we do not appreciate you. True allyship is learning to centre the voices of POC rather than trying to co-opt the cause. It is educating yourself and quietly supporting those whose voices have been silenced for too long without expectation of recognition. It may simply be baking cookies for your black friend who is hurting or sending them dinner because you know they are weary and broken hearted. What it is not, is sending out a generic and carefully worded email to shut us up so we can’t accuse you of not saying anything or, actually not saying anything.
For managers, it is time to look honestly at yourself as you are rather than as you want us to see you. If you do have biases that favour white people over non-white ones, you need to address them from a place of humility and healthy white guilt. Failure to do this will quietly undermine your authority and regard as a leader as your POC staff will not trust you and would rather tell each other how little respect they have for you than to let you know directly.