The Double-Edged Sword of Anti-Racist Work
To My Black, Indigenous, and Friends of Color:
The world is appearing to wake up to calls for racial justice. I say “appearing”, because as many of you well know, some of it is simply a performative act to appease those in their audience who may take their business or patronage elsewhere otherwise. The optics du jour for many seems to be the pull to take a stand against injustices everywhere by proclaiming that systemic racism needs to end through an anti-racist statement. Some organizations have taken the step to actually act on these statements in some way, and kudos to them for attempting to do something, anything, to raise awareness for our calls for justice. It feels good to finally be acknowledged, doesn’t it?
Do not be fooled, my friends.
In the midst of a global pandemic, we are continuing to see Black folks being murdered by the police. Shot. In. The. Back. Seven. Times. Where is the justice in that? In the meantime, in the “All lives matter” camp, the tragic death of a 5-year-old is being touted as evidence that white lives are under attack. Yes, that was a horrific crime. And the killer was arrested and charged within hours, while those responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor still walk free, months after her death. It is not the same.
In the meantime, those of us who are steeped in social activism, in leadership positions, and those who have always put themselves out there to speak up and speak out, have been inundated with requests to present on issues of racial justice and inequality within our communities and industries. Suddenly, the spotlight is on us to share our stories of discrimination and racialized trauma. On average, I’m receiving one request per day to speak at conferences, book clubs, interviews, and workshops. Podcasts, livestreams, and pre-recorded offerings are pouring forth from organizations within the equine facilitated world and the wider equine industry; from mental health organizations; from business networks – large corporations and small business associations. And this doesn’t even take into account the conversations that white friends are starting to instigate. It feels good to finally be acknowledged, doesn’t it?
Do not be fooled, my friends.
Firstly, 99% of these requests are for pro bono work. What does it say about an organization that will pay for training for other topics but not on issues of diversity and inclusion? The exploitation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color is perpetuated in the assumption that it’s acceptable for us to do this work for free. When an organization approaches me to speak, especially if it’s one that I’m unfamiliar with, I’m always curious about how they found me, and more importantly, why they chose me. Many requests come from friends who are leaders in their organizations, so of course, I’m on board with those. Some are through mutual connections and I’m mostly fine with those too. Some requests come from people I don’t know at all, and those are particularly worth investigating. Because I’ve noticed something else lately which feels important to share.
The activist in me wants to say yes to all of these requests because I feel a responsibility to represent people of color so that our voices can be heard, and to do my part to dismantle the systems of injustice, however small that effort might be. The public speaker in me knows that not everyone will want to hear what I have to say. The idealist in me hopes that by speaking anyway, that we can move towards a better world. But the biggest voice of all right now is the mental health practitioner who is watching this process unfold, not only for myself but for so many of us who are being called to do this work. And she is saying, don’t be fooled.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can do it all. How are you taking care of yourself in this process? How are you attending to the emotional and physical toll of being in the battleground, day in, day out? Because make no mistake, this work is HARD. The conversations we are having are painful and often frustrating. The repetition of explaining why agreeing that Black lives matter is the minimum people can do is bone-weary exhausting. It’s not possible to say yes to all of it without burning out. I know, because I’ve tried. We need to be able to take care of ourselves in all this. Have safe spaces to retreat to where we don’t have to have these conversations. Or have people who can help steady us when these conversations go awry. I’m so thankful to the people in my life who can do that with me. This is a marathon and not a race, so pace yourself. It’s okay to say no.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s you, personally, that they want to hear from. Flattering though it may be to feel that people think I might have something unique to offer, I am very conscious of the fact that many organizations simply do not have anyone from within to step in to represent people of color. This is troublesome on many levels and speaks to the lack of diversity, certainly within the equine industry, and the need to mentor and support those Black, Indigenous, and people of color who do attempt to enter this white space we exist in. In the meantime, the tokenism that this process represents literally makes me feel sick. Because for many of us who have worked so hard to prove that we are where we are not because of some positive discrimination policy, being placed in that position is a punch in the gut. This is why it can feel so disconcerting, even when the audience is receptive to what we are saying. And when this is the case, I have a choice: to ignore it or to challenge it. Both of which are also bone-weary exhausting. Ignoring it leaves me feeling that I have to swallow down my anger and frustration, and challenging it takes an enormous amount of energy and the potential for offending the host who has so graciously asked me to speak.
Don’t be fooled into feeling that if you don’t step up, then no one will, and you will be the reason this person/organization/gathering doesn’t hear the message they need to hear. I have felt enormous pressure from white colleagues to engage in events “because there’s nobody else” who fits the bill. This guilt tripping is not only the antithesis to anti-racist work, relying on generations of submissiveness without respect to boundaries or consent, but detrimental to the process of the organization acknowledging that they have created a white space.
Finally, don’t be fooled that just because you are being invited to speak means that the people you are addressing are on board. For me, this is the most dangerous aspect of agreeing to these requests. When the leaders of an organization are fully on board with your message, it would be so easy to assume that the rest of the audience are welcoming you with open arms too. This assumption will often lead you into the lion’s den. This is especially true if you are speaking at an event that is requiring mandatory attendance. The likelihood is that you will be speaking to a group with varying degrees of familiarity of anti-racist work and a wide range of opinions about the topic. In instances when I’m being interviewed rather than delivering a presentation, I have come to realize that the interviewer often either doesn’t have enough awareness of the issues themselves and are unaware of the offensiveness of the questions they ask, or that they are not fully on board with the idea of anti-racist policies. Oftentimes, it’s clear that the interviewer has the best of intentions and is open to being challenged. While that sounds great in theory, in actuality, I’m left once again with the responsibility of stepping into a place of vulnerability in order to challenge or educate, risking any relational rupture that might occur as a result.
As this process has unfolded for me, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the following:
- It’s okay to say no and take time to breathe
- It’s not okay to feel pressured into this
- If it doesn’t feel safe, don’t go there
- Racial trauma is trauma and needs to be treated as such. If there is no relational foundation, being asked to describe experiences of racism is akin to asking a stranger about their experience of being raped. It’s okay to say no to that request.
- It’s okay to challenge
- It’s okay not to challenge in order to conserve emotional energy
- It’s okay to feel anger or frustration towards organizations who are appearing to do the right thing
- It’s okay to feel what you feel. Period.
The road is long, my friends. Anti-racist statements and policies do not equate to immediate action or cultural shifts. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there’s a quick fix. The double-edged sword of anti-racist work is sharp.
Yours in Solidarity,