When organizations are trying to figure out how to move from being passively non-racist to actively anti-racist, one of the things that they often say they will do is “center people of color.” As communicators, we need to be able to unpack jargon and help people take action. We are sharing this post from our friends at If/When/How, originally published here, because its a quick and straightforward guide for how to put the experiences and needs of people of color at the heart of your work.
7 Ways to Support and Center People of Color
Lina Houston, Director of Campus & Community Programs
I am passionate about our Supporting and Centering People of Color Initiative. If you and I have spoken, even for a few minutes, I probably mentioned it. But what does it mean to support and center people of color, and how do you do it? Here is an incomplete list of suggestions, in no particular order, that can help.
- Recognize and check your privilege. You’ve heard the phrase “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge,” right? Our identities are complex constellations of privileges and oppressions (a concept we know as intersectionality). White folks, this is a call to you to acknowledge your white privilege and start dismantling it. It’s a tremendous undertaking, and the revolution depends on it. People of color, we have our own messes to untangle. While we often stay mired in our identities of oppression, we have various privileges that we need to check. Are you cisgender? Heterosexual? College, and possibly graduate school, educated? Middle class or higher? Able-bodied? If we don’t acknowledge our privileges, we’re complicit in the systems we’re working against.
- Understand your oppression. White folks, your identities of oppression are a window to, not a mirror of, the oppression people of color experience. People of color, it’s time we really got serious about our internalized oppression – it is a caustic disease that prevents us from individual success and collective liberation. We owe it to one another, and ourselves, to get free.
- Do things differently. White supremacy and white privilege position white people as automatic experts on, oh, pretty much everything. White folks are afforded a tremendous amount of authority and space while people of color continue to be marginalized and silenced. It’s time to disrupt that paradigm. If you’re white, move back, listen, and yield the floor/mic/podium to people of color. People of color, speak up and take up space!
- Educate yourself. This isn’t based on science, but I would guess that approximately 99.99% of people of color have had a white friend/colleague/relative/stranger-on-the-street treat them as an “Ask Jeeves” for all things race. White folks, I get it: you’re curious, you have questions that you genuinely want answered, and you think asking a person of color is a way to support and center them. But here’s the thing. For people of color, each day is a barrage of microaggressions, macroaggressions, and interactions that highlight and trigger our personal identities of oppression. And let me tell you, it is exhausting. Although your question may have been the first time you thought about race today, your question may be a trigger for your friend/colleague/relative of color and it may be the twelfth one they’ve dealt with today. Their refusal to answer your question may be motivated by self-protection. It’s great that you want to learn more; lean into that curiosity and do some reading and research.
- White people, educate your white friends. While you’re working to educate yourself, share your learnings with your (white) people. Again, the burden of educating white folks is often unfairly placed on people of color. Forcing people of color to shoulder that burden is oppressive and emotionally draining. And really, white people often need to hear about race and racism from other white people. So to truly support and center people of color and demonstrate your commitment to ending racism and systemic oppression, talk to other white people and call them to action. Sharing this post is a great first step!
- Understand intent versus impact. This is a big one, and it’s hard. If you’re reading this blog post, you probably have good intentions when you talk about race and racism. In fact, let’s assume that you do. As a society, we are socialized to believe that having a good intent mitigates any harmful outcomes. And if you’ve been to law school, you know that intent is the crux of many legal arguments. It’s time to re-program and employ some “both/and” thinking. You can have both a good intent and a negative impact. We all having feelings about race, racism, privilege, and oppression; be mindful that your words have an impact, and that impact may not be what you intended.
- Collaborate and connect. Our work is multi-layered: each of us must work individually (e.g. checking privilege), intra-racially (e.g. educating fellow white folks as a white person), and inter-/multi-racially (e.g. working with people across racial lines). Multiracial work must never include tokenization or recruitment of people of color simply for the sake of “diversifying” or mitigating white guilt. Instead, multiracial collaboration requires building genuine connections, seeking guidance, providing space at the proverbial table, and developing and cultivating leadership opportunities. Connect with each other. Support and be supported by one another. And if you need extra connection and support, you can always get it from me.
As Director of Campus & Community Programs for If/When/How, Lina Houston, JD, trains and mentors hundreds of chapter leaders from across the country to be thoughtful and strategic organizers. Lina co-leads If/When/How’s Supporting and Centering People of Color Initiative.