White supremacy, black liberation, and global development: The conversations we’re not having

Below all of the talk of “evidence-based approaches” and “taking interventions to scale,” there is an undercurrent of disquiet.

It happens when “local partners’ capacity” is maligned. It happens when two people have the same idea, but it is considered legitimate only when the white guy in the room offers it. It happens when people of color are passed over for leadership positions, jobs, promotions, or pay raises. It happens when different opinions would be helpful, but perspectives are not asked for, or are discounted. It happens when only 1% of humanitarian relief funds make their way to national organizations in Haiti, in West Africa to fight Ebola, and now in Nepal. It happens when people of color are assumed to have a lower job status than they do and are treated as such. It happens with every unclosed feedback loop and every feedback loop not yet opened. It happens when the stories and photos we use to describe our work reinforce harmful stereotypes. It happens when an approach is suddenly considered “new” or “relevant” only because now donors have “discovered” it.

People’s experiences of everyday, subtle racism, or racial microagressions – and the resulting anger, powerlessness, fear, humiliation, and sadness – are not just fleeting instances. They accumulate. And the resulting frustration can result in deep hopelessness in a sector that is supposed to be about equality, fairness, and lifting each other up. The very premise of our industry – that others should live as those in the “developed world” do – has to be acknowledged and exorcised.

1383830964247457If US-based development practitioners have learned anything from the discourse on race in our country over the last few tragic weeks (and centuries…), it’s time for some uncomfortable conversations. And if we can’t find the courage to have the conversation now, then when will it happen?

I hear plenty of conversations about risk, or rather mitigating it in our sector, over and over in fact. But we need to take the next step to talk about control and power. Who has it? Historically, how did they get it? Systemically, how do they use it? And as a result, who is not welcome at the table when decisions are made? (See this Guardian chat from 2013.)

I’m uncomfortable talking about this. Going under the surface is scary. But unless we open up the conversation on racism, sexism, and privilege in the global development sector, we will continue to perpetuate the same, tired system and make the same mistakes – ones that right now we believe can be solved by best practices and improved indicators.

When we face uncertainty in the global development sector, we have two choices. We can design (make abstract) and manage (control), or we can inquire (make real) and listen (let go). When our sector focuses our language, our meetings, our reports only the first option, we assume “responsibility to only a certain extent,” as described to me by Semhar Araia.

We are too protected by the abstractions of our development lexicon. We can too easily claim our commitment to “results” or “locally-led development” and too easily skip over the racism at the root of the problems we seek to address and the prejudices that color the solutions we profess.

Every time I talk about racism on my blog how-matters.org, I realize there’s much more I can and should be doing to advance this discussion in the global development sector. Every time I go to a conference and see a sea of white faces talking about “their” help to poor, brown people in the Global South, I see how much work needs to be done.

So I am assuming more responsibility. I need to learn more about people of color’s experience in international aid and philanthropy, if they are willing to share it, and how this can be improved. I need to engage (and challenge) other white people about why they are not doing so. Our sector does so well at ignoring “the political,” but that has got to change, starting with me.

Forgive me for the mistakes I will surely make…


Related Posts

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The Marginalization of CBOs by Development Actors: A Perspective from Zimbabwe

Aid, Africa, Corruption, and Colonialism: An Honest Conversation

“Query” by Akwasi Aidoo

Does aid need a 12-step program?

How to Work in Someone Else’s Country (A Book Review)

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  1. Comments from Facebook:
    “Truth. If I have to hear another person say “he/she is Swazi, but they’re one of the good ones” or something along those lines…”
    “Is being an ally enough? Aside from publicly stating it on your blog? How do you put this in practice when in the field?”

    And here @borderlessciti shares a great, honest piece sharing more on their experience of racism in international aid: “The Good Afghan: Race and Racism in Foreign Service!

  2. This is an extremely sobering blog! I must admit that I have seen white aid workers that are extremely sensitive to the issues you raise and do everything possible to embrace Southern-contribution to the development discourse – it is very rare pedigree. I have also seen on many occasions, how a person from the South, with exactly the same point if not better, is simply disregarded during meetings as they simply can’t talk, reason, and engage in the Northern/Western frame of reference.

  3. Rolf S.

    So glad to see more people in the development sector highlighting this!

    I recently had an article published trying to generate more discussion on this among development workers and academics who study development (I’ve posted a free link to the PDF below)–thanks to the emphasis on positionality and race in the teacher education literature, new teachers in the US tend to get a lot of opportunity to think through their privilege and positionality and how it affects their work. Unfortunately, nothing like this really exists in the development sector yet. I wrote this article to try to model how development workers could similarly problematize their privilege:


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  5. Zehra

    THANK YOU, Jennifer for writing this! It’s something that I balance carefully as a person of colour but not from the global south (a term I hate but there we go).

    I have a lot more to say on this but just not now (no time!). For now, just wanted to say, YES! and thank you and keep going!

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  7. Great article from The Body is Not An Apology:
    “A person who is willing to talk, in good faith, with other human beings about how to solve problems that afflict this world has a place in this conversation. A person who can only talk about how uncomfortable it is to address problems that afflict this world is just causing a distraction. There is no neutral ground. Either you throw your feelings at serious problems and accomplish nothing, or you get down to brass tacks and start working with people who want to accomplish something more than not giving offense.” http://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/the-new-york-times-racism-and-the-politics-of-discomfort/

  8. Pingback: Guest post: White supremacy, black liberation, and global development: The conversations we’re not having | developmenttruths

  9. JMCooper

    This is the conversation we have not been having in my 25 years of humanitarian work. Instead of getting better, the situation is getting worse. Despite being vocal, our voices are unheard. In spite of being at the forefront of the response, our faces are not seen, or worse, other faces are substituted for some kind of authenticity. We have processes and consultations, conferences and summits but they all lead to the same rehashing of “we can do better; we must do more”…and we don’t. Arundhati Roy says “There is no such thing as the voiceless; only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.” In the humanitarian and development community, the locals are far from voiceless and very much silenced and unheard. Thank for starting this conversation…I will contribute.

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