When I attended and presented at the White Privilege Conference in April, I took part in and heard some amazing workshops and keynotes, and I learned a lot. Some of them made me feel good, reinforcing some of my current views. I mean, let’s be honest. A lot of us attend conferences to hear our world view reflected back at us. What I had not quite expected, though, was to be challenged to my core.
One of my mentors once told me that any time I find myself comfortable, it’s time to look around and unsettle myself because no true growth and change comes from a space of comfort. Thus, knowing that it would make me quite uncomfortable, I decided to attend a workshop entitled, “Profiting from Privilege: An Open Dialogue about the Ethics Involved with White Consultants and Keynote Speakers on White Privilege” led by a professor at Metropolitan State University named Paul Spies. It promised to grapple with the question, “Should white speakers and consultants profit from their ‘expertise’ in helping other white people understand and grapple with white privilege?”
Going into the room, I knew that I was going to be challenged a lot, and I kept repeating to myself, “Don’t allow feeling defensive to cloud your ability to listen to the legitimate feelings and concerns of others.” My hands were shaking, and my heart was beating fast. After all, the very nature of this workshop was challenging the foundation and ethics of the business that I have been working so hard to establish, that I care so much about, and in which I have invested a tremendous amount of money.
The dialogue was exactly what I expected it to be: challenging to my foundations. The room was probably 35-40% white folks (most of whom likely worked in diversity/anti-oppression consulting for profit), and we all looked profoundly uncomfortable, like our secret had been exposed, a secret that many of didn’t even realize we were keeping. The truth is that White consultants and presenters regularly make more than People of Color who are doing the same work. The truth is that knowledge of racism is a knowledge of People of Color. It’s a Black knowledge, a Brown knowledge, a Red knowledge, a Yellow knowledge. In the words of Ewuare Osayande, “it is an analysis born of the blood struggle for Black liberation and racial justice throughout American history.” The truth is that it is not a White knowledge. Those of us who profit from the work to end racism are profiting from the words of People of Color we have heard and read. We are profiting from our relationships with People of Color. We are profiting from someone else’s “blood struggle.”
The conversation was candid. I appreciated that those in the room did not pull any punches.
“There’s no other way to say it: It is racist for a White person to profit from anti-racist work.”
“White people have no right to profit from Diversity work.”
“While White people have an obligation to act as activists to end White supremacy and racism, they need to do it as a responsibility and do it without pay.”
While I think most if not all of the White folks in the room were defensive, only a few spoke out defensively. I sat and listened, reflecting, remembering when a mentor once told me, “If you’re defensive, it’s probably for a good reason. Reflect on that defensiveness and figure out what you have done wrong. Then apologize.”
I left the workshop feeling defeated. I was thinking to myself (and even said to another participant), “I need to dismantle my business. My business is racist. No matter how much work I am doing to dismantle racism, the very structure of my business is racist.”
Following the workshop, there was a discussion of Osayande’s “A Word to the Wise.” I couldn’t stomach it. I was too confused and upset. My foundations were too shaken. I went and grabbed a sack lunch and sat down to reflect. A friend I had made earlier in the conference, a woman of color, came and asked if she could join me. I was upset and didn’t really want to talk, but I said yes. She asked me what was wrong, and I restated my conclusion. “I need to dismantle my business. My business is racist.” I went on to describe the workshop. “I am trying to keep from being defensive and hear what the majority (if not consensus) of People of Color in that room were telling me, and that message was that I need to dismantle my business.”
She laughed and said, “Jamie, you’re being kind of racist!”
“Well, you’re assuming that all People of Color agree on all things . . . isn’t that a pretty common form of white denial and racism? ‘Don’t you all just think the same?’ I, for one, think you have a valuable voice and need to do that work in a sustainable way. If you were getting rich, that would be one thing, but you’re not.”
I took a deep breath, and I felt better. All of the “safe” conclusions ran through my head. “See! A black woman approves of my work! I am okay!” “Well, I am just using my privilege to help in the struggle to dismantle that very privilege and oppression.” I had been validated, so I could go forward without having to further question the validity and ethics of my business. We talked some more through lunch, and my nerves began to calm.
After lunch, I pulled out the copy of “A Word to the Wise” that they handed out in the workshop. I read through it and stopped when Osayande wrote, “Imagine a white anti-racist saying, ‘I’m going to use my white supremacy to help People of Color.'” Didn’t I just say that to myself?
I realized that my feelings were simply validations of my world view. To truly be accountable, I needed to follow these truths wherever they may lead, even if they lead to me dismantling this business I have worked so hard to build. I committed myself then and there to broaching this conversation with as many people as I trust who are in the thick of this work as I possibly could, but in that, I need to make sure that I am not simply seeking voices that I know will be supportive. I need to extend this conversation to those that scare me because they might just say, “Yeah, Jamie . . . you probably do need to dismantle your business.”
I’ve had this conversation selectively with activists, allies, friends and family, but I haven’t had the courage to have it publicly.
So, while it’s taken me five months to work up the courage, this post is my first foray into opening my personal conversation about a very public issue to the wider public.
Is it ethical for White people to profit from Diversity work?
Is it okay so long as I’m not getting rich? Where are the lines drawn?
I often think, “Would that organization in rural Kansas (or Illinois or Tennessee or wherever) have hired me to speak to their students if I were not White?” I was a safe choice for them as they looked to have a conversation about diversity. I made them feel good in my White privilege, Straight, Male privilege that I would not say anything too terribly challenging. While that is problematic, is there also something to be said for the idea that those conversations would not be happening otherwise?
I very much appreciated what a trusted activist and mentor said when I broached the conversation with her.
“Jamie, you should do the work. There are so many voices spouting hate that we need every person possible speaking out for justice, and if you need to charge for your work and talents to make that possible, then so be it. Do it for free when you are able, and be accountable. Never forget this, though: There is a long history of White people profiting from the literal and intellectual labors of People of Color in this country. It is the sad reality that this country is built upon. Know that to some degree that is what you are doing and that it is problematic and hurtful, but do not let your voice be silenced.”
As I have reflected, I have come back to a few points made by Osayande over and over again. There are countless examples “the ways that white anti-racists who are not in accountable relationships with activists of color can be used to work against the best interests of People of Color, whether knowingly or not.” I need to ask myself every single day whether I am in accountable relationships across difference, and if I am not, I need to check myself and check myself hard.
If, then, I find myself doing the work as part of a larger tapestry of accountable relationships, is profit acceptable? How should the profit be structured? Should I, as I have discussed with a colleague of mine, pay myself the prevailing wage of what a Black or Hispanic woman makes in the economy (65 cents and 60 cents respectively) for every dollar that my female colleague of color makes (as for every dollar a White man earns)?
I also need to seek accountable answers to Osayande’s questions of, “What actually is a white anti-racist? Who defines such? And if that definition comes from a white person, how is that anti-racist?”
So I appeal to my readers. I hope to start a dialogue, a healthy and vibrant dialogue that aims toward accountability.
What place to White people have in the struggle to end racialized oppression? Is there room for white people to profit from that struggle without displacing the work and profits of People of Color?
Essentially, is my work inherently racist?
I haven’t come to any clear conclusions to these questions, so I hope to gain some wisdom from the insights of my readers.