The #BlackLivesMatter movement is focused on the many "ways in which Black citizens are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state (BlackLivesMatter.com/about/" around the U.S. Most of us who have peripheral relationships to the Black community, or who even just follow this movement in the news and social media, understand the movement as focusing on violence committed against Black Americans by representatives of the state, or the ways in which the state ignores violence against Black Americans and denies justice to the Black community. The faces of the movement, to many of us on the outside of it, are young men like Trayvon Martin, whose murderers are acquitted while their victims are blamed for their own murders, or women like Sandra Bland or Joyce Curnell, who die preventable deaths in police custody.
However, there are so many other ways that we as a nation deprive Black Americans of their "basic human rights and dignity (BlackLivesMatter.com/about/" that are so much more subtle than outright violence or refusal to take action against the individuals committing that violence. As a social gerontologist, when I think of specific Black lives that matter, but whose human rights and dignity are ignored by our larger culture, I tend to think about the lives of older Black Americans. Older Black Americans, as the result of a lifetime of social inequality, discrimination, and unequal access to appropriate healthcare, face greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and dementia. And the people that take care of older Black Americans in the community, their families and neighbors who we in gerontology refer to as "informal caregivers", do not have access to the same supports as White informal caregivers. This unequal access can be the result of a history of discrimination which prevents Black caregivers from asking for services, or it can be the result of their not even knowing what services are available because the agencies providing these services do not actively promote their agencies in the Black community.
Now, most agencies feel like they are doing outreach to the Black community because they do outreach in general. What they fail to realize is that people who have endured decades of institutional discrimination is not going to assume they are welcome in your agency. You need to specifically reach into their community, build relationships and trust, and make sure that your services are offered in a way that are compatible with that community's culture. We call this "culturally competent" practice, and it's an important concern whenever someone from the dominant culture is providing services or supports to people from an historically marginalized culture. And because most of the people working in social service agencies are White, we really have to work at developing cultural competency when we are offering services to people who are not White. But most of us don't perceive ourselves as needing training in cultural competency, simply because we do not think of ourselves as "racist" (or classist or homophobic, etc.).
It's not that simple. There are so many ways that we, as Whites, can be blissfully ignorant of how our thoughts and actions effect, and are perceived by, our colleagues or clients who are not White. That is what growing up in a culture of White privilege does: it blinds you to any experience outside of the White experience.
The reason I am blogging about this today is because I have this brilliant and dedicated colleague (whose name I will not mention here because I don't have her permission), who has been a public health educator for decades, and who has been very successfully providing faith-based public health education and intervention programs to the local Black community for over 20 years. She has won national awards for this work, and has been funded by a variety of local and regional foundations for programs targeting different health conditions in the local Black community. She is Black, as are the pastors and churches she partners with to deliver her programs. For the past couple of years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to work with her on these programs. I generally stay behind the scenes doing work like writing grants, evaluating outcomes, and writing reports to our funders. She is the founder and face of the program, and the community has known her and trusted her for a long time.
This week, we had a meeting with a potential funder, locally known for it's commitment to the same neighborhoods in which my colleague has been doing her great work, about a new program targeting Black informal caregivers of people with dementia. My colleague, myself, and another representative from our University attended this meeting. Two of us are White, and my colleague is Black. The representatives from the potential funder were also White.
When we take meetings with outside groups, I defer to my colleague because of her
leadership in this initiative and because she has so many more years of experience doing this work. As a junior colleague, I do sometimes
have useful information to add to the conversation, but I generally do
not interrupt or assume anything; I follow her lead as best as I can.
Which gives me the opportunity to observe the dynamics in the room.
Here's what I noticed in this meeting: my colleague, the award-winning public health educator and founder of this program did most of the talking, as was appropriate. The funder's representatives sat across the table from her focusing on their tablets. They asked questions, but barely looked at her while she spoke. When they asked a question that I had the information to answer, I answered. And they looked up and made eye contact with me for as long as I spoke. Then my Black colleague would start speaking again, and they would look back down at their tablets. Until our other White colleague spoke, at which point they would look up and make eye contact with her until she finished speaking. Then my Black colleague would start talking again, and they would look back down at their tablets. This happened consistently for the full length of the meeting. Ostensibly, they were using their tablets to take notes about what was being said. But why did they both need to take notes while she spoke, and why did they only need to take notes while she spoke, and not when I or my White colleague spoke?
To be honest, at first I didn't even notice the pattern. At the same time as I was observing their behavior, I was also struggling with my frustration at their general lack of interest in our program and their failure to even read the description we sent them in preparation for the meeting. Most of the time, I was thinking: How can they not be interested in what she is saying about the program? When I should have been thinking: Why is it that they aren't looking at the one Black person in this room when she speaks about a program that is successful within the Black community? Why does it feel like they give more weight and credence to what I say about this program, than to what the person who created it and makes it successful says about this program?
When I spoke about this dynamic with my colleague this morning, she smiled at me and said: "It happens all the time; we cannot let ourselves be distracted by it." I know she is right that she cannot let herself focus on dynamics like that. She has to keep her eye on the ball - what is important about the work and how we can get it done. But as her ally, I don't think I can just let these things pass. I wish I had done something proactive while we were in that meeting. Like asked them to pay better attention to her, or something. She thinks it was fine to let it go, but I don't feel good about letting that happen. At the very least, I need to bring it to the attention of our other colleague in the meeting, and they to get her to notice dynamics like that in future meetings with other colleagues.
And I want to make you think about it, too. How often do you or other White people in the room pay closer attention to each other than to any Black person in the room? What can you do to change that dynamic the next time you see it?
This experience definitely reminds me that when we think about how much #BlackLivesMatter, we White liberals need to broaden and deepen our understanding of what Black lives matter (all of them) and in what settings (most of them) White privilege is blinding us to those lives and how they matter.