Active Allyship and Ethical Engagement in Black Communities
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As someone who’s committed themselves to taking part in something as incredible as volunteering abroad, it is so important to be fully engaged in every facet of the experience. This includes the cultural immersion of the experience. We've found people (regardless of race) are often most affected by this aspect of the experience. Two volunteers, for example one black and one white, can arrive from the same country, on the same placement with similar goals and have two totally different experiences. Where one volunteer will find themselves not being a racial minority and being surrounded by people of a similar race for the first time, it can be a very powerful experience for them. The other volunteer can encounter powerfully confronting feelings for the opposite reasons. For the first time in their life, the white volunteer is a racial minority. And so how do these racial dynamics impact how the volunteers engage with a predominantly black community and how do we ensure these engagements are meaningful for the community and free from harm?
What we do as an organisation is to make these engagements possible and we strive to continuously educate and enlighten everyone we work with. Ultimately however, it is up to the individuals themselves as to how in depth these engagements go for them. An important part of cultural engagement in volunteering in Africa is to consider race relations. That is, the dynamics that exist between different races within one community. We have a responsibility to openly discuss these dynamics.
When We Say Culture Shock, What Are We Talking About?
As a majority of our volunteers are pulled in by this experience as it is so different from what they’ve always known, it is common that they will likely be non black or different to the predominantly black community they will go into. This is a huge facet of the experience, yet in the past we have so seldom addressed it head on. It can be quite daunting to find yourself as a minority for the first time in your life, where you are so used to being the majority/norm/standard.
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This can be very confronting and in previous times we have often grouped these feelings under “culture shock”, but often completely taking out the racial experience for both the communities and the volunteers. When we talk about “culture shock” what are we actually talking about? We’re addressing our ethnic and social differences. Our racial differences are how differently we experience the world based on our significant superficial racial differences. Furthermore, when we’re referring to this part of the “shock”, we refer to the differences that bring about feelings of discomfort, fear and anxiety. And finally, the 'racial experience' being how we experience each other on the basis of our racial identity. Therefore the racial disparities and what they mean in the volunteer experience certainly warrant a separate discussion.
Isn’t It Better to Be Colour-Blind?
It has often been our experience that almost 100% of the time when race and how it factors into the volunteer realm is brought up, it is never an unwelcome conversation, infact most people want to talk about this. It is often the most desired topic that everyone wants to discuss but nobody knows how. But why is it important? Isn’t it better to be “colour blind”? No. Infact colour-blindness is the first way to negatively impact other racial groups' experiences. This is erasure of their experience, for people who are deeply impacted in the world because of the colour of their skin. Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge or not does not make it less true. Colour blindness is an unhelpful privilege that does nothing to enhance the experience of the less privileged group. We’re aware that for many people, 'colour-blindness' is a well meaning perspective. Many people take on this perspective as they would otherwise not be well equipped enough to tackle racial issues. Many people will often say “I just don’t know what to say” and we’ve found this is often not a lack of insight into racial issues, but instead it's about not having the correct tools to compassionately and thoughtfully address racial issues.
We Need to Be Progressive
Therefore we need to start paying attention to how this is handled. The topic of race within international volunteering deserves careful examination and we should be progressive and set a precedent within our field to tackle this topic. It is no secret that the international volunteering sector is a predominantly white field, led and driven by mostly white people. Given the fact that most of the communities we send our volunteers into are non white, it is important we mitigate the risk of minimising non white voices and protect their experience of international volunteering. The results or outcomes of our work within this sector should no longer be self determined, but positively recognised by the people who’s communities are being impacted. Therefore if there is even a slight risk of harm that we are not mitigating for, such as racial suppression, this should be immediately tackled. I wrote a brief manual on active allyship and ethical engagement in black communities specifically for non black foreigners going into service in predominantly black communities. However this is just a start. Although guidance is certainly a must, it is not the job of one group to educate anyone on race relations, this should a self directed journey enhanced by careful listening and understanding.
White Saviour Complex
It is important to completely weed out ‘white saviour complex’ and rather become active as allies or in partnership with black communities. There is often a defensiveness that is accompanied by this topic of ‘white saviour’, which is ok as we know people are usually well intended. But we need to consider the people central to what we are all trying to achieve and what harm is likely to be caused should we not address this topic. We understand that there is already a pattern set from a history of foreign missionary work in Africa, however we are many generations down the line, far greater advanced and we know better.
Become Part of the Solution
A starting point of where you fit into all of this is understanding the impact of your mere presence alone as a non black person in a predominantly black community. Particularly if you’re white, this is a position of power and of much privilege. Understand that you are also a symbol of privilege and advantage that most of the non white people you will come into contact with have never experienced. Understanding where this privilege and advantage comes from is to study colonialism, white supremacy and systemic racism, the impact of which has been devastating in Africa. There is a risk of misuse of this power and position that we should safeguard against. There is also a responsibility to be active in tackling these issues if you truly want to become part of the solution. Therefore it is of grave importance that you examine this position and understand why it matters.
Power and Privilege
Now, coming back to your immediate position as a non black foreigner committed to voluntary service in a predominantly black community. By arriving at the point where you have begun to examine what your ‘power’ and ‘privilege’ mean, you will often at this point begin to find the tools to address racial issues within this context with far greater ease. You should also begin to do so with far greater compassion and the sensitivity this topic deserves as insight grows. Listen keenly to the people in the community within which you are entering and respect their experience. Use the manual only as a guide, remembering the compassion, empathy and respect that is also required.