What does it mean to be white and to be paid to do racial justice work?

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What does it mean to be white and to be paid to do racial justice work? What are the ethics of me, a white person, making money off racial oppression?

I struggled with these questions a lot once I decided to try to make anti-racism facilitation my career. I had been doing this work as a volunteer for years, and I knew I was good at it and that I loved it. I also knew that plenty of other white folks were out here getting paid for it as well.

I could try to sidestep responsibility by pointing out that I immigrated to this country as a child. My family has no history here from before the early 1980s, and had no hand in creating the racist system we live in. But, I am British, and the history of one of the largest colonial empires travels with me. The exploitation of people and resources is part of who I am. My family was working class in the UK, but the factories and laundries they worked in were fueled by the sugar trade, the spice trade, the wool trade, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The United Kingdom’s great wealth, like the wealth of the United States, is the result of the exploitation of Black and Brown people the world over, and I benefit from the systems of oppression put into place by/in both countries.

Next, my accountability network came into play. In addition to looking at what other white facilitators and consultants were doing, I took a Black friend out to lunch to talk about economic justice and reparations. I looked at the work of Leslie Mac and Marissa Johnson with Safety Pin Box (now defunct) and how they were unabashedly running that business for their own benefit and the benefit of other Black women, transferring wealth from white folks to Black folks. I examined how other groups of white people, such as CARW, were helping organizations run by people of color in an accountable way, i.e., doing what the organizations asked of them, lending their help, expertise, access, or privilege in ways that furthered the work of people of color. I took in all of this information and ruminated on what it meant for me.

So where did that leave me? It left me in a place of humility as a white person. Not a place of guilt or shame, but humility. I cannot know what it is like to move through US society as a person of color. I am perceived as belonging here in ways that families who have lived here for hundreds, even thousands, of years are not. But I can use the understanding of what it means to be a white person here to further the cause of anti-racism.

After thinking about this deeply, I came to the conclusion that there is a place for white people in anti-racism work, and that place is bringing along other white folks. Working with white people is my job. Taking the money that white people and mostly-white organizations pay me for valuable work and then sharing that with people of color, with no strings attached, is one way that I work towards economic justice. Making sure that when I am hired there is a corresponding facilitator of color hired at the same time ensures that people of color who have chosen to do this work also make money. Referring jobs out to facilitators or trainers of color instead of taking those jobs myself is a way of sharing my access.

The stakes are too high in this work to do it without reflection. Black and Brown people are dying while waiting for white people to figure this out, and many white folks who recognize this are paralyzed by fear of doing the wrong thing. Paralysis is not an option for me, and I hope it isn’t for you. I strive to be ethical in my choices, but I’m not perfect. I still screw this up, and I’m grateful that I have trusted colleagues and friends who will let me know that I’ve screwed up. Living in community in this way is what makes it possible for me to be a white person doing anti-racism work with integrity.

©2018 Judy Blair LLC