BHM: reflections on Black activism in white spaces
Head of Equality Improvement, Mind
We know racism affects our mental wellbeing. And we also know that sometimes the voices of people from minority groups don’t get the same attention as others. That’s why for Black History Month 2022, Mental Health at Work will raising up Black voices, and asking our readers to listen and learn from these experts by experience.
Here, Mind’s Head of Equity Innovation Marcel Vige reflects on his experiences working in the diversity and inclusion space, how attitudes towards racism have changed since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and the importance of continuing to fight for justice and equality.
For old hands like me with a long history of championing racial equity within mainstream (a euphemism for white-led) organisations, the past three or so years has seen the issues I hold dear. White leaders are grappling with understanding and addressing systemic racism within their operations with a sense of urgency and vigour people like me would have never thought possible prior to 2020.
The wave of international protest sparked by the murder of George Floyd forced into public consciousness the painfully obvious, that Black Lives Matter! The need to affirm black lives in this way shone a light on just how normal, implicit, everyday theand the privileging of whiteness has become. It laid bare the fundamental inequity of white-led organisations, which is that they’re white-led organisations!
My first reaction was confused ambivalence
The first reaction of a black man like myself who’s spent the better part of 25 years working on race equity in white-led organisations was one of confused ambivalence. Knowing the necessity for white endorsement when operating in a context where whiteness approximates power, seeing white colleagues who I’ve known for years all-of-a-sudden show an interest in what I’ve been banging on about for decades, also their vigour in seeking to ‘do something about it’ was heartening, part of what I’d been pursuing over the years.
However, this came with a deep sense of suspicion, awareness of this moment potentially triggering a new level of gaslighting where it’s now expedient for white-led organisations to present an antiracist veneer. Despite this ‘new reality’ of organisations acknowledging their white privilege and embarking on their ‘antiracism journey’, this internal conflict inside me was all-too-familiar.
Advocating forwithin a white-led organisation whilst also ‘being black’ is all about conflict and contradiction. In some ways I stand between the way the organisation goes about delivering its mission and my own personal history, including family and friendship networks. From this position, I’m able to see the disconnect between the two; how the lived experience of black people is so far in the ‘don’t know, don’t know’ of white-led organisations that it isn’t seen, simply doesn’t exist. This raises the question of my own culpability; the extent to which I, as part of the organisation, collude with what I’m seeking to dismantle.
The anxiety and self-doubt weighs on me
The anxiety and self-doubt unleashed by this question weighs on me. Of course, what I’m describing here is an acute example of what all black staff within white-led organisations grapple within on a day-to-day basis; locating ourselves within organisations that aren’t designed to see us, represent us, be us. Bearing all of this in mind, it stands to reason that for black people like myself, the prospect of this all ending in the wake of Black Lives Matter is met with both open arms and scepticism in equal measure.
In the end, the final test of the ‘new wave’ of antiracism in the mainstream is the extent to which ‘the mainstream’ ceases to be a euphemism for ‘white led’; the extent to which whiteness is no longer synonymous with power. Whilst scepticism that this will actually happen equates to self-preservation for old hands like me, I don’t dismiss it completely.
Things being different depends on the possibility of change. This means despite my scepticism of the authenticity of the antiracist journey of white-led organisations rooted in my decades of experience of pushing for such change, I’m always ready to be wrong.