Doing good and being racist

‘We do good, therefore we believe we are good.’

Demonstrators at Black Lives Matter demonstration in Geneva, 9 June 2020
Demonstrators at Black Lives Matter demonstration in Geneva, 9 June 2020. (Ben Parker/TNH)

The UN secretary-general divined that there must be racism at the UN, because there is racism everywhere. But then he proceeded to tell his staff not to join protests. And then he backtracked. It’s a lot...

His original logic was sound. Honestly, I’m glad to hear the UN acknowledge it. But owning up to racism while simultaneously denying your staff of colour the right to openly protest felt particularly cruel. It also feels incredibly familiar from my time in the humanitarian world.

During my time as an employee of a UN agency in Geneva, I was the only black person on my team. In fact, I’d often be the only black person in many meeting rooms. Although I would describe each of my former colleagues as “good people”, I would be lying if I said I never experienced any racism while at the UN. Because, yes, it’s everywhere. And, while we’d like to think we’re good people because of the very nature of our work, our humanitarianism does not preclude us from exhibiting racism. In many ways our humanitarianism reinforces it.

Suddenly, we find ourselves in a world where the act of calling out racism is more offensive than racism itself.

Overcommitment to ideals like impartiality and neutrality can silence staff of colour by forcing them to find the “right” tone to confront racism. 

Experiencing racism, no matter how subtle, is hurtful. And, sometimes, we respond in pain. But so many times, when we address it, the conversation shifts to our tone. Suddenly, we find ourselves apologising for making a colleague uncomfortable by pushing back against a racist comment. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a world where the act of calling out racism is more offensive than racism itself.

Humanitarians are also overcommitted to the idea of our inherent goodness. And that’s understandable. Working at a non-profit or organisation devoted to “doing good”, the job itself is a virtue signal. We do good, therefore we believe we are good. Most of us instinctively consider racism to be a bad thing only done by bad people. We therefore reason that if racism is bad, and we are good, we can never be racist. What’s problematic about this mindset is that it leaves no room to explore any of our implicit racial biases. By denying their very existence, we create work cultures that bury racism rather than confront it. 

And so, somewhere between your discomfort and your denial, people of colour stop addressing racism in the humanitarian sector because we haven’t quite seemed to figure out the appropriately neutral response to a 400-year-old wound.

There can be no honest conversation about racism in the UN or any workplace as long as you dictate the manner in which it is spoken about. And it certainly won’t happen if you plan to be “impartial” about it either. 

The only way forward is to confront it and accept that if racism is everywhere, it can also be in us. Admitting this might be difficult, but it’s empowering. It’s empowering because you will never be able to eliminate any of your implicit racial biases if you continue to believe you don’t have any. And while it may not necessarily affect you personally, if you’re in a position of power, it’s those very biases that make the difference in who gets promoted or who gets a seat at the table.

While I was at the UN, it was my skin colour that got in the way of advancing. I was being considered for a promotion to a more senior leadership position within the agency. In the end, the good lady in charge of making this decision reasoned that she couldn’t pick me because she knew that I wouldn’t be able to command any respect among other senior leaders. This is both damning and soul-crushing. Here we have leadership admitting – to others, not directly to me – that a young-looking black female won’t be able to command any respect among her peers. But, rather than address the racism that continually denies black people any expertise or authority in the workplace, we instead deny them a promotion. Because, I suppose, that’s easier.

I was also told about my “tone” and my “strong personality”, while I listened to my white male boss yell at people and refer to colleagues using the “c-word”. The head of my unit would frequently say “shush” to my female colleague of colour because she was “too loud”.

As women of colour, we quickly learn that there are two standards for behaviour. I found a culture that celebrated aggressiveness and authoritarian leadership in white males, while simultaneously punishing black females for having the same traits. And so I would constantly self-check and self-police my tone just to avoid becoming somebody’s stereotype on any given day. But that was exhausting, and it eventually took a toll on my mental health. 

Eventually, I gave up. 

This is not the moment to further silence the voices of people of colour. This is the moment to amplify them. As they begin to speak openly and freely, let’s resist the urge to tone-police or deny what is a largely shared experience.

Allow people to get real and raw about what they’ve experienced.

Most importantly, let’s shift our focus from declaring, “But I’m not racist!” to asking ourselves, “In what ways might I be racist without knowing? In what ways might my implicit racial biases affect the way I treat colleagues of colour?” And that is the true work of anti-racism.

As one of my favorite writers, Ijeoma Oluo, describes it, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”

Racism is ugly, and won’t be resolved in any institution with a round of neat and tidy UN-style consultations. Allow people to get real and raw about what they’ve experienced. Allow them to tell the world just how angry they are about racial injustice. Let them march with fist raised and publicly declare that racism is unacceptable and goes against our very fundamental rights. Isn’t that what a good humanitarian would do? 

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