Black Lives Matter: The emotional toll of speaking up

‘I’m tired.’

(WOCinTech/Flickr)

I’m tired. A lot of us are. The events of the past seven weeks have forced us to relive and reflect on our own experiences with racism, while shouldering our loved ones and communities going through the same pain.

These feelings of exhaustion and injustice can be soul shattering. Usually, when I revisit my own experiences, I find comfort by focusing on what the Black community has achieved and on my own successes and blessings. This time, counting silver linings isn’t soothing. It just isn’t enough.

The scale of the worldwide demonstrations prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement is something I’ve never seen before. People around me are becoming more vocal, sharing their efforts to educate themselves. Many of our aid institutions have also publicly taken a stand against racism and relaunched internal conversations in order to do – and be – better.

But I’m exhausted.

Experiencing racism is a violent experience. It’s having persons – strangers and people you may trust – trying to take something away from you. It can be your identity, the result of years of work, your pride, your voice, your power, your comfort, your choices, your safety. Regardless of whether you’ve been able to push back or had to restrain yourself, you’re left simmering in some level of powerlessness. There is no closure, no happy ending, no wrong righted.

When racism happens in the workplace, you can’t just walk away. I personally choose to compartmentalise. It allows me to function, thrive, and ensure that my work, well-being, and social interactions are not solely defined by race relations or my Black experience.

So, when I’m asked to share my stories, I have to decide whether to reopen a box filled with moments of injustice, humiliation, or resentment. The feelings they trigger are not something that one can turn on and off at the flip of a switch. A real safe space to discuss racism would include the opportunity for people to take a step back after speaking up, allowing them to recover from the emotionally taxing effort.

Unfortunately, in an environment composed of competing priorities, these processes will not slow down for you. If you decide to engage, you may have to stay in a mind space that can be painful and frustrating.

Speaking up as a minority in the workplace also means standing alone – or almost – and pushing down an innate and human desire for belonging in order to create a space where colleagues and friends will be made uncomfortable.

And it takes preparation, because, the truth is, sharing your human experience may not be enough. You will have to better explain, bring concrete examples, or justify why the experiences shared are unquestionably rooted in racism. So, wanting to get our points across in the right way, many of us will hit the books and dissect our life experiences to frame them within a social or historical framework. To make sure we are understood, heard, and believed, we’ll try to show pedagogy, hindsight, maybe even moderation. We’ll go the extra mile, in yet another attempt to be seen and treated as equal.

By the way, I must tell you, you have SUCH a great English accent!”

I can’t even count the number of times this has been said to me by white colleagues, whether at the end of a meeting or when landing in a new duty station. Ironically, it often comes from a heavily accented non-native speaker. It is also accompanied by a soft smile and look of encouragement. The first few times it happened, I smiled back, said nothing. Now, I reply: “Thanks, yours isn’t bad either”.

As our institutions are rooted in a “white” definition of success, how can our programmes around the world not be the same?

Why does this matter? Because it leads to the following question: Why does this white person feel the need to appreciate my level of competence? Underneath what aimed to be a compliment, there is an implicit belief that a) my Canadian-accented English is better than the African accent they expected me to have, and b) they are in a position to openly judge my technical competence, even if they are not experts themselves.

Both points are representative of a power structure that puts greater value and confidence on what is white (and Western) in aid organisations. It starts with an accent but also permeates to the value of one’s educational background and work experience. It sometimes feels like “competence” is defined by one’s ability to fit in to a predominantly white work culture and to translate views, ideas, and projects for a Global North audience.

I can’t help but wonder: As our institutions are rooted in a “white” definition of success, how can our programmes around the world not be the same?

In 2009, the author Chimamanda Adichie warned of the danger of a one-dimensional single story. Yet, while actively trying to be more diverse, our institutions and the people working within them still struggle with a “single story” bias that prevents a real sharing of power.

Welcoming a mixture of people into a pre-defined institutional framework and expecting them to conform doesn’t equate to celebrating diversity. We need to break down our structures, acknowledge our need for each other, and trust that other ways – ways that may be foreign or non-intuitive to white Western institutions – can also lead us to our common goals. It is only with a real shift of perceptions that we can produce an environment in which diversity is a word inclusive of everyone, and not just minorities.

Can this type of change truly occur? I don’t know – though my cynicism may be the result of a difficult month.

At a minimum, we need to acknowledge the cost that rehashing experiences and engaging in conversation exacts on the very people whose situations should be redressed.

But as new pathways for institutional change are being created, I will show up. I’ll do my very best to contribute to the fostering of an environment where organisational cohesion is achieved not by favouring one over another but by allowing all voices to truly shape our humanitarian institutional systems.

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