What am I doing here? Negotiating privilege as a White woman in a BAME charity
For lasting change to happen, working in the charity sector must be accompanied by a constant process of learning and self-reflection.
Like most middle-class job sectors, the ethnic makeup of the charity sector is majority White. People of colour are underrepresented at all levels of leadership, and campaigns like #CharitySoWhite have drawn attention to the racism faced by staff in White-led charities.
As a White person, recognising the contribution that I am making to this imbalance of both numbers and power has been an important part of my thought process about my chosen career. How can I make sure that my contributions to the charity sector are not about perpetuating the cycles of White privilege, White saviourism, and racism that continue to permeate the sector?
For White people working in the charity sector, it can be easy to assume that we’re free from any vulnerability to racist assumptions, attitudes, or biases. Surely, if I work for a charity — especially a BAME charity — then this makes me “one of the good ones”, right? Not necessarily. My motives may not always match my impact, or even be what I think they are, all of the time. This is where a process of self-reflection, leaning, and unpacking my own actions and motives as a White charity worker, begins, and it will be an ongoing process for my entire career.
Volunteering for JAN Trust has been something special in this respect. The majority of our staff, including our leadership, are women of colour. As a White woman, I am in the minority. I am very aware of the peripheral position that my Whiteness places me in, and this is a good thing — BAME experiences are not my experiences, and my contributions, although valued and valuable, will never have the same value as those coming from people with lived experience of the relevant issues. I care about the issues that we campaign about, and that our users face, but I’m ultimately an outsider to the vast majority of them.
As a result, I am in a constant process of understanding how a natural, competitive impulse to push my own ideas as the “right” ones can become yet another case of a White person speaking over the voices of BAME colleagues, and of learning the step back and give the floor to those whose voices need to be centred.
A similar process applies regarding the communities that we help. Charities are often criticised for White saviourism, for talking for or over marginalised communities out of a well-meaning, but misplaced, belief that they “know what’s best” for them.
This is actually one of the things that drew me to JAN Trust in the first place. Our work is guided by the principle that centring the voices of the communities that we work with, empowering them to speak up, and letting their input guide the programmes that we create is a more effective way of tackling the issues that they face. There is very little space provided for White saviourism, and our success stories are a constant reminder of the amazing work that BAME women can do for themselves, without White people telling them how to think or feel.
But why undergo this process of self-reflection if the work that I do still has a positive practical impact? As White people in the charity sector, it’s critical that we reflect on why we are here. Are we trying to seek change in the world, to challenge a broken system and support the empowerment of marginalised communities? Or are we really trying to boost our egos, look worthy, and earn “one of the good White people” points, only to end up strengthening the White supremacy that we claim to want to dismantle? Is our role one of real help, or performative allyship?
This isn’t an easy question to dissect. We can truly believe ourselves to be pursuing the first option, whilst unconsciously seeking approval as a “good” White person or redemption for a sense of White guilt. This doesn’t make us bad people. But it is something that has to be unpacked if positive change is to be made in the charity sector, in terms of both its work culture and the impact of its work.
We are only truly making ‘amends’ for centuries of deeply entrenched racism when we aren’t centring our own feelings. The practical impact of our work must go hand-in-hand with a constant process of learning and self-reflection, with a conscious effort to dismantle our own biases — and encourage the same dismantling in others.
Otherwise, change will only happen on the surface. The Citizens Advice guide to working with BAME communities will continue to perpetuate prejudicial stereotypes. Comic Relief will continue to raise money for food and healthcare, but the harmful culture of White saviourism will remain. Practical impact ‘in the moment’ will not be accompanied by lasting change.
And that helps nobody but ourselves.