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Contributing to Black History Month as a White Man

White people engaging with Black History Month is always going to be uncomfortable. But sitting with this discomfort, and using our privilege for good, is how we start to dismantle racism at a systemic level, all year round.

Racism protest placard black lives matter
James Eades (Unsplash)

Speaking about Black History Month content with activist and educator Melissa Simmonds last month, she asked me, “How do you feel about commissioning work in this space?”

I expressed discomfort and concern about the leadership role I was playing in an area outside my own lived experience. There was an awkward silence. We laughed. In talking further we unpicked this and in so doing Melissa tasked me, quite rightly, with exploring that discomfort in a Now Then article.

Opus—the organisation I co-founded, which runs Now Then, Festival of Debate and several other projects— could not be considered a representative organisation yet. For that reason, how we engage with important annual cultural celebrations like Black History Month and the wider ongoing structural issue of systemic racism is a moral and operational challenge.

Opus started life in 2005 as a voluntary collective run by three white, middle-class young men with rural home counties upbringings. While the team is bigger now and it’s getting more diverse, as an organisation we recognise the structural racial, gender and class-based biases that are inherent in our development, and we recognise the real importance of not continuing those biases.

We talk about this a lot as a team. Clearly, prioritising diversity and lived experience in our recruitment processes carries a moral imperative. But beyond that, it improves our understanding of the communities we serve, how we should be directing our collective energies and how we should be making decisions.

Last year, we changed the structure of Opus to devolve power from the directors— currently an all-white leadership team—and to create a more equitable space for the voices of differing lived experiences, through the creation of three new governance boards, called the ‘Head’ (technical expertise), the ‘Heart’ (values, conscience and social impact) and the ‘Hand’ (current workers). We’re striving to put inclusivity and diversity at the centre of our projects, including Festival of Debate events and our Now Then journalism, but of course we don’t always get it right. When we get it wrong, we try to own it, learn from it and do better next time.

The coronavirus pandemic has arguably shone a light not on structural inequalities themselves—because they have always been obvious to anyone looking—but on our complete failure as individuals and as a society to address structural inequalities of income, class, race, gender and sexuality, meaningfully and at their root. This distinction is an important one and I believe we are all complicit in it.

As a white, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual man in a leadership position in Sheffield, I am quite literally the problem. It’s therefore on me, and those like me, to contribute towards the solution by actively listening to marginalised voices, serving people creatively, being honest, critical and inquisitive with my own personhood, and communicating in a way that is transparent and accountable.

In mid-August, Opus began to talk collectively about some of the issues around our programming and commissioning of content for Black History Month. We asked ourselves, does Opus, a largely white organisation, have any right to contribute? By doing this work, are we cynically profiteering, financially or reputationally? Should we be amplifying white voices that are engaging in this topic? Are we adopting a ‘white saviour’ position? Are we acting as gatekeepers? By doing this work, are we preventing others from accessing the same resources to do it themselves?

At the same time, we were approached by Melissa Simmonds, who runs a Sheffield-based organisation called MisTaûght‏‏. She asked us to support an online presentation and Q&A session, titled ‘Black History Month for Dummies and White Teachers’, following on from an event we ran with her during Festival of Debate 2019. This felt like a synchronous beginning.

Ultimately, we decided to contribute to Black History Month because racism is not a problem that black people have created; it springs from the dominance and bias of white-led structures, networks and perceptions of the world we live in - which Opus is in a position to challenge, creatively and with honesty.

(I originally wrote “not a problem that people of colour have created” above. On reading a draft of this piece, Melissa said I should avoid the term in this context.)

A small working group of white members of the team emerged to take on this work and we identified the following aims to hold ourselves to account:

  • Our purpose is to amplify Black history.
  • Our purpose is to amplify Black voices in Sheffield and beyond.
  • We hope that through this work we contribute to actual change.
  • We aim to use our collective privileges to engage white people with anti-racism perspectives and Black History Month.

After outlining a content plan we approached Learn Sheffield, an organisation that we’ve collaborated with before which shares many of our aspirations for a more equitable world. In discussion, we identified how our commissions for Black History Month could also serve a purpose as ‘provocations’, or learning tools, for teachers across Sheffield seeking to bring lessons together around Black History Month for their students.

With the provision that all contributors agree to have their commissions hosted on the Learn Sheffield website and to be potentially used by teachers as resources in schools—at no cost to those schools—we agreed that Learn Sheffield would underwrite the commissions and that Opus would take on the cost of staff and delivery.

We hope you find what we publish this month compelling. We absolutely welcome feedback and further contributions.

For my part—although I have infinitely more to learn—in thinking about this work I have found the following:

  • It’s in my discomfort that I learn and develop. This is a process which I should be celebrating and continuing at every opportunity.
  • I should never let my discomfort in this space prevent me from acting and my actions should be informed by listening actively.
  • At the point at which my discomfort becomes a sense of fragility or guilt, I have fundamentally missed the thing at the root of all this: an inequity of power. This should never be overtaken by my own insecurities and self-obsessions as a white man. If that does happen, I need to own it and check myself.
  • I am learning to acknowledge the risk in all of this of behaving like a white saviour. At the point where my actions benefit myself more than they contribute towards the solution, I have made a mistake.

In choosing to bring this project together, I have unavoidably assumed a gatekeeper role, due to the intersectionality of my privileges as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class male, and the sum of my influence as the leader of an organisation with a good track record in Sheffield across a breadth of project areas.

It’s my responsibility to use my privileged position, as well as that of Opus, to open gateways and networks for others with less privilege—which is what I will do.

Filed under: #Black History Month

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