There is No Black Card
It started innocently enough. We sat down to coffee with the goal of getting to know one another and see if there were any places our work overlapped and perhaps some partnership could emerge in the future. These meetings are quite common and can prove fruitful if they go well. This one, however, went to a strange place.
This particular leader happened to be white. He had been leading an organization for quite some time and seemed to be respected by others. It was our first time meeting and I must say it may have been our last.
We started by talking a little about our work and what we were each doing. The conversation was going great until he decided that he was going to give me some pointers on working cross-culturally. I thought to myself, “This an interesting place to go…” but I listened as he began to let me know how black leaders were and how I could connect better.
He began to talk to me about how growing up in poverty affects leadership. He gave examples of leaders he was working with and their progress as leaders. He began to let me know what it was like to grow up in a struggling community and the leadership issues that come from growing up in poverty.
I honestly was thrown completely off by the way he addressed these issues. He talked as if he had lived them. But he didn’t grow up poor; in fact, he had quite a privileged background, so much so that his college tuition was paid completely by his parents with zero debt incurred.
He then began to let me know how diverse his staff was, and about his good friend who is African American, and about his adopted children who are black… and the picture started to make some sense to me.
This guy thought he had a pass on race and privilege. He thought that because he had a diverse staff and friends of color and black children that he could speak with authority about being black and poor. In his mind, he had a “black card.” This allowed him to sit with me – a black man who grew up poor, in the city, and raised by a single parent – and give me lessons on life.
This is a dangerous position, because in effect this privileged white male has only been solidified in his power through his multiethnic engagement. He still sits in a position of power, yet he believes that having a diverse staff and black children gives him permission to speak authoritatively on issues he has not experienced himself, and to tell me what it’s like to be poor and black. I made my thoughts about this clear to him and it only made him give more and more examples of how he was an exception.
I have many white friends who have made decisions that indeed make them allies for people of color. Many have suffered for decisions they have made, and I have the utmost respect for them. But they would never take this kind of posture; in fact, our friendship does the opposite – it causes them to be more aware and less assuming of power given through white supremacy and privilege.
This man had some tools that seemed great on the surface. Diversifying your staff is one good thing you can do as a white leader. I am all for adoption as well – I have two adopted children myself. We all should have friends cross culturally; this is a huge way to begin overcoming some of our problems with race, and relationships are key on the path towards equality.
But these beautiful tools, when used (whether intentionally or not) to create or add to existing power dynamics, keep white leaders as the teachers and authorities and continue a white supremacist dominance of culture.
You never have a pass. You never have authority to speak on these issues above a person of color. You should always be learning and careful. Be aware of your dominant culture tendencies and even involuntary placement. Allies learn how to check their supremacy and privilege at the door. There is no black card.