I learned a brilliant new acronym W.A.I.T. – Why Am I Talking? So many times I want to yell this in meetings, but restrain myself because I know it would be rude and then I would have to ask myself the same question “why are you yelling about talking?”
Often times we are expected and paid to talk. In the nonprofit, government, and philanthropic worlds we are expected to share our thoughts, advocate for communities, ask others to think about different angles, or at the very least ask a question about the topic to prove we’re paying attention and not thinking about the latest episode of House of Cards.
Yet, in talking we have to ask who are representing and are we the best ones to speak about a particular viewpoint or community. This is a question we should ask ourselves often. Are we speaking about a topic because we are ‘centered’ in the work or is our speaking up detracting from others. We should ‘pass the mic’ to others because they are closer to the topic and the most impacted by a disparity.
Pass the Mic Please
Recently Macklemore, a rapper, released a new song about white privilege. He’s gotten a lot of attention and accolades for talking about race and his place as a white man in the music scene. Others have criticized him for not ‘passing the mic’ to a person of color and using his influence to elevate the voices of other rappers and musicians of color. Is he aiding the cause or using his position of influence to take attention away from others. Could he use his influence to help launch an artist of color career instead of publishing a song that benefits mostly himself? Like Macklemore we have to ask ourselves these same questions in government, nonprofit, and community work.
In the nonprofit world we are rewarded for being in the room and speaking up. We are paid for bringing people together to help solve problems. We are in the middle, we are closer to the community and hopefully trusted by the community to understand what is happening and what is needed, but why are we talking and should we speak?
So… Why Am I Talking? Is What I Have to Say Interesting or Noise?
Several colleagues have shared stories of organizations and agencies that claimed to speak for communities of color but aren’t from communities of color. A colleague who is a leader of color took a meeting with a white advocate who claims to champion equity. As they talked over lunch, a rift emerged over what the term ‘equitable funding’ meant to both of them. As lunch continued the rift widened and became a chasm. Their definitions of equity were very different, my colleague believing in racial equity the other person believing more in equality AND she believed she had more of a right to speak about equity because of her experiences growing up poor and her ability to mobilize (via the internet) passionate ‘allies’ to testify and speak out on ‘equity issues.’ Is this new organization adding substance to the conversation about equity or is it adding noise and taking away from communities of color? Can they ‘pass the mic’ back to communities of color who are organized and already understand equity? The other group can take on another topic or be a good ally and support someone else’s agenda.
Another friend shared a story about leading a conversation about racial disparities and using data to show the gaps between people of color and whites in different sectors (e.g. environment, education, health, workforce, etc.). Midway through the conversation a white person took over the conversation to talk about how she felt the conversation was one-sided and the data wasn’t fair because she isn’t like other white people – she grew up poor and comes from a religious minority. Essentially the person hijacked the agenda and turned the meeting into a support group for herself thus taking the attention away from the important work of looking at racial disparities. My friend empathized her but it would have been helpful if she talked about the data and waited until after the meeting to focus on her feelings and process her feelings around race.
It is important for people and organizations to speak and to use our voices to amplify messages of racial equity. Speaking out about racism and dialoguing about race breaks down barriers and helps us understand one another, but we need to use our voices appropriately and in ways that elevates and supports people of color and those most impacted by disparities.
Think Before We Speak
As you W.A.I.T. to speak think about these questions:
- Ask yourself why, why are you talking? Is what I have to say interesting, it is helpful, is it genuine or are you repeating what a person of color has already said? Are you pushing your own agenda versus amplifying the voices of communities of color?
- Is your definition of equity the same as how communities of color define equity? When co
mmunities of color say equity, we often mean racial equity, not equality, or worse investment equity. If it isn’t the same then don’t talk about equity, talk about your agenda and why it is important to you—but DO NOT evoke equity or I will hunt you down and buzzer you every time you misuse the word equity.
- Can someone closer to the community or the movement speak more authentically than you? We need to use our positions and networks to open doors and close the gaps between policymakers, funders, and others who can influence decisions and the community– others can tell their own stories.
- Ask yourself “If I must speak am I adding to the conversation or am I processing my own crap about race?” We all have to learn about race and sometimes we need to talk it out, but save that for happy hour and not the middle of a meeting.
Thank you to colleagues from Coalition of Communities of Color for sharing the acronym W.A.I.T. I think I’ve E.L.M.O. (enough, let’s move on) it thoroughly and ready to move to the next topic to blog about.
Posted by Erin Okun