Five Ways to Center People of Color

By Erin O.

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Flat rocks stacked by the ocean. [Photo by Erin Okuno]

I often use the phrase ‘centering people of color’ and I’ll share my secret – it’s jargon. It is a lazy way of saying what takes a lot of words. I know I shouldn’t use jargon and I sometimes feel bad writing and saying ‘centering pocs,’ but I do it anyway. To atone for this jargon, I’ll explain what I mean when I say centering people of color. This isn’t an academic look at centering pocs, nor is it an exhaustive list – just some thoughts to get the conversation started and to help make sense of this phrase.

My overall definition is: Centering people of color is about shifting power, control, and well-being/comfort to people of color. 

1. Sharing Power and Control: Shifting power and control to people of color needs to be an action not just talk. Actions are important to shifting power and demonstrating intention. As an example of shifting power is looking at who speaks and when they speak. Are you consistently calling on the first person who raises their hand? If you are perhaps shifting power looks like pausing for a moment allowing people to gather their thoughts, important for those who aren’t English (or the dominant language) speakers, then calling on a person of color first. If you want to take it a step further call on a youth of color, or another person who may not be the first to speak. Who speaks first often drives the line of thinking so this is an important way to shift power in meetings. Be careful not to put people on the spot if they aren’t ready. Other ways of shifting power are agenda control, seating arrangements, decision making control, power of notetaking and publishing, etc.

2. Well-being/Comfort is something we often overlook. Heidi thinks about this a lot and wrote about it in some of her previous posts. I use the terms well-being and comfort interchangeably depending on audience and mood. Well-being looks like where is the meeting, is it culturally attuned, who is in the majority, who is included in the conversation. Sometimes well-being is something we can experience such as moving meetings into community settings where pocs are already familiar with. Other times comfort comes in who feels like they can relax into a space and feel safe. This is harder to quantify but important to look for. At meetings I facilitate, I use the Color Brave Space meeting norms developed by Equity Matters to help pocs feel like they are seen and the meeting is about them and to set expectations for white allies.

3. Resource Sharing: Centering people of color and communities of color means giving control of resources to communities of color and trusting them to use the resources wisely to achieve the best outcomes. Centering pocs means trusting pocs to use money, time, human capital where needed. Along with this, please don’t burden poc organizations with five-billion pieces of paperwork and forms to get money. Also, reimbursable grants and contracts are a pain in the ass and is anti-power sharing – I think I’ll try this tacit with policymakers: “I’ll pay my taxes after you prove to me you turn in to me proof you governed for racial equity, and make sure to track your hours spent on different projects then I’ll pay you.” That wouldn’t fly for power and resource sharing so why is it ok in mainstream work?

4. Expertise: Seeing people and communities of color as the experts is necessary to solving problems. Who knows better about the problems people and communities of color face than the people living them. Centering pocs as experts means we shift our dominant culture viewpoints on what expertise looks like. Such as a formal schooling doesn’t mean the person understands a community, and really the expert is the mother who has kids in the local school.

A colleague of color shared she applied for a job and was turned-down because of her age. A competing employer got a hold of her resume and saw she had led a PTA at a school with a lot of diversity. The employer said ‘I know you are interested in an office job, but I want you as my lead community organizer. You’ve led a PTA in a school with a lot of diversity, that takes a lot of community building skills.’ He saw her as an expert and centered hiring for racial equity skills which led to great results.

5. Humility and work towards learning together: Centering people of color isn’t taught in schools, books, or almost anywhere. We need to acknowledge it isn’t a natural occurrence in most places we operate (at least in the US). In dominant culture, we’re taught and we function in a hierarchy favors white people and caters to their needs first. Centering people of color means white allies, and even within communities of color, we humble ourselves to learn from each other. No single-person understands all of the experiences of people of color. Working intergenerationally, cross-racially, across language, with people with disabilities, with immigrants, etc. means we need to be humble and learn from each other. The act of centering each other means we recognize multiplicities of identities and create space for people of color to be our whole selves, this benefits allies as well since they can see more depth and hopefully find more common ground to connect with.