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Why asking Black people to educate you for free during Black history month is not ok

By February 5, 2021June 14th, 2021No Comments

It’s February, which means that many folks across the country are leaning into learning and growing around the contributions Black individuals have made in areas such as science, politics, and education. Over the last year, this leaning in has taken on a sense of urgency for many White individuals who perhaps for the first time in their lives are recognizing the incredible struggle that Black individuals have had to overcome to not only survive the experience of White supremacy but thrive in a meaningful way. The sense of urgency experienced by White individuals has morphed into a desire to “go to the source” when it comes to understanding the lived experience of Black people. As a Black individual, this is refreshing and a remarkable contrast from the hyper invisibility experienced by Black people in Black/White dynamics. However, coupled with “going to the source” has been the emergence of a challenging phenomenon where in which White individuals are expecting Black people to share their narrative, history, and context for free. This post briefly outlines three reasons why this expectation of “cultural education for free” is challenging in regards to financial and emotional costs, and the perpetuation of racism.

Financial Costs

Being Black in America is expensive. Black people typically spend more for expenses such housing, food, and education, as well as for culturally specific products and services (e.g., hair care). This discrepancy in spending happens for a number of reasons including difficulty in securing quality loans, predatory interest rates, and a lack of access to products and services. Based on these experiences, the Black dollar is not able to travel as far and is unable at times to be transmitted across generations and ultimately ends up in White hands and pockets. When an organization asks a Black individual to share their narrative, history, and context in a presentation or training format for free, they are contributing to the economic exploitation of the Black experience. This exploitation reduces the ability of individuals to navigate the discrepant costs associated with “living while Black.”

Emotional Costs

Being Black in America is emotionally taxing. Generations of Black people have endured various iterations of White supremacy (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow, Black codes, War on Drug, etc.) that have contributed to significant emotional pain and suffering. The race related stress and trauma literature has highlighted that the physical and psychological costs of this emotional pain include depression, anxiety, concentration difficulties, insomnia, and chronic illness. Whenever, a Black individual is asked to share their narrative, history and context, they are being asked to recount emotionally painful experiences that not only include their own but those that they love and care about that span the generations. To share this dialogue within a training or presentation setting means that the Black individual is willing putting themselves at risk for racial trauma and race related stress knowing the potential for significant physical and psychological consequences. The risk required in this effort should be appropriately compensated.

Perpetuation of Racism

Expecting free labor from Black people is a form of oppression. In many ways the US economy has been built through the free or inequitably compensated labor of oppressed individuals. The justification of this free labor stems from an unspoken social hierarchy that places White individuals at the top of America’s racial caste order. By asking Black individuals to engage in sharing their narrative, history, and context in a presentation or training via free labor, White individuals and organizations are reinforcing the very racist system they are learning about.

In order to truly understand and apply the trainings and presentations given by Black individuals during Black history month (or any other month), White individuals and organizations need to be aware of the financial and emotional costs as well as the ways in which they reinforce White supremacy by expecting free labor. To respect the narrative and expertise of Black individuals concerning their lived experiences, when requesting a Black individual to speak to your organization you should (1) have a dedicated budget for the presentation, (2) acknowledge your awareness of the emotional and financial costs the Black individual is incurring, and (3) identify racism within your organizational policies regarding expectations for presentations and trainings.

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