Just like we opened our critical conversation, “A call to end anti-Black racism in Women’s Rights & Feminist global spaces,” let’s kick this off with a deep breath, as we enter a space of honesty and reckoning. One that can not only give us an opportunity to speak openly but allow for the messy process of co-creating solutions.
Naturally, we’re primed to close ourselves off when we are met with something that makes us uncomfortable— the insidious practices we’ve come to tolerate because “that’s just how things are” despite the inevitable suffering it causes for so many. That’s where we found ourselves when expanding our original panel discussion, “Improving Diversity and Creating Inclusive Spaces for African Women in International Development” at the Women and Girls Summit Africa 2020 into a call to address the anti-Black racism rampant in women’s rights & feminist global spaces—backdropped by International Women’s Day 2021 celebrations. Now, in no way were we attempting to be the ultimate party pooper to the occasion—it was quite the contrary. By engaging the international development sectors in solution-driven discussions to tackle the widespread anti-Blackness in its institutions, we were expanding the guest list of the played-out exclusive party into something bigger and brighter!
The critical conversation, co-hosted with the Women and Girls Summit Africa, featured the following panelists: Tamara Cummings-John (UN Women), Dr. Chisina Kapungu (WomenStrong International), Angela Bruce-Raeburn (DEI Expert), Marie Clarke (Women for Women International), and Muna Idow (UNICEF USA). But before we got started, our moderator, Evelyn Sallah, opened with the poignant words of Ijeoma Oluo: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don't have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” Oluo’s grounding words ushered us into this space as our full selves to explore how our varied lived experiences place us in this call for change within the international development sector.
With the increased global visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the current reckoning in the international development sector can be contextualized through UNPAD (United Nations People of African Descent) survey conducted in July 2020 that sought to uncover issues of racial discrimination and racial bias within the United Nations system. Findings from the inter-agency survey revealed that African and people of African descent overwhelmingly experience various forms of racism throughout their careers. This includes:
Preferential treatment of nationals of donor countries for hiring, promotion
System exclusion of people of African descent in hiring, promotion, and consideration for primarily field-conflict zone posts
A significant portion of the respondents to the survey shared that they have either witnessed or experienced microaggressions, sexual harassment
Abuse of power disproportionately towards people of African descent without action or punity for non-Black perpetrators
Seeing the results of the survey plainly spelling out the antithesis of what we've come to know the United Nations to be proves that the mere perception of an organisation does not tell us the full story of what is happening to the some of the people who make up the organisation. However, "we don't get to fix the things we're not honest about" as Muna Idow put it. One thing's for sure: the issues raised through the UNPAD survey as not exclusive to the UN alone. Just a quick perusal across personal blogs, Facebook groups, and online forums can unearth a plethora of Black voices sharing specific instances of discrimination and shared sentiments that go beyond the individual, showing that many international development organisations are structured to keep their opportunities limited.
Listening in during the panel, I did feel overwhelmed seeing multiple examples of Black women across my screen, who asserted the vitality of one's voice. Particularly, Angela Bruce-Raeburn's assertion that "we must claim our space rather than waiting to be given the space." We are primed to bide our time and not inconvenience others with our presence but that in itself is an effort to erase Black women in spaces where they are needed. That takeaway is something I hope to live out as a navigate the world in a fuller sense.
You can watch the full critical conversation here: