At the planning meeting for a panel and interracial conversations for a local Beloved Community conference on healing from racialized trauma, one of the panelists, a Black community activist, said to us, “This conversation needs to lead Black.” We were a group of seven, three Black women, one Black man, two White women, and one White man, who were charged with first modeling and then facilitating the interracial conversations.
I think I gulped at the panelist’s statement. “What?” I asked. I am a White woman who was co-facilitating the conversation with an African American male pastor. Suddenly I was feeling shamed for being a White co-facilitator. I thought maybe I had misunderstood. “What does that mean? Do you want me to step back from the session and let someone else be the leader?”
The response was quick: “No, no, we need you to help keep the conversations on Black people’s needs and Black pain instead of letting people center on Whiteness and White pain.”
Of course. I remembered that the call to “lead Black” is for White people to step back a moment from their discomfort and “White fragility,” as Robin DiAngelo has named it. To lead Black is to ask White people to stop worrying about their feelings or what will happen to White people, their privileges, their sense of safety, or their guaranteed priority status when we end the life-threatening oppression of Black people. White men shouldn’t get defensive. White women shouldn’t cry in shame. Instead of worrying about how White people might be offended or feel threatened, they are being asked to focus instead on the actual threats to lives and livelihoods that Black people have a history of suffering.
So, what leading Black looked like in our conference conversations was that the panelist I mentioned framed the spirit and intent of the panel at the beginning, not me. My role was to keep time and ensure that all shared the floor. Most of the panelists were African American, so most of the conversation did focus on the trauma of being Black in a pandemic in which Black people were overrepresented among the sick and dying. Two other panelists, a White pastor, and a White activist, both talked of their commitments to equity as White allies and co-conspirators, and each acknowledged they already had the advantages of White skin in a racialized society.
Leading Black does not cancel out White people but simply prioritizes Black experiences, especially the pain, needs and ideas for change that grow out of Black people’s perspectives as members of the lowest caste in U.S. society, perhaps in the world. (See Isabella Wilkerson’s bestseller, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, 2020.) In fact, leading Black is the only sensible approach to creating change in our social systems because White people cannot do it. As Anne Warfield Rawls and Waverly Duck argue in Tacit Racism (2020), White people largely lack Black double-consciousness or awareness of the racism that shapes our lives. It is not an insult to recognize that White people can’t fully fathom the Black experience of generations of slavery and oppression. And until White people develop their own White double-consciousness, as Rawls and Duck propose, they cannot fully grasp what Black people and other people of color need to be fully liberated.
Gene Testimony Hall, a Black Detroiter, entrepreneur, and community leader, has famously advised the following approach to understanding and accepting Black leadership in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Perhaps it could be a starting point for many White people. Hall says,
Let us be clear, we said
Black Lives Matter.
We never said
Only Black lives matter
That was the media, not us.
In Truth, we know that
All lives matter
We have supported your lives throughout history
Now we need your help with
Black Lives Matter
For Black lives are in danger.
White people’s huge role in creating racial justice is to uplift Black leaders and persuade others to follow Black leadership because they are the most knowledgeable about what this moment needs. And often, other White people are more likely to listen to them.