Stop asking Black people to perform emotional labour during Black History Month
Let's expand our allyship by continuing this narrative beyond the boundaries of February
This column is an opinion by Evelyn Bradley, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant based in Charlottetown, P.E.I. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
As Black History Month approaches, I want to challenge the concept of how we view and treat Black people during this time.
What I've noticed is an attempt to respect Black people by asking them to do more labour — asking them to burn themselves out to teach people about racism and share about all of the trauma Black people face.
Black people should have a platform during Black History Month. But I would be remiss if I didn't ask the questions that have been on my mind: When did providing a platform become yet another form of oppression and disrespect? What does it mean to celebrate Black history at the emotional and physical expense of Black bodies?
This newfound form of disrespect during Black History Month first occurred to me five years ago when I was working as a Grade 8 English teacher.
During Black History Month, I was asked to emotionally overextend myself for the purpose of educating those who could access my services at any point during the year.- Evelyn Bradley
At first, I was excited to be asked to discuss my experiences with others on panels and through workshops that were designed to reach a large subset of the community. However, it became painfully apparent that what was actually being asked of me was not that I teach, but that I offer soul-wrenching trauma-sharing sessions to an audience who needed a reminder that I (and people who look like me) are also, at least for the month of February, human.
After leaving teaching and moving to P.E.I., I began work as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultant. A big part of what is expected of me remains the same: humanizing marginalized bodies for largely white and overly sympathetic audiences, which is a fraction of the larger work of developing empathy.
Once I realized this, it was clear that what was being asked of me did not match the compensation associated with my labour. During Black History Month, I was asked to emotionally overextend myself for the purpose of educating those who could access my services at any point during the year. In some instances, no compensation was offered at all, and the expectation was that I should simply be happy to be consulted.
I decided that during the month of February I would charge a higher rate. As soon as I made this adjustment, I found that the last-minute session requests all but stopped — yet the need to have my sessions be unnecessarily vulnerable continued.
Name your price
But what is really being asked here? Is it to simply share a moment of history and learning or is it something deeper?
Whether it is intentional or not, what has become the norm is that, once a year, we ask Black people to "name their price" and because we are willing to pay it, we see it as a respectful way to pass the mic and allow diverse voices to be heard. But if we truly value Black people, why do we wait until the last minute to plan our events and activities? Why do we pawn labour and the learning off onto the population we say we are trying to highlight?
If we truly value Black people, why do we wait until the last minute to plan our events and activities? Why do we pawn labour and the learning off onto the population we say we are trying to highlight?- Evelyn Bradley
As a community, we have decided that this socially acceptable form of exploitation is somehow representative of our respect for a subset of the population who are treated like second-class citizens throughout the rest of the year.
I hear all of the time that we should "let marginalized people tell their stories," and yet during Black History Month, we dictate the narrative and demand conversation about a history that isn't even indicative of the country we spend time in. So much of what is being requested is centred on Black American trauma that we have entirely neglected the stories and voices of the history being made today by individuals in our own communities.
For example, I would love to see a local news story highlighting the number of Black executive directors on the Island or a shoutout to new Black business owners. Focus on the current Black experience on P.E.I. as an example of our Island's living history versus the current trend of mentioning the Bog twice a year (once in February for Black History Month and once in August for Emancipation Day).
To me, the saddest part is that these decisions are passively being made and dictated by individuals who probably mean well. They believe their allyship is fortified by their actions and, in that, many feel they are justified in paying Black creators one month out of the year.
Champion Black rest
So what does allyship look like during Black History Month? My answer goes beyond paying Black people for their labour in only February and has a few more steps.
Here are a few ways you can be an ally during Black History Month and the rest of the year:
Always adequately compensate individuals for their work (all the time).
Submit requests prior to January (and certainly before February). If you truly respect Black people, you will respect their time in addition to their labour.
And finally, and most importantly, prioritize Black rest.
Rest is radical and not because it is a form of reparations. The myth of rest is that, in order to take it, we need permission from outside. This year, I decided that I will not be doing anything during Black History Month beyond my day-to-day job, and this has been frowned upon by most people I've mentioned it to — including other Black people. But it is not a gift from or for white people when Black people get to rest, it is a choice we all get to make.
You can say no
Blackness exists 365 days a year and to overwork your Black community for 28 days as a way to show compassion and a readiness to listen to the needs of Black people is an oxymoron. You cannot say you value someone while taking advantage of them.
This year for Black History Month, please continue to seek resources or learning opportunities while also considering what it emotionally, mentally, and physically costs the Black community to show up and perform. Not only is it important to think about what someone's "no" to your request actually means, but also to seek learning opportunities already being offered, as opposed to putting unnecessary pressure on an entire community as a sign of respect.
The idea that only Black people can talk about or highlight Black stories (and only during February) is about as silly as the idea that I am only gay during Pride month. So this Black History Month, I am no longer choosing to put a price tag on my mental and emotional well-being and instead am choosing rest.
I am choosing to trust that members of my community, both white and non-white, are capable of reading a book from a list someone smarter than me has created, taking a workshop someone else has already decided to put on, and learning new skills or finding Black creators they want to promote, instead of exploiting my talents for one month under the guise of wanting to learn.
This Black History Month, I am no longer choosing to put a price tag on my mental and emotional well-being and instead am choosing rest.- Evelyn Bradley
Additionally, I want to encourage my Black community members to feel like they are in a position to say no. We are no longer required to raise white children at our expense. Think of the meaningful conversations that could be had if, during the month of February, people were not simply passive observers of their own learning. How much more meaningful would it be to have an engaging conversation with a trained professional post-February to unpack the learning that you did? To me, that is Black celebration and liberation.
By continuing the narrative beyond the boundaries of February, we can expand our allyship to be an act of purpose and service, not simply a performative misrepresentation of respect.
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