Nothing About Us Without Us: Navigating Identity Working in International Development

Let me be honest.

There’s something a bit righteous about being a person of color talking about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort to do it, don’t get me wrong- to look in the face of your white colleagues advocating for your own humanity, advocating for your seat at the table and asking them to push back and to make room for more like you. It’s risky work that takes a personal, emotional and professional toll before, during and after those conversations are had. At the same time, there’s some righteousness there. Some nose and chin-upness to do that as a person of color- to walk and stand in the tradition of creating opportunity for those (including myself) who bear the residual historical inertia of being without.

Being a person of color working in international development, or shall I be more specific to say, to be a black person headquartered in the United States at an organization that can boast over 65% African national staff, talking about racial and cultural diversity and inclusion puts a different spin on it. To be someone who needs to both grab a seat AND push back from that mystic table of opportunity requires that double consciousness in a different sense. In this case, I need to acknowledge that within the United States, as a black person as a black woman as a black immigrant, there’s still so far to go to true equity- to truly be active and live my life free of the weight of marginalization. I also need to acknowledge that I sit closer to power than my African colleagues. That’s a bit harder to sit in. There’s no righteousness there.

The quotation, “Nihil de nobis sine nobis” or “Nothing about us without us” has recently entered my social sphere; I’ve adopted this mantra as the new paradigm organizing my relationship to my work. Nothing I do should be without real participation of those impacted by my projects. But when I sit with this, “Nothing about us without us,” I don’t know where to put myself anymore. In the context of international development, I’m not always in the us I’m talking about.

nothing-about-us

Both in and out of the us.

This forces me into a situation where I am simultaneously a problem and a solution, both someone who has and lacks power. This localized and fluid nature of race and identity when working across borders, oceans and history splits me at opposing ends. On a good day, I’m conflicted. Most days, paralyzed.

If I want to ask my white colleagues, what does being a more diverse and inclusive organization change about their roles, their conversations, their day-to-day, I need to ask myself the same: What am I truly willing and able to give up for the cause of real diversity and real inclusion? Granted, whatever that is may be different than my white peers, but it will be something still. At what point will it and should it get uncomfortable for me? What will I and should I learn? What will I and should I truly understand and practice for diversity and inclusion to be fully realized? Most importantly, what will I and should I lose if I don’t?

Earlier this year, I had a meeting with a project manager from another organization in Malawi. When I walked into the room, what happened often happens when I have a meeting with someone I don’t know in Malawi, if they’re Malawian. There’s a rapid fire succession of microexpressions showing confusion, shock and comfort on their faces when they realize that the person from the United States who they instinctively imagined is white is not. One meeting began with this conversation:

Man: So tell me something, why are the police there in your country killing black people? 

Me: You know. 

Man: Yes, I know.

Besides the fact that my white colleagues don’t have to deal with the emotional toll of these conversations creeping into business meetings, what has lingered within me from this particular exchange was that across history, time, culture and oceans, there’s an acknowledgement of a linked fate between us- the historical and ever stubborn impact of racial oppression. A lifetime of shared experiences of having your competence read on your skin, doubted before you’ve opened your mouth, of working twice as hard for half as much. There’s a real and imagined community within the African diaspora that I continue to learn about and experience and ground myself in everyday as circumstances ebb and flow. But as much as we share, there’s as much we don’t.

Where’s the balance? Where do I put myself in the us? How do I open the door for myself and step aside to let someone else through first? How do I get a seat at the table only to let someone else sit?

If you’re reading this for answers, I don’t have any. Only questions pregnant with questions. Conflicts breeding more conflict. A road map marked with chaos that will eventually, hopefully, lead to clarity and action.

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