Centering Black Voices
Nothing in this world could exist without Black people. Our creativity, our style, our intellect, our resistance, our joy–all of it is inspiring. How can you exist in a world where so many of the contributions you enjoy are owed to Black people, but not care about our perspective? –Radiah Shabazz, MSW
Every year during the month of February, organizations, creators, and influencers throw their #BlackHistoryMonth acknowledgements into the buzzword cloud that is today’s media. The parade of #AmplifyBlackVoices and #BlackLivesMatter marching across our feeds fuels warm, satisfied feelings that we’re doing the work, and doing it right. Right?
Centering Black voices goes deeper than celebrating a month or clicking “Share” on punchy BIPOC content. Especially in the community (public) health and equity fields, where we are faced with daily decisions that directly impact the lives of Black people and communities, we need tangible actions and deep-rooted, year-round partnerships to actualize change.
This collection, created with strong support from interviews with Thrive Black Co-Founder, Radiah Shabazz, MSW, (she/her) hones in on key questions underpinning the call to center Black voices:
Why is centering Black voices so important?
What end goals are we working towards?
Is there a “right way” to center Black voices? If so, what is it?
How does centering Black voices actually translate to improving health and well-being?
Why Center Black Voices
It sometimes feels like there’s this unspoken belief that centering Black voices means centering our pains and traumas. That’s all people want to talk about: our resilience and how much we’ve overcome. And there’s a story to be told there, of course, but… I think we have so much more to offer in our contributions than our stories of survival. –Radiah Shabazz, MSW
In addition to the obvious truth that Black people are inherently valuable and deserve equity because they are people, we must also center Black voices to celebrate their vast contributions and address long legacies of inequity.
Since 1619, Black people have been exploited to further the unearned advantage of white Americans. Black voices–especially the voices of disabled, LGBTQ+, and economically poor Black people–have been some of the most marginalized across the country. From health disparities and wage gaps, to voter suppression, police brutality, redlining, environmental racism, and adultification of Black children, Black lives have been consistently valued less by our Nation and society. In recent years, increasing momentum fueled by Black activism has pushed Black voices to the forefront of social justice out of necessity. There, like everywhere else, they offer a bright light for the rest of us to watch closely and take action to uplift.
In addition to this tireless activism, Black people have also created, developed, engineered, built, written, composed, taught, researched, and led some of the most important foundations of U.S. history, culture, and technology. We center Black voices not only to take the first steps toward racial reconciliation and reparations rightfully owed to Black people, but also to acknowledge, celebrate, learn from, and show our tremendous gratitude for their contributions to our lives today.
Goals of Centering Black Voices
I think [the belief that “it is better to have one Black person at the table than none” is] dangerous… What is the goal in that? We conflate diversity and equity a lot. It's quite ridiculous that in 2022 we even still see these kinds of “firsts” and are debating them… If the goal is diversity, then I guess it’s a step in some direction, but we must, must always be challenging and championing for more. –Radiah Shabazz, MSW
When an organization or individual aims to center Black voices, a myriad of potentially competing goals and outcomes arise. Commonly-cited goals include: increasing diversity, building equity, fostering inclusion and belonging, and advancing well-being for Black people and all communities. The most important aspect of goal-setting is to understand the differences between the many potential outcomes of centering Black voices, and to set goals accordingly.
In the “seats at the table” example, a diversity lens would primarily focus on bringing more identities and perspectives to the table. According to Shabazz, however, if the goal is equity, the conversation must be adjusted to be more systemic and structural. In terms of building equity, adding just one Black voice to a table (or blog, social feed, newsletter, contributing writers network, etc.) is insufficient and, in some cases, could even do more harm than good.
To assume that a Black person or any person of color… is bringing or even operating from an equity/justice lens simply because they’re BIPOC is problematic. Our identities are not a prerequisite to an equity mindset… We cannot assume that just because we have “one” that that will create gains. –Radiah Shabazz, MSW
When focusing on systems equity and the well-being of marginalized communities, goals can shift from simply “accumulating perspectives” to directly improving health and mental health outcomes for Black people and communities. Engaging community stakeholders helps achieve these goals in a relevant, appropriate way that builds greater community change. Centering people with lived experience—specifically Black people—ensures community changes equitably serve the most historically marginalized and most impacted residents.
How to Center Black Voices
Don’t ask me [a Black person] for perspective or insight just to say you did. Don’t do it just because it allows you to check the box on your equity list. We should be figuring out how to operationalize this in all spaces. Not just now, not in the midst of a major tragedy like we saw in 2020, but because we genuinely value what Black people have to say and we want to hear it. I don’t know if most of what I see in the mainstream really feels genuine to me. So much of it feels performative. –Radiah Shabazz, MSW
The work of centering Black voices is a living, breathing practice that must be cultivated to root deeply in our daily lives and operationalized throughout every aspect of our shared world. There is no one “right way” to decide to center an entire group of humans—especially one as diverse and dynamic as the Black diaspora.
The following 12 “Do’s and Don’ts” offer a small glimpse into common red flags allies struggle with and better alternative approaches to take. Consider referencing this list when planning to center Black voices, drafting content, and/or reviewing past efforts, both during Black History Month and all year.
Centering Black Voices: 12 Do’s and Don’ts
DON’T treat this topic as an EDI box to check off annually during Black History Month.
DO center Black voices all year—both in EDI and non-EDI efforts. As a first step, join existing Black-led conversations throughout the year. Opportunities include:
Unless Black history is taught [in schools] throughout the year, it perpetuates an “othering” of Black Lives and Black students, and is also a manifestation of anti-blackness. Ensuring the ongoing integration of Black history and experiences throughout all curriculum is imperative as educators continue to uplift every student and reinforce that Black Lives Matter everyday. –Center for Racial Justice in Education
|DON’T assume a general EDI lens will adequately address racial justice and equity.
|DO operate from both a holistic EDI lens and also a specific anti-racism / racial justice and equity lens.
|DON’T conflate Black people with People of Color.
|DO recognize that phrases like “People of Color” and “BIPOC Communities” include a wide array of races, skin colors, ethnicities, nationalities, languages, and cultures. Specifically identify opportunities to center Blackness and Black people, in addition to broader EDI goals like centering People of Color.
|DON’T exclusively support stories of Black suffering, death, and “resilience” narratives.
|DO support and uplift stories which celebrate and acknowledge the full range of human experience, including joy, success, humor, art, invention, success, and intelligence. When you do talk about Black resilience, suppression, and trauma, talk about it accurately.
Netflix… has created this “Black Lives Matter” section of content in an effort to tell and center Black stories. But, again, so much of the content is trauma porn. Maybe I want to watch a Black love story? Or a Black family comedy? Why do our stories have to always be rooted in suffering or overcoming some great obstacle? … We have to move away from this belief that Black identity is synonymous with trauma because it’s damaging. I think the kinds of stories an organization tells indicate their thoughts about and perspectives of Black people. –Radiah Shabazz, MSW
|DON’T treat Black experience as monolithic or tokenize one Black person as representative of all Black people.
DO center a wide range of Black voices, including multiple marginalizations (LGBTQ+, Disability and chronic illness, poverty, diverse religions, etc.) For example, we often center Black voices during Black History Month, but what about:
|DON’T assume that something is centering Black voices (or is anti-racist) simply because it includes a Black voice, person, quote, or character.
|DO continue to challenge representations of Blackness that reinforce stereotypes (for example, the use of “Black voice” in animation.)
|DON’T center Black voices only in social justice and equity work.
DO center Black Voices in all areas of life, work, education, care, and recreation, including:
|DON’T center allies to the Black community instead of centering Black voices.
|DO look to grassroots, Black-led organizations for leadership, best practices, and Black voices to uplift.
The folks [in Black-led spaces] working on the ground, with the people… are not removed from the realities, the intricacies of the Black experience and I think that makes a difference compared to what I see from other organizations. What this looks like is a breadth of experience and sometimes it is challenging. There are no assumptions. –Radiah Shabazz, MSW
|DON’T prioritize white discomfort, sensitivity, defensiveness, or other emotional processing over Black voices.
|DO work on personal allyship goals (like non-defensive listening, sitting in discomfort, and confronting biases and assumptions) separately and in a way that does not detract from conversations that center Blackness.
|DON’T tone police, minimize, or remove emotion from Black voices, or exclusively uplift Black perspectives created for white audiences.
|DO make space for and never minimize the emotions of Black people—including strong emotions like grief, anger, and mistrust.
|DON’T focus on performative public actions and stop there.
|DO challenge yourself and your organization to take both public-facing and non-public-facing actions to support and uplift Black people.
|DON’T work on improving your personal allyship skills and stop there.
|DO work toward centering Black voices at all levels of social change—personal, organizational and community, and systemic.
The paths of anti-racism and centering Blackness are long and complex, requiring perseverance and deep resilience. Stepping up to the foot of the path and announcing our presence is hollow unless it is followed up with our continued journey—alongside Black people—to an era of mutual liberation. Only from that genuine commitment can we begin to put these practices and ideas in action.
Black Voices to Drive Community Well-Being
In general, I don’t think a lot of thought is put into what centering Black voices looks like in practice. Beyond just making sure folks are heard in conversations, how does this practice begin to institutionalize justice? How are we employing a pro-Black racial equity lens in this practice to operationalize justice? [Listening] is just a step. –Radiah Shabazz, MSW
Centering Black voices is a critical tool for dismantling intersecting systems of oppression and exclusion, because it is effective across all sectors and at all levels of social change. It has a proven track record of both fostering long-term change and advancing immediate well-being outcomes.
In practice, centering Black voices can:
Reduce adultification bias and inappropriate discipline of Black children
- Advance equitable conditions for Black workers, including Black frontline and healthcare workers
Increase investment in Black communities and businesses to address racial wealth and homeownership gaps
Foster a more accurate understanding of Black history and Black contributions to U.S. society, working toward an equitable, truthful education system
If our goal is institutionalizing and operationalizing equity and justice for all people, centering Black people and other people with lived experience is an excellent start. From there, working through an equity lens, we can build self-representation and community-led processes throughout the layers of leadership in all organizations and systems, ultimately increasing health equity.
At the end of the day, every single action we take benefits someone. If we are not consciously choosing actions that benefit Black people, we may inadvertently choose actions which do not benefit them and which often outright harm them. By centering Black voices, perspectives, and people in our everyday lives and work, we can begin to challenge and reverse those small but deeply harmful choices. By going further—continuously demanding more and championing equity at every step—we can prioritize the future change we want to see while advancing that change now, and increase equitable well-being.
I remember seeing a quote from activist Miski Noor that asked, “how are we living out the liberation we are trying to create?” and it really stuck with me. Too often, I think we view liberation as this far off thing that we have to accomplish or work towards, this state of being we’ll never see in our lifetimes. So we just focus on survival–keeping our heads above water and getting through the day-to-day. I really want to undo this way of being/thinking because the time for liberation is now. –Radiah Shabazz, MSW
Read the full interview and explore the resources below for opportunities for further learning and action.
Serin Bond-Yancey (they/she) is a Senior Communications & Design Consultant at IP3, and a contributing editor at Community Commons.
Read the Full Interview: