“We would love for you to share your experience on this very important topic.”
“Your expertise on these complex issues will help our audience better grasp how to address them in their own lives.”
“We would greatly appreciate your voice on this timely panel on current events impacting our nation.”
These quotes are a representative sample of the kind of e-mails I’ve received in the past month from corporations and nonprofits offering me paid speaking opportunities to talk on panels about racism. As the nation reckons with the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and several others and white institutions attempt to understand racial injustice, my presence seems to be in high demand.
I’ve been covering intersectional issues pertaining to race, LGBTQ, and politics my entire career as a Black queer millennial journalist. Speaking gigs have always been the icing on the cake for a job that often requires me to listen more than speak. But something feels different right now. No matter where you turn, it seems like Black writers, activists, and community leaders are being spotlighted on television shows, best-seller lists, and social media.
White influencers are suddenly willing to “share the mic” with their Black peers on social media. There are calls for a #BlackoutBestsellerList to help propel sales of Black-authored books across the country. You can’t watch any major cable news channel (with one obvious exception) that hasn’t brought on a new crop of Black guests to share their takes on the current racial climate.
It’s hard to deny that business is booming for those who’ve been discussing race in America since long before this current uprising. Now more than ever, our voices are needed—and many institutions are willing to pay top dollar for them. It’s baffling that I’ve made more money this past month alone as a professional freelancer through all of the additional writing and speaking gigs offered than I’ve ever made in any previous year. Although I’m grateful for the exposure given to my work, I also feel as though this moment is terribly bittersweet.
After all, the reason Black voices are being valued right now is because of racial trauma.
Black perspectives seem to be necessary only when discussing our marginalization.
Black people had to be killed in order for other Black people to catch a big break.
This truth hadn’t hit me until a conversation with an event producer—whose panel I had agreed to appear on—who gave me what he thought was a compliment. “I’m so glad you agreed to come on,” he said enthusiastically. “Had all of this not happened, it probably would’ve been harder to book you. This seems to be the bright side to all of this.”
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That this traumatic moment should have a “bright side” seems evident only to white voices who often dominate other panels, mass media, and books that aren’t about racism. When I think about the current upswing of diversity on various platforms, too often it only reinforces the notion that Black people can only serve a single purpose and speak with expertise about a single topic: our own oppression. While I’ve been pleased to hear several of my colleagues and mentors speak passionately about racism in America, I’m often frustrated that that’s all we’ve been allowed to talk about.
Race is important. Race matters. As someone who’s been Black my entire life, there’s no denying that this aspect of my identity has been the most discussed, significant—and marginalized—part of my experience. But to only be called on to share accounts of pain and struggle—by many of the media and public institutions I’ve grown up admiring—feels like a betrayal. Too often the nuance, variety, and depth of wisdom and experience about other aspects of life that Black people can also share have been shoved aside to focus instead solely on the hurt and rage we feel. It’s become a predictable cycle.
I’m often told by white editors, producers, and colleagues that they admire my “passion” when I write about race. But when I often ask what exactly they mean by “passion,” it often turns out to be the rage I express when addressing more horrifying moments of our experience. Transmuting the trauma of Black lives into visceral bodily reactions is what the media seems to consider effective representation. It’s why so many media outlets choose to air video footage of Black people being terrorized and killed as if it’s a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it ordeal.
Bearing witness to the routine bloodbaths of Black citizens is indeed an obligation for Black journalists like myself who feel responsible for informing the public. But is that all I can be used for? Should this be the only time Black perspectives matter? Is race the only aspect of society that Black people are allowed to speak about with an authoritative voice in America?
As society continues to call for more representation and inclusion, the terms must be clear. Increasing the number of Black voices discussing race may be necessary, but expanding our visibility and calling on our expertise in other areas should be the real goal. When the current round of “Race in America” segments/panels/op-eds stops running, Black people should still be present. Ask us what we think about the economy and religion. Include us in conversations about education before another life is taken from us. Consider us when it’s not expected for you to consider us, like when discussing international relations, or philosophy, or the environment, or national security. White institutions that are serious about addressing the racial inequity and inequality we face must stop conflating Black people and trauma.
Otherwise, we will continue to see another boom and bust of Black voices within our industry and beyond. I don’t want to be just another Black perspective on race when tragedy strikes. I and many other Black journalists, creatives, activists, leaders, and influencers would like to be valued and included in times of joy as well.
Only time will tell if such expectations can be achieved. But the emotional toil and exhaustion of solely being called to respond to Black pain must end. As this uprising evolves, perhaps we can hope that Black voices will be unchained from the bondage that is Black trauma porn.