What capacities might we, as white people in international development, need to build in ourselves in order to commit to anti-racist practice?

Mary Ann Clements
11 min readJul 23, 2020

A letter which is especially to people raced as white -like me - about the capacities I think we need to think about building in ourselves, to enable us to play a part in building anti-racist practice in our sector.

A few years ago I wrote this piece about the role of privileged white people in International Development and challenged us to think about all the ways in which we contribute to perpetuating injustice. In these times I think we are called into a deeper level of commitment to what actually overturning the structures of a racialised society and sector means for our practice as white people — relinquishing power and giving up privileges.

The transformation our sector needs has already been outlined in many many articles, books and conversations. We know that resources and power must shift, that the whole design of the sector needs re-thinking, that it must no longer be white-led and white-imagined.

For so long we have upheld the idea of capacity building as a means through which we justify our existence, perpetuating the idea that others lack skills that we can offer them. It is high time I think that we not only see how that whole set up perpetuates injustice, but that we think about the actual capacities we might need to build in ourselves to be fit for welcoming change at this time and actually doing things differently.

Right now a lot of the people I know — and respect — are quietly asking themselves is there is a place for them as a white person, a white woman, in international development — where I have spent most of my working career. It’s clear that these spaces have been dominated by white savourism and white feminism in destructive and harmful ways. We may have seen them. We may have been part of them. Perhaps both.

So what can and should we do in this time when the murders of Geroge Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many lives extinguished before and many since, have catalysed a moment of collective anger, grief and action by the global Black Lives Matter movement? When as a result, questions of racial justice, in particular in relation to anti-Black racism, have been opened up on a much wider scale, including in our sector?

As little as four months ago I was still hearing people say ‘this isn’t about racism’ when I suggested anti-racist practice is a critical part of what we need to commit to in our work in international development. Now people appear to be more open to the conversation. But how do we respond and how should we each be changing our own practice?

I’m not going to tell you that you should necessarily resign from your job. I don’t think there is a clear and binary answer for each and every one of us. But I do want to offer some reflections on what we might want to grow our own capacity for meeting the call of these times, wherever we might find ourselves personally and professionally:

Prepare to feel like you a losing something; Be OK with it. The reality is that no matter how anti-racist your thought patterns may be, we live in a racialised world and you, as a white person have benefited from that. Like it or not. Want to see it or not. And so change likely means some sense of loss. It may be financial, positional, power. Probably all three. And you may applaud it on the outside. And it might still feel like a loss. It might still feel like a sense of diminishment. It’s OK to grieve that on the inside and resign your job, make a different decision, let go of something, step aside. There has to be letting go to make this moment real. For things to shift. You don’t have to be emotionless about it but think carefully about how to process any emotions that arise and avoid burdening people of colour with them. And, know in your core, that this is a moment in time when there is a collective invitation to be part of the undoing of generations of wrong and reaching for the end of a racialised society. A society that your grandchildren’s grandchildren, if you choose to let go, could also benefit from.

Let go of being good or right, and instead think, how can I orientate to change?; for white people I know who, like me, have been angry and frustrated about how they have seen racism show up, it can be hard at this time to be reminded that you aren’t one of the good ones. As Holiday Phillips put it in a conversation with Ziada Abeid and I for Change Making Women, there ‘are no good ones’. Yes, you may have been committed to change for a while. Be when we see ourselves as one of the ‘good ones’ we not only become blind to our own inaction and embodiment of white supremacy culture but can also develop a sense of judgement that makes it hard to invite others into change. New doors are open in these times. You don’t have to hold the position or the binary thinking of ‘I see racism, why don’t they see it? ‘They’ make me so angry!’ like a badge of honour. At this moment there’s a chance to orientate to change. So ask yourself, how can I be more flexible? How can I call others to account by seeing where I have been complicit? How can I let go of the fixed positions I hold? How can I best equip myself for uncertainty and change? Trust it like a river, know in your bones and belly (and not just in your head) that change is good and you can build the skills to flow with it.

I think one of the things that non-black people can do to be allies is to be able to hold space for that rage to be processed, without taking it personally without getting defensive. Just understanding that this is something that needs to happen. — Holiday Philips, Change Making Women Podcast

Hold space for anger, you don’t have to turn it in on yourself; As Holiday says, there’s a difference between hearing and understanding and holding space for the legitimate anger of Black people, and the legitimate anger of all people of colour in this moment, and turning it on yourself and squashing yourself with it. What do I mean? I mean that if you can understand the critical importance of holy life-giving rage in shaping this moment and the personal and political importance of more space being made for the anger that has been held within individuals and communities who have carried the immense burden of racism, then you can witness and hear and welcome it without needing to receive it in a way that is internally destructive. It’s OK to be angry too, with yourself and with others. But find ways to process it rather than feeding it back to those who have experienced racism their whole lives and need us to witness and understand rather than retaliate or blame.

Listen and learn from voices that are not like yours; I know it’s a contradiction to be writing this and telling you to listen to voices that aren’t those of white women like me. But for far too long we have listened only to white voices, absorbed only white knowledge, prioritised white leadership, hired white staff — the list goes on. And it is also about decolonising our practice. How many of our structures in international development are premised, like capacity building, on making assumptions about who knows best? Make an active effort to redress this balance in what you read, listen to, the knowledge you accept. In every way. And keep asking this in your work. Challenge yourself and your people on this. It’s critical we orientate away from white-centred perspectives. At the same time don’t expect every Black and brown person you know to educate you. There’s a difference. Be aware of it.

Get really comfortable with uncertainty; I’m unsure about my own place and role multiple times most days. I think maybe if I got out of the international development space it might get easier. And then I quickly remember that white supremacy is a global operating system. We can’t get out of wrestling with it by getting a new job or moving into a new space. Being in the questions is itself one of the practices I think we need to welcome in this moment. An anecdote to certainty, to bold confidence, to binary thinking, to having to have the answers and all the other characteristics of white supremacy that show up in our organisations and that so many of us are so steeped in, in these times.

Be OK with making mistakes and practice making amends for them; We will not get it right all the time even if we try our hardest. We will make mistakes. White supremacy will be embodied by us. After all, it is a centuries-old global operating system. We are all steeped in it to some extent. How we react to it is our responsibility. We can learn to make amends without making it someone else’s problem. Without demanding acceptance for our apology from a Black person or a person of colour. But simply saying, in an appropriate way, that we have seen our error, apologise and will do our own work to reflect and make amends. This is a habit we all need to build urgently. Don’t strive to be one of the good ones, strive to be someone who is accountable for their mistakes.

Caring for ourselves and each other matters more than ever at this time; I have believed for a long time now that the impulse to burnout, the addictive nature of being busy all the time, the squashing of our need for care and wellbeing, are all part of the system that feeds injustice and inequality and of white supremacy culture itself. But I also know that it can be easy to collapse into thinking that, as a white person, I don’t deserve to rest. After all, I am part of the problem, I need to work my arse off to solve it, right? I say wrong. You need to do your bit. Burnout is not an excuse for inaction. But from a place of working our arse off, we can come full circle to a white savourism that says we must fix. We need to slow down to listen. We need to slow down to pay attention to our wellbeing enough that we can be resourced to be an effective and right-sized part of change. Not doing it all or fixing it all. Showing up where and how we can as a small cog in a massive machine of change in which we are not the most important story. We need to care for ourselves enough that we are able to experience the loss, let go of needing to be ‘good’ or ‘right’, hold space for anger, listen and learn and get uncomfortable with uncertainty. The busier and more overloaded we are the harder these things are to do.

Many white people I know (myself included) find it easy to talk about all the problems with white people. To critique ourselves. But as Resmaa Menakem says in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, we actually need to build an anti-racist culture amongst white people. A culture that allows us to move beyond this self-critique. We need to recognise that the critique can get in the way of taking action. The building blocks of that culture, I believe, as Resmaa suggests, will be our willingness to process our feelings and instinctive reactions enough that we might be willing to change and help tackle oppressive systems. For this, we will need more than a training course and we will need more than theory. We need an analysis of power, privilege and oppression. We will need to see the structural and systemic nature of racial injustice. And we will need to add to our understanding practices that allow us to let go. We will need healing rituals, somatic work, process work and creativity. We will need the things that white supremacy has suppressed in us, antidotes to white supremacy culture, that can help us build our own capacity to be the people we need to be in this moment. We will actually need to reclaim ourselves from white supremacy too.

Because some days, we will do the right thing, the just thing and it will feel shitty inside us. We need to know how to process the shitty feeling inside us for ourselves so that it doesn’t keep on leaking out and stopping us from being part of the change we believe in and long for in the world.

Ultimately, even white people need to know, not just in their heads but in their bones, their hearts and in their bellies that ending white supremacy is part of our own liberation. Not because we haven’t benefited hugely from the privileges our societies and this oppressive system have offered us, but because at the end of the day, these privileges do nothing to connect us to our own humanity, our sacredness or our capacity to be part of change.

For that, we need to cultivate the very things white supremacy has suppressed in us. And getting them back requires us to be willing agents of change, ready to build our capacity to be part of building a new culture in our organisations and our lives that commits to anti-racist practice for the long-term and allows that commitment to affect everything about how we live and do our work.

Yours, In solidarity

Mary Ann

p.s. And what does this mean for our organisational spaces, for those working in International Development? Well, I think the sector — if it is to truly meet this moment — needs to be the place where we reimagine global solidarity without the tethers of white supremacy. The place where we could envision and practice what healthy and non-oppressive relationships could look like trans-nationally, at a time when on a global scale they are so significantly, unhealthy, abusive and unjust. I mean this at all levels, from the personal to the political and beyond.

But to do that we need radically different thinking. We can’t imagine that I don’t think, within the confines of our current systems or processes or structures. What does that mean for those of us working within them? Well, I think we can each still choose to build these capacities so that we can welcome change. To value the qualities of letting go, listening and learning, orienting to change, holding space for anger, getting comfortable with uncertainty, accepting that you make mistakes, learning to make amends and centring care as a critical part of what makes all of that possible.

This letter is inspired by conversations with many people who I am honoured to be in community with including Holiday Phillips, Ziada Abeid and all the members of the Healing Solidarity advisory group.

Find the podcast with Holiday at www.changemakingwomen.com and the work of Healing Solidarity, including anti-racist practice groups for white people working in international development that explore some of these ideas at www.healingsolidarity.org.

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Mary Ann Clements

Initiator of healingsolidarity.org where you will find resources on anti-racism & wellbeing in INGOs. Also building cultures of care @maryannmhina.