As we prepare to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we would do well to consider his experience with a group of white moderate ministers—ostensibly allies—who had charged in a Birmingham News op-ed that the Civil Rights leader was essentially moving too fast, asking too much, and pushing too hard. While sitting in a local jail after being arrested for his nonviolent activism, Dr. King’s response came in the form of a stinging soliloquy titled, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King wrote:
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
But the white moderate, as King wrote, not only can try to direct the speed and approaches of Black organizing, they also often simply co-opt work that already is being done by Black organizations. In the case of Kansas City’s burgeoning Black LGBTQ movement, these dynamics among organizations are real and threaten the ability of Black organizations to thrive, at a time when Black LGBTQ community leaders are finally beginning to coalesce around a shared vision of community change.
BlaqOut emerged in Kansas City in 2017 to enhance the visibility and voice of the Black
LGBTQ community, a constituency that has long been under-served and under-represented. Initially, BlaqOut focused on HIV and men who have sex with men (MSM). Today, BlaqOut has set its sights on building power for the entire Black LGBTQ community.
In collaboration with our university partners, we carefully and scientifically surveyed the community about a broad range of issue areas, including HIV and sexual health, stigma and discrimination, crime and violence, substance use, mental and behavioral health, fitness/diet/nutrition, as well as social determinants like housing, education, and employment. We have heard from hundreds of people about what they feel we need, and they have offered practical strategies on how to make these things happen.
BlaqOut is now deeply engaged with the community and a variety of organizational partners in
actualizing these study findings, which highlighted health care access as the number one concern of study participants. In short, they expressed abiding reservations about the nature and quality of care received at many of the most prominent area providers that we scored.
To directly address this concern, BlaqOut unveiled its Whole Health Access Model at our Second Annual BlaqOut Empowerment Summit in August 2019. Under this model, BlaqOut has a goal to use telehealth to provide 24/7/365 access to health care providers for every member of the Black LGBTQ community via their smartphones. This is but one example of how the findings of the study are driving our work and empowering our community.
Then, decades-old white-led AIDS service organizations all of a sudden decided to take up much of the work we were already successfully leading, as an indigenously led start-up Black LGBTQ organization. This calls into question the underlying motive and purity of their intent. Why not support the work that BlaqOut is doing? Could they be so determined to “move the needle” (the rhetorical lingo often used to suggest that other organizations don’t have the capacity that you have to do the work, even if they are doing it successfully) that they would do so at the risk of damaging relations, causing divisions, and duplicating efforts? It seems so. But it’s no wonder why: HIV is big money. Prevention, medical care, behavioral health, housing, case management—all of it adds up to lots of funding.
Not only that, but Black people (of any sexual orientation) are conspicuously absent from the senior-most leadership positions of every major LGBTQ organization in Kansas City—from health care agencies to business associations and civic organizations.
Megan Ming Francis, Ph.D., a visiting associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, calls this type of encroachment “movement capture.” In this process, funders or collaborators leverage their resources to apply pressure and influence over the decision-making of Black groups or movements, says Ming, who is African American.
This framework exposes the power imbalance between those who have resources and those who need them. White funders and collaborators use the power imbalance to give their own agendas an advantage, to control or co-opt nascent racial justice movements, or even to supplant the self-determined leadership from emergent grassroots organizations.
Beyond being disrespectful and patronizing, they fail to value our work and contribution, and they overvalue their own intent and presence in this space. From all indications, the frequently and loudly expressed rhetoric about meaningful inclusion is hollow on its face. When the masking language of community goodwill is stripped away, we are left with a transparent attempt to reinforce the existing colonial relationship and subvert the movement’s power, momentum, and voice. That this happens through their Black frontline staff is even more disturbing.
Founder Charles Stephens of the Atlanta-based Counter Narrative Project, which builds power among gay Black men, put it best in a 2015 article in the Georgia Voice: “Many of these same figures, lacking vision and commitment, land jobs in programs at AIDS service organizations only to become soulless bureaucrats. In these positions, elevated because of their platform, rewarded because of their compliance and assimilation, they get seats at tables where they are fixated on positional power rather than community impact. With no accountability to a community constituency, only to their funders and bosses, they become extensions, if not stunning symbols, of the very systems that desperately need to be reformed.”
Taken together, this form of white do-gooderism is a form of erasure, and as Dr. King told us, a real impediment to Black self-determination. This model has got to go!
We call upon all allies, whether individual or organizational, to be more circumspect in their approach to working with the Black LGBTQ community. Believe it or not, we do know how to lead and care for ourselves. And if you’re not supportive of that effort and the work that our organizations are already doing, then what you really want is control.