Centering Black Voices: Interview with Radiah Shabazz

Radiah Shabazz, MSW, is a communications professional, racial equity expert, and mother, whose work is rooted in advancing racial equity and forging collective healing for Black and Indigenous communities. She is Co-Founder of Thrive Black and Director of Communications at Grounded Solutions Network

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

The following interview took place via phone and email in February 2022, and was conducted to support Centering Black Voices on Community Commons.

Why is it so important to center Black voices? What do people most need to understand about this topic?

It’s simple–nothing in this world could exist without Black people. Our creativity, our style, our intellect, our resistance, our joy–all of it is inspiring. So 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? That’s the kind of cognitive dissonance that I loathe. Also, we have to understand that Blackness is not monolithic. There are so many intersecting experiences in it so we have to show that range of perspective as well. 

What is missing from the conversation around centering 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. So I often feel that perspective is missing. 

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? It feels like we just do the thing without actually considering that it takes more than just listening to Black people to get to liberation. [Listening] is just a step. 

When an organization is successfully centering Black voices, what does that look like to you? 

I tend to look to Black-led spaces. The grassroots organizations. The folks working on the ground, with the people. They 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. 

What are some of the red flags you see that let you know when an organization is trying to center Black voices but doing so unsuccessfully?

Netflix is a good example, in my opinion. Not necessarily an organization, but a company that 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? That is only part of the experience. I want to see more of the whole. 

We have to move away from this belief that Black identity is synonymous with trauma because it’s damaging. And with Netflix, the intent was clear–I understand what they were trying to do, but the outcome didn’t land like they thought it would. I think the kinds of stories an organization tells indicate their thoughts about and perspectives of Black people. 

What is your response to the common belief that "it's better to have one Black [or any other marginalized] person at the table than to have none at all"?

I think it’s dangerous. I guess my question would be: what is the goal in that? We conflate diversity and equity a lot. 

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. I often say I will never be satisfied so take the gains and celebrate them, yes, but I am always wanting to see and push for more. 

Now if the goal is equity, the conversation is different. To assume that a Black person–or any person of color or other folks who have been pushed to the margins–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. I had to learn and study and unlearn things because, although I am Black and sitting at the intersection of various identities within my Blackness, I was still raised within and receiving messages from a society that spreads the lie that whiteness is supreme. So we cannot assume that just because we have “one” that that will create gains or whatever outcomes are assumed. 

I will also add that it's quite ridiculous that in 2022 we even still see these kinds of “firsts” and are debating them. I mean, come on. This is the kind of toxicity that can result in tokenization and scapegoating.

What questions should organizations working to center Black voices be asking? Where does the conversation go from here?

I think I touched on this above, but generally–what is our end goal? Don’t ask me 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 it feels performative.

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