When no one is looking back in the mirror
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
Being a Black expert sometimes means you’re invisible.
This piece was originally published in Inkstick.
As my head hit my desk, my lungs collapsed with the biggest sigh I have ever let out. Another rejection email. How could this keep happening? The amount of frustration building up in my body began to make my face hot. I shook my head and whispered to myself, “this shouldn’t be so hard.”
After being away for two years, I finally made my way back to Washington, DC as a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow to explore nuclear nonproliferation in the advocacy space. I worked tirelessly with my manager to create exciting and engaging campaigns to get our grassroots activists interested in nuclear disarmament, foreign policy with a gender lens, and reining in the inflated Pentagon budget.
Then Christmas came. I was halfway through my fellowship and still had to make my final project come to life. At the beginning of my fellowship, I decided to focus on the US-China relationship. Although I had no formal education on the topic, I knew my unique perspective could contribute to the conversation.
BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT A MONOLITH AND ARE MORE THAN CAPABLE OF STUDYING AND BEING INTERESTED IN REGIONS OUTSIDE OF AFRICA. THEY SHOULD BE TREATED AS EXPERTS, NOT JUST AS BLACK EXPERTS.
My goal, as a young Black woman, has always been to study countries outside of the Black diaspora. I want to show other Black experts and scholars that Black voices can fully occupy spaces in which we might assume we don’t belong. There are minorities all over the world — plagued by the history and current actions of white supremacy — that need people who empathize with their pain in a personal way. I understand the feeling of being a victim and then having to turn around and be the advocate as well. It is an exhausting existence.
As I constructed my project, I gathered information from countless experts about their work on the US-China relationship and what the US government could do to de-escalate tensions. However, I was missing a crucial perspective, that of a Black woman China expert. I knew my panel would not be complete without that specific voice, a voice I could resonate with, be inspired by. I didn’t think my search would be easy, but, as I sat with my head on my desk that day, I was overwhelmed with frustration and shock about how difficult it was. I realized quickly that Black China experts, of any gender, were few and far between. According to Kori Cooper, founder of the Black Voices on Greater China, the lack of Black scholars in China is not because of a lack of interest, but because the historical exclusion of Black voices from elite, predominantly white schools and organizations causes the typical identity of a “China expert” to move further away from Blackness.
The few experts I did find affirmed what I read from Kori’s interview: Many Black foreign policy experts are pigeonholed on issues that only concern Africa or the diaspora. They are not encouraged or asked to explore other areas, and if they do happen to be experts in regions outside the continent, they are asked mostly about the Black diaspora in that country. Often, their expertise is undervalued. Even now, Kimberly St. Julian Varnon, a respected Ukraine and Russia expert, has received massive skepticism about her knowledge on the region simply because, to some, she does not “look” like an expert. At the same time, Black experts are also often overwhelmed with media requests in times of crisis because there are not enough of them. For instance, Terrell Jermaine Starr, a Black journalist in Ukraine, tweeted after the Russian invasion that he was so overwhelmed with requests that he was barely sleeping.
STOP THE PIGEONHOLING
Black people are not a monolith and are more than capable of studying and being interested in regions outside of Africa. They should be treated as experts, period, not as Black experts. If we don’t encourage Black people, and Black women specifically, to pursue any country or topic they desire, what will future generations do when they look in the mirror or walk in the boardroom and don’t see any inspiration looking back at them? Do we accept that these spaces are only for white men (and women) with prestigious degrees? Or do we challenge the status quo?
After many weeks of searching, I eventually found the Black China scholar I was looking for, but I believe my experience speaks to a few greater questions we need to ask ourselves in the foreign policy field: How are we making sure people of color are valued as producers of knowledge, no matter what regional stereotypes or stigmas are placed on them? What are we doing to make sure we retain experts from diverse backgrounds? How can we provide opportunities for them to speak on a variety of issues, not only those facing Black communities? My answer to all of these questions is quite simple: Make sure that untraditional spaces are open and welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds early in their careers and demystify what we, as Washington policy wonks and researchers, think an expert looks like.
Although I may not live to see it, I hope that one day my work inspires someone to pursue their passion, even if role models are scarce and the road to “expert” arduous. And, I implore all those in the foreign policy and national security field to lend a hand backward as you are on your way up, so that when the next diverse generations of thinkers and doers stare into the mirror, they can see experts and scholars, from all backgrounds and walks of life, influencing and making sustainable and inclusive policy.