I thought about writing this post a while ago, but I doubted that it was relevant. I thought the conversation had moved on. New memes, new hashtags, new concerns. Remainers/remoaners battled it out with Brexiteers. Yes, remember that? David Attenborough drew the world’s attention to an ocean of plastic, and not long after that Greta Thunberg, self-appointed prophet of the climate crisis movement, announced impending apocalypse. The world was on fire. And just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, Covid-19 swept through our world and changed everyone’s lives.
Today, the conversation around racial inequality has re-surfaced, with the death of yet another person of colour at the hands of the police. We didn’t look on as George Floyd cried out in panic and pain. His merciless murder was filmed in broad daylight, and with more ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests planned, it’s clear that the conversation around racial inequality isn’t going anywhere.
Perhaps you chose not to view the footage of George Floyd’s arrest and subsequent treatment by the police. It’s horrific. There’s no denying such blatant examples of racism. However, the task that all of us must engage in is self-awareness and education. How are we playing our part in systemic, deeply entrenched racial inequality? How are we perpetuating stereotypes and insidious systems of white privilege?
More specifically, for those of us working with words and in communication, how can we play our part in affirming that ‘Black Lives Matter’?
I’d like to outline the problem with reference to my own ignorance and perpetuation of systemic racism. In 2012, I moved to Rwanda. You might know something of my story if you read this blog post.
I was 25 years old, with no teaching qualifications or experience other than volunteering at a few summer holiday clubs, but I was asked by the organisation I started working for not only to teach, but also to manage and lead a pre-school which had just been set up to help improve education in a rural district. I walked straight into the job, and I could because I was a white foreigner – no questions asked. I turned down the headmistress position but did accept the teaching position. In doing so, I took away a job that a local teacher could have done. Can you imagine a foreigner being asked to teach at a school in the UK with no teaching qualifications or criminal record checks? The organisation in question wasn’t an international non-profit; it was set up and managed by local people. This goes to show how deeply entrenched racial inequality is.
If I wanted to raise money for the school, all I needed to do was write about the overwhelming need: the swollen bellies, the pit latrines, the bare shelves in the classrooms on which a bounty of books should have sat – anything but a nuanced and balanced account of the place and its people.
It wasn’t that these problems didn’t exist. We must not fall into the trap of sugarcoating or romanticising poverty. It was the fact that I could edit out other, more positive aspects of life in rural Rwanda. I could edit people’s stories and deny them a voice. I could perpetuate stereotypes with no accountability and continue a narrative that white people have luxuriated in for centuries. And I could do this because I was ensconced in privilege. I don’t deny it, and I am sorry for the double standards of it.
Underlying my behaviour and actions as a white woman in a black country, was the unspoken assumption that my education and my background were somehow more valuable, more worthy, than the people I was working with and living around. I soon realised that I was the one who needed to be taught. I needed to be quiet, listen and learn. This is why the conversations sparked by educators like ‘No White Saviours’, while making for uncomfortable listening, are important to hear and engage with. Unsurprisingly, they have experienced an almighty backlash from many white people for what they have to say.
While the dirt and flies ‘poverty porn’ style adverts and rhetoric of major charities has largely disappeared, there is still a problem that needs calling out and naming for what it is. Why is it that expat workers are valued more than national workers – if not in word, then in deed? Why is the peak of the charity jobs mountain still capped in white?
The people who fit the bill for senior management positions, i.e. the best paid with the most benefits, are required to have a higher level of education, namely MAs or PhDs. Where are they going to be recruited from? Western countries, where there is greater access to this level of education. In Rwanda, I saw first-hand how expats working for some international charities had their children’s school fees in the top schools in the country paid for but national workers didn’t. ‘They have lots of kids!’, joked an expat worker I spoke with about this. And this coming from someone who had four children. I’m not saying that expat workers shouldn’t have these perks – after a short stint of home-schooling my own brood, I wanted to send my children to a decent school in the city, because, well, who wouldn’t? I just don’t accept that the same perks aren’t given to national workers, who work equally hard and are equally capable.
The problem, as you can see, is systemic, deeply rooted and unfair. Some of the clients that I copywrite for are charities. To return to my initial question, how can those of us working with words play our part in affirming that ‘Black Lives Matter’?
I wanted to own and learn from my chequered experience. ‘No White Saviours’ and many other organisations are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness and educating white people on racial inequality. Their tagline, ‘We never said “no white people”, we just know that you shouldn’t be the hero of the story’, is the touchstone for the notion of the ‘White Saviour Complex’. Let me condense some of their insights into some key points for copywriters working in the international charity sector, or freelancers working for international charity sector clients:
Write about partnerships rather than donors/benefactors and beneficiaries. The partners involved in the work are not just the local organisations working on the ground to deliver whatever intervention is being offered, but the people who are benefiting from the intervention. Unless they are in a coma, they are not passive recipients. They are, or should be, actively working with the charity and local partner organisations to solve problems on the ground (problems local people know better than anyone).
The local communities that the charity is partnering with are co-authors, if not the authors of their story. Therefore, write with this at the forefront of your mind. If they were the ones dictating and you were relaying their information, what would you write? It helps if there is full disclosure on their end of what aspect of their lives is being written about, and why. They can then frame the story in their own way, giving information of their choosing that will help tell their story.
3) Ethical, responsible storytelling
4) Empowering language
Stay away from language reminiscent of ‘master–servant’ relationships. The word ‘serving’, even when used in reference to a charity worker serving the local community, can be unhelpful with its neo-colonial connotations. Instead, use language that empowers local communities by recognising their attributes, assets and inherent value. Of course, write about the problems facing the local community, otherwise what’s the point in writing and how will you achieve what you need to achieve, but could you write also about, for example, the teenager using his ingenuity to recycle old electrical equipment to make solar lights? Or the seamstress who used her talent and determination to start a micro-business? What does the community already have at its disposal to shape the solution to their problem/s? Can you write about how the charity has partnered with pre-existing, local interventions by local people? Use language that speaks of working alongside, rather than commanding from above.
What are your top tips on copywriting for international charities? Is there anything you would add? Say hello and join the conversation. You can find me on Twitter: @emmalawsonedits, Instagram: @emmalawsonedits and LinkedIn: @emma-lawson-edits
If you want to dig deeper, you can find some excellent resources from Ethical Storytelling, an awareness-raising non-profit, at: http://ethicalstorytelling.com/resources/.