Here, it is usually cops eating ice cream or playing basketball with black kids. Or it could be a church group visiting a Reservation to hand out shoeboxes of plastic trinkets to Indigenous kids at Christmas. Or the teacher in the “hard neighborhood” who shared classroom photos with sappy captions. Or the weekend warrior who paints over graffiti in the “bad part of town.”
It should go without saying, but black, brown, and indigenous folks are not props for your latest feel good activity. Unhoused people are not props. Poor people are not props. Disabled people are not props. Older adults are not props. Queer people are not props.
Do you detect a theme?
That’s right. People are not props.These messages are very important for people working in helping professions in the U.S. to hear and to recognize.
Jarell Skinner-Roy gives some similar advice in his article, specifically giving tips for nonprofits to stop referring to people as "at-risk" and avoid savior narratives in pleas for donations and other support:
And can we please eradicate all language about giving a voice to the voiceless? We can certainly help by providing a platform or a megaphone, but communities already have a voice. As Arundhati Roy eloquently put, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”. This is beyond semantics; Language reflects our values and has real life consequences.I often refer to this dynamic as "us and them" when labeling it in healthcare and community contexts. One personal example I noticed was a religious congregation consisting of mainly wealthy families that published in its bulletin how to donate to various food and other assistance programs, but not how to access them. When I pointed this out, I was told "we don't exactly have that population here." I can see why, when you aren't willing to welcome "those people." (For what it's worth, that congregation did have members who received various forms of assistance, but folks are of course careful about sharing this kind of information with people who do not come across as safe people.)
The way we use language can help make sure we are truly treating people the way we want to be treated. When we as professionals speak about a program or service, we can use language indicating that we might just as easily be the ones using it as providing it. We don't want to claim to have had experiences we have not had or to minimize our privilege if we are not someone who receives or has received a particular service, but those of us with financial and/or nondisabled privilege should constantly be considering and acknowledging that these things are temporary. We can speak about how a food bank is available for any of us wishing to use it or donate to it. When we explain a service to community members or refer to it when giving trainings, we can give examples in which we ourselves might be calling to enroll in a service for ourselves or a family member. Again, we want to make sure we are simultaneously minimizing us-and-them while also not ignoring our privilege. We can send a message that I do not currently know what it is like to be a recipient of a particular service thus I need to defer to the expertise of people who do, but I also can envision myself or my family some day needing the service, since things can change.