Is it OK for White People to Post Photos with African Children to Support Black Lives Matter?
My short answer is, no. No, it is not ok.
It misses the mark entirely.
At the same time, I see others slinging stones at those who do and I don’t think that is the appropriate response either.
My hope is for this article to be a resource for you, a place of learning, just as I am learning each day as well.
I served ten years with an international non-profit focused on orphans and children-at-risk in Zimbabwe. My first trip to Zimbabwe was for two months. In two months time, you make more than friends, you make family. I stayed in homes, I stayed in villages, I ate foods I’d never heard of, and I traveled the country. People in villages would shout ‘Mzungu!’ (white man!) as I rode in the back of a pickup helping to deliver food and supplies to communities.
In one village, the most desolate place I’d ever seen, children started crying as soon as I got out of the pickup. Some were seeing a white man for the first time. Soon, the language of ‘ball’ had us all playing, tossing a ball back and forth as they’d run up and touch me and run away.
I fell in love with the people and the culture and decided to commit myself to serving there. I started leading teams of people to Zimbabwe to serve with the kids and soon I joined the Board of the organization, eventually becoming the Vice President.
On one of my trips, I met a lady named Regina. She was originally from Michigan and had dedicated her life to serving in Zimbabwe. She had lived in Zimbabwe over 10 years and had met the love her life, Nyasha, in her time there. They have two children, one who they adopted into their family. Regina was a counselor and started educating me on things I hadn’t thought of (despite having been to Zimbabwe multiple times and being a Board Member and thinking I knew sooooo much).
“How do you think a kid feels when they see their picture on Facebook with an American who doesn’t even know their name?”
“How do you think a kid feels when people show up for a couple of weeks, take a bunch of photos, and never come back?”
Her questions stayed in my head for years, literally, they’re still there. And she didn’t say it in an accusatory manner, she was simply asking questions.
I had reached a status within the organization because I was, well, a well-known white male. I was well-known in my community. I was respected. I was tall. I worked in the NBA. So I was handed some leadership. But that didn’t mean I understood Zimbabwean culture or an orphan’s feelings in any way. I needed to be educated. I needed to listen.
At the time I joined the Board, the Board consisted of 6 middle-age to older white men. I made one of my priorities adding diversity in the form of race and women to the Board. I was proved unsuccessful over time.
But there was one Board meeting that still haunts me to this day. I was the only member who didn’t live locally, so I was on speaker phone when members of the Board started saying, ‘I don’t get all this Black Lives Matter stuff, All Lives Matter!’
I sat on the couch in my living room trying to process what I had just heard. ‘What?! We are an organization dedicated to serving African children and yet we don’t support (or understand) Black Lives Matter?’ I didn’t know what to say. I was new to the Board and I wasn’t there in person. I sat quietly and let the proceeding conversation haunt me. I always thought, ‘I’ll help get things turned around one day,’ but I didn’t.
These things, are engrained into white culture where the white man must be the one in the lead, the one who decides what is right and what is wrong, and I have found it to be just as much or even more troubling on the mission field.
My friend Mallory recently posted on her Facebook,
This one is particularly potent, and one I’ve been thinking of quite a bit as a kid of two part time missionaries to Haiti… who despise American Black people. The mixed message of “we love them… when they are over there” is not just racist, but putrid, and much of the reason I got the hell out of that scene.
I know, the log in my own eye. I’ve had my share of photos with me in braids holding a little Haitian or Honduran kid, displaying them proudly on my shelf as a “teachable moment” when it was just covering my bases so I could continue living ignorantly. So I could continue to do nothing on my own turf.
It’s embarrassing. I’d love to go into a rant about the harm of these short term missions (and long term missions) and the racist, white supremacist culture they create, but let’s leave it here: Black Lives Matter. The ones here and everywhere. But, Christians, take those damn photos off your shelf and get to work right here.
I could probably end my post there or even, just let what Mallory said be my whole post. She sums up… everything.
And I could write about mission trips for days… and one day, I will. But, back to those photos we’re posting…
Is it OK for a white person to post a picture with an African child during Black Lives Matter?
Let’s look at some thoughts from those who actually live in Africa. One of my best friends in the world is Farayi.
We met on my first trip to Zimbabwe and we lived in an office for two months together with our friends Courage and Evan. And as time went on, we started planning the trips to Zimbabwe together, him helping educate me on the proper way to do short-term mission work. He still resides in Zimbabwe but is also currently working full-time in Sudan with families.
When I asked him his thoughts on white Americans posting pictures with African children in support of BLM, he responded with an array of insights:
Children by themselves cannot give consent to such but there has to be some guided participation of the children in making that decision. Generally children love having their pictures taken but however cannot fully process the impact of having their pics posted. In almost all cases nobody informs them or the guardians what will happen to their pics. Short termers that make no effort to interact with the children but want to take pictures are the worst. It’s like ticking a bucket list item and getting the pictures to validate that. As internationals in South Sudan we try as much as possible to avoid direct interaction with children but rather work to equip and empower locals and the community groups that have been taking care of the children so as to avoid exposing children to messy attachment issues.
On the other hand, it’s perfectly fine for people that have invested their time and resources to have actual relationships with the communities. They know the children’s stories and they are like family. In some cases, they are more of family to those children than anyone within the institutions they stay in.
My take is that short term missions have the benefit of exposing a wider audience to the challenges African children are facing thus helping bring much needed funding/ skills/ long term interventions that aren’t readily available. On the other hand, there are challenges in how children will process the continuous coming and going of people in their lives which mirrors the abandonment they have experienced.
One of the concepts that I have been exposed to repeatedly since I came to South Sudan, which I wish I knew 10 years back, is what is called Accountability to Affected Persons which in this case the affected are black people/ African children and how everyone else can help achieve their idea of a just society. I have an African American colleague who always says “We are not saying black lives matter more than others, we are saying they matter. Why is that difficult to understand. All we are asking for is civil rights enshrined in the constitution, why is that difficult to understand.”
And I also e-mailed my friend Regina who shared her and Nyasha’s response:
As I read I thought about two things! The first one is this, when taking a photo or posting one I like to ask myself this: would I take/post this picture if I had walked into a family’s home or school or foster home in the USA? Would I take this picture of a child without permission from a parent in the USA? Because orphans are vulnerable and they are vulnerable because they don’t have parents to protect them. Also, this ties into black lives matters because sometimes we take these photos and post them differently because we automatically value and preserve and protect the children in our own community above those in an “outside” community? Does that make sense? Often these trips and our actions on them set us up as the white savior coming to help the poor (often black or brown) orphans rather than ones who value our brother and sister of equal worth engaging in a way that restores the dignity systemic oppression has robbed them of.
Just like I’d encourage white people to show up and take a back seat/supporting role at a BLM March without posting selfies with black protestors they don’t know. I’d encourage people to be present, to engage and not to view that moment as a backdrop for their own story. White privilege allows us to view the entire world as a backdrop for our story and we usually don’t even realize we are doing it.
Regina went on to share some personal thoughts with me that resonated richly as well:
I’ve learned so much from my own mistakes and those of others. I had no idea how enormous my crisis of faith would be in Zim. How much of the Gospel I had been taught needed to be decolonized. I’m married to a black man I love and deeply honor. I have two daughters, black and brown that I love more than I thought possible and yet I benefit from and participate in racist system that endanger the very people I love more than anything. It’s a lifetimes work to become anti-racist. It’s an exhausting full time job to battle the oppression they face. My whiteness affords me the privilege to pick and choose when to do this work, their blackness doesn’t. I hope This move of God does help white Christians ask “am I going for the right reasons.”
And even though this article has expanded a bit beyond just a photo during BLM, that’s because it’s the same topic regardless of when. Is it an exploitation of an event? Or the expliotation of a child? Even if that is not your heart behind it. Hopefully this article can give you some different points of view to ponder.
Once again, the short answer to the original question is no. You shouldn’t be posting pictures with African children in this manner. Should stones be slung at you because you did? No. This is another great opportunity to learn and grow, to understand why posting that photo is not helpful to the cause or to yourself.
Another thing Regina shared with me was, “We’ve had those conversations with so many people over the past 15 years and honestly the majority either take offense or forget about it entirely.”
So the point of this isn’t for you to take offense or to disregard but rather, to be introspective.
Yes, Black Lives Matter, it matters worldwide. But you’re here right now, in America. I know you are because COVID-19 won’t let you go anywhere else. So right here, your hometown, your backyard is the place to get involved, the place to march, the place to hold conversations, and the place to vote.
If you are consistently spending thousands of dollars to fly overseas but not serving locally, that is another issue in itself.
As Queen J (@mynameisnotGina — account no longer active) summed it up on Twitter (from Mallory’s post), “if you feel like God called you to go on mission trips to Africa but not to speak out on the murder of black people by cops here in America then maybe it was more about the vacation for you.’
If you are posting pictures from overseas with black children, but not joining your black brothers and sisters in the streets in America, maybe it’s more about the photo op then real relationships.
And from me, speaking for myself, if you have posted pictures with black children from another country, it’s not the end of the world, but it is a time to be introspective. It’s a time to consider your own motives. It’s not always wrong to take or to have those photos but look towards your intentions and the wisdom shared from those living in the cultures you’re taking those pictures in. I have photos of what once were children and now are my dear friends of brothers and sisters from Africa hanging in my home and I am gladly reminded of them daily.
When I traveled to Africa and started serving consistently there, I had a lot to learn. I wasn’t giving them something they didn’t have. I didn’t have a way of life that was better than theirs. We had a lot to learn from each other. And I likely had much more to learn from them than they did from me. As I would tell those on my teams before we went, ‘It’s not a missions trip, it’s family. We’re not going to give them something they don’t have. We are going there to join them. To serve alongside them. To serve with them in the work they’re already doing. We will take their lead.’
And the same applies today. It’s African-Americans who are in the lead. And it’s our role to come alongside and find out how we can serve alongside them.
One of the reasons I don’t fault my white brothers and sisters posting pictures with African kids is that they want to be part of the team. I think their heart is in the right place. They just don’t know how. They need educated, just like I did. Just like I still do.
There’s a time and place for those photos, now is not that time.
There’s a time and place to stand alongside those fighting for justice, that time is… always.