Sambo & The Commodification of Racial Justice

I got this email this week re. Damali Ayo…

“Email list members:

I hope to see some of you at my upcoming talks. Unless noted, all are free and open to the public.

I am looking for specific contacts in schools and organizations that can benefit from my work. I offer a dynamic presentation with stories and visuals that opens a dialogue about our current way of handling race relations. Then I take the audience through easy-to-do solutions to these problems. I also work very closely with the community of the school or organization so that my presentation is tailored to their needs. Following my talk, I offer ongoing coaching for selected members of the school or organization, so that they might continue this conversation and produce tangible results within their community. The process is exciting and creates real changemy approach works! We all know that a personal touch is needed to create change on a real level, I’m here to be that person.”

You cannot be serious?!

I mean, are we talking about racism/white supremacy, or a schoolyard spat?  ‘Easy to do solutions?’  ‘Exciting?’ 

Who are these ‘solutions’ geared towards and designed to help? The people who suffer racism/white supremacy, the people who inflict it on those people, or, the people who use R/WS to sell product and services?

I’ve always been leery of these chumps who “sell” methods of dealing with “diversity” and “racism.”  Sure, on the surface, the package and presentation seems to be about it.  It can seem deep and be nattily original.  But its a “package” a commodity, to be offered in the ‘marketplace.’  The sellers desperately offer their services to interested ‘buyers.’  And what are these buyers looking for? Something painless, perhaps marginally uncomfortable.  In the end, these ‘no pain-fake gain’ stock traders are looking for a ‘happy ending,’ one that’s revelatory, preferably pseudo-orgasmic; a bonified teaching moment that leaves everyone feeling good  about themselves (“and what they had to go through”) and the presenter (the better to snag repeat customers).

How can someone focused on ‘growing their niche race-business’ and publicizing themselves and their ‘approach that works’, truly be about telling the truth at all costs?   What happens when business conflicts with angering friend and foe by bursting their necessary illusions, or alienating the paymasters who book ‘popular’ speakers?

It gets really slick when you have “free talks open to the public” that serve as advertisements for what?  Product.  The public is invited to attend a ‘talk’ on race by some calculator-carrying, dread wearing (to promote just the right ethno-militant aesthetic) race warrior!

The presentation is ‘tailored to the needs of the audience’ – chameleon-like.  This is the new millennium minstrel code for telling people what they want to hear with a little salsa to give them the thrill of being woodshedded by a Kneegro.  Its ‘jungle fever without the sex.’

How can you tell the truth about racism/white supremacy – when you are looking for ‘specific contacts in schools and organizations who can benefit from my work?’ 

You can’t.

Ending racism can’t be sold by Jack LaLanne at 3:00am in the bottom of a fucking juicer.  Justice ain’t easy  and it ain’t for sale (except for the grey boys with the large greeen).  For us in the real world, the steps are  like those of a plow horse.   How dare this jive muthafucka sell an anti-racism pill they goes down like cotton candy.



18 Responses to “Sambo & The Commodification of Racial Justice”

  1. i really think some people must intoxicated with alcohol and conceit to think that they can sell a solution to race! it is ridiculous. it means that this salesman or woman is assuming that race has a ‘one-size fits all aspect’ globally. if this person saying that if they make it work in one part of the US, then it will work in another part of the same country or another part of the world.

    Where I live in England has severe racial problems but frankly, I don’t think I buy-before-you-try solution would work just like that. You can’t change how people think with a few seminars.

    Thanks for bringing this to light, freeslave

  2. How can someone focused on ‘growing their niche race-business’ and publicizing themselves and their ‘approach that works’, truly be about telling the truth at all costs? What happens when business conflicts with angering friend and foe by bursting their necessary illusions, or alienating the paymasters who book ‘popular’ speakers?

    Seriously. This flaw is so painfully obvious and yet it keeps happening — and this stuff does function exactly as it is “supposed” to: as yet another way to co-opt energy and weaken actual struggle.

    And: I had a conversation once with one of the famous-name white anti-racists in which he told me why he was okay with making a living off of his “anti-racist” work. At that time we were talking about who gets what resources — white man making money off of being anti-racist? — but what you’re saying here gets at a deeper point: what the hell is going on that this system/its agents would fund “anti-racist” work at all, when racism/white supremacy is necessary to its very survival?

    What is actually being funded, how do those padded chains operate? What you posted here is such a good example of how that goes.

  3. Damali Ayo is the same woman who did the Rent-A-Negro thing and wrote Please Don’t Pet the Negro and stuff like that, right? While I don’t agree with the arts and crafts approach to ending racism (at least not as an institution), I do like some of her literary treatments of personal racism.

  4. Sylvia, I’m sure there’s some good in there somewhere.

  5. AWQ: The co-optation is the critical issue. The channeling serious inquiry around race, etc, into dead-end, feel-good, pill-sized technique. Here’s a new “technique” that “really, really works!”

    One reason I called my blog ‘thefreeslave’ is to contrast that idea, with the unfree, volunteer slaves and slave overseers who, for a little publicity and some chump change will sell freedom like a corndog on a stick to anyone who’s buying.

    Its a part of the Big Lie.

  6. Now y’all know you need to leave Damali Ayo alone.
    Her Rent-a-Negro business (as brilliant of a concept it is) can’t possibly be enough to pay the rent! She’s an artist and an entrepreneur who has earned a self-designed Ph.D. in the art of how to capitalize on white guilt.

    I’m not mad at her.

  7. “How can someone focused on ‘growing their niche race-business’ and publicizing themselves and their ‘approach that works’, truly be about telling the truth at all costs? What happens when business conflicts with angering friend and foe by bursting their necessary illusions, or alienating the paymasters who book ‘popular’ speakers?”

    Yup. That is KEY. It is very TRICKY when one tries to combine the “work” with the “job”.


  8. Welcome, Mrs. J.

    The problem with people of color capitalizing on white guilt is that the hell we catch continues onward and upward – while these negroes bank their chump change.

    When supposedly educated black folk talk about their work being about “solutions” to racism, yet they be trifling in pabulum – I got problems with that.

  9. I’m on damali ayo’s mailing list too, and it sounds like most of you have actually familiarized yourselves with very little of her work. The “solutions” she is referring too are a compilation of suggestions in response to a call for ideas that she put out to the same mailing list a couple monthes ago. She asked over 2000 people what they thought could and should be done to combat racism; so that instead of being an activist all about talk, she’d be able to present steps for action. Isn’t that what people want?
    It makes sense to me.
    As for her looking for places to share her ideas, do you get mad at a Tim Wise talk or an Angela Davis lecture? Every activist/anti-racist thinker is looking for ways to share their ideas – I know my high school and college would have really benefited from a smart, original speaker on race instead of someone that just pays “diversity” lip service. damali is smart and original and I say more power to her, for trying to spread the word.

    You get mad when she tries to make money (read: a living) and mad when she does it for free (read: accessible). I think damali is doing a lot of good work, and it’s a shame that you’ve dedicated a whole blog entry to try and delegitimize it.

  10. Lauren, I live in Portland where damali lives, have met her, seen her art/website/book. Do you live in this community? I have an opinion based on what I’ve seen here, but I could be wrong. Could you?

    When I was a little more naive, I would accept one’s stated intentions, without looking critically at what they subsequently did. I can’t afford to do that now.

    If you familiarize yourself with my blog you will see that.

  11. do you get mad at a Tim Wise talk

    Well, I for one strongly question the wisdom of what Mr. Wise is doing by making a living as a “professional” white anti-racist. For me, it’s not so much about getting mad as it is about trying to understand/attend to how the white supremacist system can operate to give the appearance of action toward change while protecting itself in the process and hiding the whole situation.

  12. Well: it may illuminate some things for some people and in that way do some good, but … the program doesn’t seem to address the system at all, and in that way it could be … pernicious, even. Anyway, isn’t this basically one of those corporate training type seminars, which are essentially on how to not do things that will get you sued for discrimination? But perhaps I am being uncharitable, since her suggestions are not bad in themselves.

  13. RE; profacero,
    i don’t think it’s at all like a “corporate training type seminar” – if you read the steps, they are all positive statements – things people should do; to better themselves and their community. in terms of it not addressing the system; if you read the whole thing over, there are parts that point to institutional and historical oppressions, but yes, primarily it is on the individual level. i think that distinction is clear in the work itself though; from the cover page intro to the explanation explicitly addressing this on one of the last pages. so, yes, while anything can be misread, misinterpreted, misused, i don’t think that would be the fault of the guide or its editor. that’s just people, taking a “Crash” approach to everything.

  14. OK, Lauren, but those corporate training seminars are all like that: everything is totally positive and none of the steps are bad ones to take in themselves. The perniciousness is at another level, namely, in the implication that this is all that needs to be done.

    The other part of my reaction is OMG – people haven’t heard these suggestions already – we studied them in my first grade class, and that was in the sixties, during integration – AFTER that we got a lot more hard-hitting, a lot more critical consciousness about race …

    So I find it odd that NOW, there’s a program which has steps in it like, notice that you’re white, make your first Black friend, things like this. It’s like, DUH.

    Lauren, sorry to sound so trenchant, I realize you like the program, and that’s fine, I’m not saying anything she recommends is bad.

    But, four easy steps to end racism in your life, when the media breeds hatred, police attack people
    of color more not less, and the government is going after the ‘Arabs’ with extreme racist overtones, it’s just a bit naive.

    Not that it may not do some good for some people, etc., as I’ve said before. But the most pernicious aspect of it I see is the way in which it implies that this program is all you need to do (in easy, bite-size steps …).

  15. P.S. – Ayo is also specifically marketing herself as coaching for organizations/businesses/whatever. Hire an ‘expert’ for a day or two, she will help you fix your racial problems in that organization. It’s common, they do it for all sorts of things: get more creative, learn how to write a grant, learn how to stop sexual harrassment. It’s not that these seminars don’t have useful things to say, sometimes they do. But, for fixing something systemic … ???

  16. come on are YOU serious?

    i’m not marketing myself- i’m trying to get a very real message to as many people as possible. if you know my work (and you must because you are on my email list) you know that i never let anything get in the way of challenging people or bursting their illusions about race.

    does my approach work? hell yes it works. just ask the many many people who have worked with me. you might want to find that out before you dimsiss someone so completely.

    the truth is that it is your kind of totally dimsissive negative painting of people who are working hard to make change that slows down progress.

    you think people are going to hire me to kick their ass if i say “bring me to your school, i’m gonna be a real bitch and tell you that racism can never be fixed?” no. they’re not. what will happen is that i present them some serious solutions- that yes, are easy to do- racism has some very easy to do solutions that people have avoided for too long. it’s time to stop making the excuse that this work is so hard that we can never fix it.

    reading your post, it seems like you want racism to stay around so you can complain about it.

    check yourself, before you wreck us all.


  17. freeslave-

    are you suggesting that people of color do anti-racism work for free? sounds like you aren’t as “free” as you think….

    damali ayo has dedicated her life to this work. this is what she does for a living and is very outspoken that both artists and anti-racist activists get paid for the work they do. she’s way ahead of you. this is her full time pursuit and i see no reason why she should not get paid (and paid well) for it.

    as far as the coaching bit- why don’t you give her the credit she deserves for being an incredibly smart woman. once she gets in the door, she tells it like it is. should you criticize her for being savvy about how to get in the door? would it be better if she never got to talk to anyone at all? what you are saying makes no sense.

    i live in portland too. it can be a petty town full of people who talk more than act and criticize so they will feel bigger than everyone around them. i’m disappointed to find out that you are another one of these types.

    i guess now i’ll have to expose your hypocricy on blogs everywhere.


  18. wow, someone is actually out there in the world trying to do something good and help people in whatever way she can and she gets bashed. Has anyone here stood up on a stage and engaged 500 people for 2 hours with hard questions about uncomfortable topics? I’ve seen damali in action and she starts people talking about things they don’t like to talk about. She crafts (yes, crafts) a specific talk to each place she goes, whether it’s rural Pennsylvania or the deep South or a rich white suburb of Los Angeles. She deals with what people need to address. Before you slam her, think about the things you are doing with your life (not your keyboard & blog, your LIFE) and think if it makes that kind of a difference.

    I know I could never do what she does and put myself out there like she does. Hell, she’s gotten death threats from crazy white supremists so I’m sure your piddling whining won’t slow her down a bit!

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