August 17, 2021

What Can I Do? The Role of White Professionals in the Issue of Minority Representation in Zoos & Aquariums

Guest authored by Craig Saffoe, Curator (Large Carnivores) Smithsonian’s National Zoo & AMZAP Steering Committee Member

The Association of Minority Zoo & Aquarium Professionals (AMZAP) receives many applications from professionals across the country. We accept members of any race or ethnicity, and inevitably we receive applications from white or Caucasian professionals. Some of these members write on their application that they’re joining AMZAP to be a better “ally”. Others will email us before they even apply, expressing doubt about whether they should join but wanting to be involved.

What are the roles of white professionals when discussing racial issues in the zoo and aquarium field?

Ally vs. Supporter

First, let’s talk about some terminology. We’ll sometimes hear white members or applicants refer to themselves as “allies”. However, here at AMZAP we emphasize that we’re not a social injustice group. Instead, we are a group of minorities working to help each other and our specific communities.

That means that the term “ally” doesn’t really feel like a great fit. AMZAP isn’t fighting an issue for which we need white “allies”.  We’re fighting the issue of representation. Consider this; what’s the best example to a young black or Hispanic person interested in getting into a field? My answer is–to show them someone who looks and sounds like them doing the work they want to do. Unfortunately, a white zoo or aquarium professional just cannot be that kind of representation. However, our white colleagues can always support our current minority zoo and aquarium professionals as we stand up and represent to our respective communities that we’re here in this field doing great work–and they belong here too. Being a “supporter” of the minority professionals of AMZAP is what we need of our white colleagues.

A supporter doesn’t seek to fight the fight for any racial or ethnic minority group. They aren’t solving the problem for us or speaking up for us. They know that we’re fully capable of doing that ourselves. Instead, a supporter thinks thoughtfully about the issues and what they may be able to bring to the table to help those issues. A supporter doesn’t say, “This is what the minority community needs to succeed…” A supporter asks minorities in the field, “What do you need from me to help?” A supporter helps an issue from the sidelines or from behind the scenes. They don’t attempt to be the face of an issue for which they are not the focus.

Racial issues are difficult for everyone to discuss, and white people are no different. We hope that no white professional ever feels guilt, shame, doubt, or regret when discussing these issues. There should always be a safe environment for those who wish to learn and be a productive part of the solution. “Allies” are needed when it comes to social injustice issues that we’re all battling. When it comes to the issue of racial/ethnic representation in zoos & aquariums–we, the minorities in the field need “supporters”. 

Supportive Actions

So, what can a supporter, especially a white supporter, do to help increase minority representation in zoos and aquariums? We’re very glad to say that in the brief time that AMZAP has existed we’ve seen some great actions from some of our white members that demonstrate what it means to be great supporters. Here are some steps that anyone can take to support AMZAP and minority professionals in the field.

Step Up

Use your influence to create opportunities for others, and place emphasis on opportunities being made specifically for minorities when possible. For example, we’ve had white AMZAP members who are also members of other organizations, including AAZK, ABMA, and others offer scholarships or sponsored memberships specifically for fellow AMZAP members. These opportunities help minorities gain new experiences and grow professionally.

Mentor a minority professional or participate in an internship or volunteer program that includes or emphasizes aspiring professionals of minority backgrounds. AMZAP exists to help people of color support other people of color–but sometimes in our field an aspiring professional needs mentorship by another professional in the field, regardless of their race or ethnicity. For example, we have several white professional members working in facilities for which we have no minority member representation. If an aspiring professional seeks a connection at that facility, we would be thrilled to put them in contact with our white members who currently work there, as they have committed to our mission.

Any white supporters should be sure that when they do step up, it doesn’t mean that they’re drawing attention to themselves or taking up a role that could easily be filled by a minority. Helping often means pointing someone in the direction of someone who is better equipped to help. If you’ve made your availability clear–know that we appreciate you, and we’ll definitely lean on you for help when you’re needed.

Step Back

AMZAP exists so minorities can help other minorities. We encourage our white members and other white professionals in the field to take a step back to let minorities lead the way and lead change in our own communities. People of color can connect through lived experiences that are impossible for a white person to fully understand, just like it’s impossible for men to fully understand the challenges that women face every day. The visibility and support of minorities can make a life-changing impact on aspiring minority professionals.

We also encourage supporters to take a step back to listen and learn. We can all learn from each other by listening empathetically and thinking carefully. Reading an article like this is a great way to start listening and learning! There are many lists online with suggested books, articles, and videos to learn more about the perspectives of minorities in the United States. And, we encourage our white members to attend our meetings and presentations, as they’re a great way to meet others in the field and hear from them about their experiences.

We encourage white supporters that would like to learn more and support AMZAP to become members in different ways. Some members are “silent members”, which means that they’re not listed on our website but are given access to our social media groups, placed on the AMZAP mailing list, and can participate in events and programs just like every other member. If anyone is interested in joining or learning more, we always encourage them to get in touch at email.amzap@gmail.com

We recently featured AMZAP in two takeover webinar sessions: “AM What? Why We Need This New Organization” and “Who Can Help AMZAP & How?” We encourage you to click on the titles to access takeaways, chat session dialogue, resources, and the webinar video recordings if you weren’t able to participate and would like to learn more.

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