Beyond the Cosmetic: A Conversation with Esther Armah

Grégory Pierrot talks with Esther Armah about her project of “Emotional Justice.”

Beyond the Cosmetic: A Conversation with Esther Armah

Emotional Justice: A Roadmap for Racial Healing by Esther Armah. Berrett-Koehler. 192 pages.

ESTHER ARMAH is a Black British journalist of Ghanaian heritage, a political commentator, and the author of five plays. She worked as a reporter and host for the BBC and in New York City on WBAI, but her career took a turn in recent years; she currently serves as chief executive of the Armah Institute of Emotional Justice (AIEJ), an organization that devises and delivers projects and training aimed at dismantling inequitable structures within educational institutions and organizations.

In her recent book Emotional Justice: A Roadmap for Racial Healing, Armah presents the framework of her project and how it works to decenter whiteness and address racial trauma. We met virtually to speak about the book, its roots in Armah’s personal history and experiences, the importance of giving language to the emotions that drive racial inequity, and other topics.


GRÉGORY PIERROT: Emotional Justice is a departure from your previous work as a journalist and playwright. Why this book and why now?

ESTHER ARMAH: Three incidents that took place in three different countries on three different continents contributed to what would become Emotional Justice. The first was my mother breaking a 20-year silence about what happened in our home on February 6, 1966, the day of the military coup that ended the term of the first postindependence Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah. My father was a diplomat who worked in the government. That day had only been a date in Ghana’s history to me; my mother gave it an entirely new life when she explained about the night the tanks came and she and her daughters faced soldiers with guns. It had never occurred to me that there was more than one version of events when it came to history. As a journalist, I had been trained about notions of objectivity; her story kicked those out and suggested to me that it is not about objectivity; it’s about the lens. Whose lens do you privilege and whose do you erase?

The second incident was the Million Woman March in Philadelphia, where I met and spoke with Winnie Mandela, who was the keynote speaker. This was during the Truth and Reconciliation period in South Africa, and she told me: “Go and talk to the women of South Africa first, listen to what they have to say, and allow that to shape what you’re going to ask Desmond Tutu and others about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” History had already determined that this narrative would be led and maintained by men.

The third incident was when I covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa, and specifically interviewed the late archbishop Desmond Tutu and the widow of Steven Biko. Ntsiki Biko, who sued the government over her husband’s death, absolutely rejected the entire notion of forgiveness and reconciliation, and what she did was to connect the emotional with justice. There’s a gap in how we think about racial healing: it doesn’t center those harmed; it centers those who did the harming.

There’s a narrative that we’ve all been taught about how the world came to be: it teaches us that whiteness is the world; whiteness built the world; whiteness saves the world; and Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are essentially savages, needing saving and civilizing. Emotional Justice is about dealing with your emotional relationship to power by decentering whiteness. In my work, I use storytelling as a strategy for structural change, and we center those who are traditionally marginalized as part of that strategy. As a much younger woman, I was educated and smart, but I had this whole other space and self that was so distorted and damaged. The process of pulling those worlds together was understanding that you cannot PhD your way out of untreated trauma.

Much of what you say in the book resonates with the work of authors and thinkers such as bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Hortense Spillers, but also, for example, the work done in the journal Race Traitor. You emphasize specifically the language of emotion. What does it do that the language of politics doesn’t?

We have had copious amounts of important analysis about the socioeconomic problems caused by the cancer of white supremacy, racism, and anti-Blackness. We can politically all agree that whiteness is a cancer, but that political agreement may not in any way touch our emotional connection to whiteness. Your masculinity is connected to ideas of dominance and exploitation and subjugation, and you may philosophically and ideologically revile that, but that doesn’t change that your emotional connection to power still centers whiteness. You can never change the world of the emotional through the political and expect it to succeed. The foundation of Emotional Justice is that every single one of us has particular work to do, but that work is not the same, and it matters that we identify that. Emotional Justice is about creating a structure around the world of the emotional and removing it from the space of individuality, recognizing that it connects to, and drives, our politics in very particular ways.

Emotional Justice is not therapy; it is a framework designed to be engaged by structures, by organizations, and by individuals who work within those organizations. I’m not inviting anybody to lie on couches and muse about the personal traumas in their life. In my global institute, we devise projects, trainings, and thought leadership that are all about structures. We go in to talk about how structures are inequitable and use the Emotional Justice framework to transform them. Everybody at this point has a diversity policy, zero tolerance of racism, zero tolerance of discriminatory behavior, etc. But you have to decenter whiteness and measure the success of your organization based on the experiences of those who are the most marginalized.

We have a training directly informed by what I felt was missing in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: the “Emotional Justice Truth & Accountability Sessions,” where we center and engage with Black and Brown students or workers through creative means. I’m a playwright as well, so we use storytelling. It’s a three-part workshop, and it comes with a six-month post-workshop facilitation, which meets once a month. In the post-workshop facilitation, we always say that we deal with people able to write a check, hire somebody, or fire somebody. If you don’t have that kind of power, we don’t engage with you because we’re not going to waste time.

Another training is called “The Love Languages of Emotional Justice.” It’s for Black and Brown women, managers, and leaders, and it’s about redefining a relationship to labor that centers productivity as a sole measure of value. The fetishization of productivity enables and sustains burnout, depletion, exhaustion, and debilitation, applauding them as a work ethic. That is deeply, deeply problematic, but it’s also historical. It goes all the way back to enslavement, to colonialism, to the idea that your Black body is measured solely by the labor it can provide for whiteness. So, this training is about institutionalizing wellness, rest, and replenishment as part of the organizational structure of your world of work. You need a specific budget line that identifies wellness as part of the structure. We call it the Emotional Justice Equity Package; we treat trauma as an issue of equity that needs to be resolved systemically, as opposed to an issue of character where individuals need to show more resilience.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have often been a very cosmetic affair in the United States, a box for institutions to tick and then move on. How have you and your institute dealt with this kind of approach to this very real issue?       

Times have changed: the need has changed, and the demand has changed. Cosmetic change is now being called out as such. Books like Diversity, Inc. by Pamela Newkirk break down this multimillion-dollar industry that achieves no structural change, and for me that is a direct connection to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s a racial healing model that still centers whiteness, and as long as you’re about soothing the anxieties of whiteness, you can never have transformative change.

I don’t ever worry about who says no. We do not live in a world where change that is about the decentering of whiteness will necessarily be welcomed by institutions built to center whiteness. I lived in New York for almost 10 years, and I developed Emotional Justice through assignment and also in community engagement. We had these annual sessions of dialogues for five years in New York within Black communities, centering Blackness. It was very hard to get organizations involved then, because there was no engagement with things like healing justice, no language around racial healing until COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd and the global protest movement. Time changes how people engage; that doesn’t mean it will be easy, but it has transformed how people come to us and how they engage.

We have a training we do with CEOs and C-suite leadership called “Action Statements”; it is specifically about being much more honest in identifying the real work an organization is willing to do when it comes to diversity and equity. A part of that comes from identifying what you are not going to do, so we ask questions that people would not normally ask. We will research a company’s policies and behavior, and start by saying, “Where do you not want to go? What is the thing that you don’t want to do?” And we just take it off the table, no judgment. And usually, there’s quite a lot that they won’t do. So, the question is, how do we maximize everything we can from where you’re willing to go? It may seem smaller, but it is the thing that’s doable, that’s going to be done.

We have to treat racial healing with the urgency that is required. When you are ticking boxes, you’re still dealing with people’s lives. These structures are debilitating and problematic; no one has time to indulge particular discomforts with having to deal with transformative change. White people are very accustomed to Black and Brown people rearranging themselves to make white people feel good about their inaction. Emotional Justice is structural and not individual; it’s based on looking at a system that treats repair as individual, despite the violence being structural. Brutality is the love language of whiteness, and yet it expects a certain grace when it comes to the language of change. Change feels brutal to people who are not used to the discomfort of making real change, but navigating that discomfort is your work to do; it has nothing to do with Black and Brown people. This work is white people’s work to do, nobody else’s. The only measure that the work is being done is in the change you implement as a result of what you committed to doing.

How do you hold institutions accountable?

One of the things we say to institutions who engage us is “Become the change you claim,” not “Be the change.” Why? Because becoming is an active, ongoing action. There is no one-and-done with racial healing, and decentering whiteness. You cannot talk about a nation that was built over 300 years of enslavement, and then put a timeline and a deadline on racial healing. It’s obscene. It implies that if you haven’t healed by this particular deadline, then there’s something wrong with you.

From one of our training sessions, one professor wrote, “Emotional Justice forces you to see who you are and not who you think you were.” You’re not going to make change as long as you have an idealized notion of your own particular political, philosophical beliefs that are actually harming entire groups of Black and Brown people. There is no shelf life to Emotional Justice; there’s ongoing accountability, ongoing racial healing. The notion of outcomes, the measure of success, is also very much one that centers whiteness, because it’s always, “Okay. What are the measurables, once we’ve done this training?” We would respond, “What is the transformation that you made versus where you were?”

So, just one example: An Ivy League school that had a way of enabling students to enter a particular department that was clearly discriminatory. It had been 60, 70 years of this. After the training, they saw how much of an issue it was, and so the head of the department said, “Okay, it’s gone.” Now, that is an action that is going to transform the experience of Black and Brown students profoundly in one fell swoop. They could have done that 50 years ago, but they didn’t until this training came along, because it did a very specific and different thing. Transformation is measured by the changes that you make; if you don’t make the change, you cannot call it a successful training. That’s what gives people pause before they engage; with this program, you can’t just tick boxes.

Your institute is based in Accra, London, and New York City, three capitals with different versions of Blackness. Can you speak about the challenges of what you call global Blackness?

I self-identify as a global Black chick. I was born in London, so I have a lens of Blackness that is Black British. My family is Ghanaian, and I’ve lived in Accra for seven, eight years now. So, I see through a lens of Blackness that is specifically Ghanaian, and African, and I lived and worked in New York for almost 10 years, so I also have a lens that is specifically African American. The beauty of it is that it enables me to appreciate and identify the specificity and particularity of Blackness in different regions.

So, all contemporary Blackness is shaped by white supremacy, but the manifestation of that is different. Part of Emotional Justice for global Black people is the recognition that our Blackness was originally identified by whiteness in a very specific and limiting way. America’s Blackness is shaped by enslavement and enslavement’s legacy. There you’re white or Black; one drop means you’re Black. In Britain, where your Blackness is defined more by colonialism, there’s an aspiration to a certain kind of Britishness that makes for a slightly different manifestation; there’s the illusion of inclusion. And then, on the continent, we’re all surrounded by Blackness. And so, it’s a different reality. White supremacy has shaped Blackness in all these different ways, resulting in regional demographics of Blackness that we should honor in order to have global community — that is, global Blackness. We cannot have this kind of ideological statement that “we’re just all African.” Emotional Justice is saying, “Honor all of it; recognize that the place we all globally connect back to is the continent of Africa, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily feel African.”

Some time ago, you were writing a novel tentatively called The Sweet Promise of Bullshit. Is that still happening?

The Sweet Promise of Bullshit is now a screenplay that is actually already written. It’s described as a revenge fantasy, but it’s really about exploring the way whiteness expects to elude the consequences of its brutality … until it doesn’t. A group of Black women decide they’re going to just blow up some white people’s lives — not literally. It’s really about white people facing the consequences of their actions, but also for Black people to have a full range of emotions that actually encompasses the anger, the betrayal, and the work that they do to try and be reasonable about something that is wholly poisonous, cancerous, and problematic.

There’s another screenplay that is called One of My Best Friends is White, based in and around Ghana. It’s about a new media show that’s led by Black women, but the money comes from the US Embassy, and the US Embassy won’t let it go forward unless they have a white person at the helm. It’s a bigger story about how white money shapes what’s happening on the continent, but it’s done through this little show with this group of women.

There will be three books in this project of emotional justice. The next one is called Haunted and Hunted: Emotional Justice for Black Men, which will look very specifically at Black men’s emotional work. The third book is called Black Grief Matters: Loss and Healing with Emotional Justice, which will specifically explore the idea of loss and grief through the lens of Black women and girls. The first book is about all of our work and identifies who has what to do, and then I get into really specific detail for the two demographics the framework centers: Black women and girls and Black men and boys.

The Sweet Promise of Bullshit is based in London; my dream is for Michaela Coel to play the lead. We’re not going to do any screenplays based in America: the two areas are going to be the UK and the continent, primarily London and Ghana.

We created a project about colonialism, racial healing, and emotional justice. As you know, the Queen of England recently died, and there was a massive outpouring of national mourning, but those who were colonized and their descendants felt that they were just being summarily dragged into the narrative. So, we created something called the 1952 Project, inspired by the 1619 Project. It takes these four themes — loss, legacy, grief, and healing — and explores the toll of colonialism on national, personal, and cultural identity, looking specifically at Africa, the Caribbean, and England.

All of our work is about the structures that shape us, and how we engage those structures in order to transform them and turn them into spaces that are more healing for the people that have been harmed the most.

To conclude, we always ask the following questions. What would you decolonize?

Our minds.

What would you defund?

I would rather fund something: institutionalizing wellness for Black women.

What would you abolish?

Again, I’d rather think about what I would build: the Emotional Justice Worldwide LAB [Legacy and Building workshop].

What should be free for all?


Pick three songs that would be the soundtrack to your struggle.

It would be the soundtrack to my liberation: “Golden” by Jill Scott, “Make You No Forget” by Blitz the Ambassador featuring Seun Kuti, and “By Your Side” by Sade.

Image supplied by author.


Grégory Pierrot is a writer, translator, and professor of English. 

LARB Contributor

Grégory Pierrot is an associate professor in English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford, where he teaches American and African American literature. He is the author of The Black Avenger in Atlantic Culture (2019) and Decolonize Hipsters (2021). He is co-editor, with Marlene Daut and Marion Rohrleitner, of Haitian Revolutionary Fictions: An Anthology (2022).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!