Revisiting Solange Knowles’ “A Seat at The Table”
In 2016, Solange Piaget Knowles released her infamous album, “A Seat at The Table.” On the cover, she graced us with her flawless brown skin and multicolor hair clips. But the album. The album itself was a funk, neo-soul, and contemporary R&B masterpiece that pulled its listeners into a story of black rage, despair, trauma, reflection, empowerment, and ultimately joy. And then of course, there was the title: a seat at the table. Solange was pulling on a well-known phrase that has been used to assess people’s access to power and decision-making – in the workplace, in their communities, in political spaces – basically, wherever decisions that impact those who do not have power or the ability to access these tables. The concept has increased in popularity over the years, especially as organizations work to address inequities that exist within the workplace and in the communities they serve.
But, I have a problem with the way the term has been used and in many ways is being co-opted. At the root of “a seat at the table” is the assumption that being present where decisions are being made means that the table itself or the room the table is situated in is somehow separate from the system that makes accessing the table impossible to begin with. Furthermore, at whose table should those most impacted by institutional and systemic inequities be trying to get a seat?
Solange Knowles has her own view of this. In a 2016 interview with NPR, Solange states: “We've [People of the African-Diaspora] always had a seat at the table…I think one of the seats at the table is also saying that, you know, I'm inviting you to have a seat at my table. And it's an honor to be able to have a seat at our table and for us to open up in this way and for us to feel safe enough to have these conversations and share them with you.”
What Do We Really Mean?
So what do you really mean when you say you are working to remove barriers so that people can have a seat at the table? Perhaps you mean that you want the people you work with and the communities you serve to be in a position to make decisions, or maybe you desire for them to have access to the power and systems where decisions are made, like you. Perhaps you even believe that the table in which you have had the privilege to be seated is the right table, the only table for that matter.
The fact is, those who exist on the margins have always had access to some kind of table. Maybe not your table, but decisions were and continue to be made outside of the conventions of the boardroom and the conference room: At kitchen tables, picnic tables, patio tables, public housing project tables, park tables, even rooms without tables. These are the other tables that have allowed people of color to mobilize when there was no interest in having us in the room.
I’ll clarify that I am not arguing that access to power, capital, and decision-making cannot combat the inequities that currently exist in marginalized communities. I also don’t believe that organizations shouldn’t work to address how these inequities impact the communities they serve by dealing with institutional and systemic oppressions, which can start by those in power sliding over to make room for others’ opinions and experiences at the table. This is a huge part of work rooted in equity and justice.
However, I caution against the pervasive use of this phrase without recognizing that there are many types of tables. When we say we want to give people “a seat at the table,” first we must ask ourselves whose table, but we must also ask ourselves, why don’t we consider asking for a seat at someone else’s table - to listen, learn, collaborate, and to understand the other forms of social and cultural capital that others offer.