I was sheepish when I said it, looking down the table of white faces in our first strategic planning committee meeting, “I think it’s a problem that we’re all white people here, that our leadership is majority white, and we’re making these decisions on behalf of the community, which is mostly people of color.”
The board chair, an older white man, scoffed. “You know, I used to wave that bull***t diversity flag, until I learned better,” he said, his hands waving dismissively.
I was floored. I thought that, at the very least, this group of white people could agree that us being all-white was a problem (to say nothing of rectifying it).
A few days later, I had a meeting with my boss, a white woman, and we talked about how terrible it was for him to say that (“Definitely wrong!” “He’s problematic!”). But then she told me he had come into her office a few days later, upset. He apologized, saying he was out of line and he shouldn’t have said that. Her response?
“It’s totally fine—you did nothing wrong.”
I was floored, yet again. This woman, who agreed he had absolutely done something wrong, couldn’t even tell him he had messed up. She couldn’t do the bare minimum, which is to acknowledge his mistake even after he had.
As white women, we occupy an interesting, important role in nonprofits. Women make up 70% of the sector, though we make up far fewer positions in leadership, and the vast majority of us are white. Being women, we have been on the receiving end of oppression, but being white, we have perpetrated it as well. We occupy dual roles: both as the oppressor and the oppressed, which should give us greater insight into what BIPOC, disabled, and a multitude of other populations, experience.
Yet, we often fail to rise to the challenge.
In late March, a prominent fundraiser went to Twitter to attack Community-Centric Fundraising, a BIPOC-led movement to evolve how our sector raises money. His attacks were dismissive, insulting, and, yes, racist.
I don’t have anything new or important to say about him. What I would like to talk about is how prominent white women in the sector react to people like him, or my board chair. There are a few things we can do to use our privilege in these moments to stand for what’s right, as opposed to what won’t make waves.
Stop prioritizing the perpetrator
When someone in power (often white, often male) perpetrates harm, we have a tendency to ignore it. We’d rather shake our heads and scroll down, leaving the work to BIPOC folks. If we do engage, we don’t want to offend him (deary me!) or step out of line. We want to gently guide him along the equity rainbow, feeding him candies as we do the work of his therapist. “He grew up in a different time,” or “He’s learning,” are common refrains.
Instead, focus on the people who experienced harm, as they are objectively more important in this scenario. Put your energy into listening to and supporting them, as opposed to this guy. He’s an adult man who, probably, files his taxes and cleans his fridge. He’ll be fine.
Stop prioritizing ourselves
Not only do we want to avoid offending him, we want to avoid offending anyone. We don’t want to draw the ire of social media, nor do we want to make a White Mistake™ in public. So, we default to private conversations, such as the one my boss had with the board chair, where all parties remain unaccountable to the people the behavior really damages.
Now, there are certainly places for private conversations, and lord knows I’ve benefitted from people walking me through racism in private. But private conversations have their limits, because it requires the perpetrator’s express permission to occur. This means anything, or anyone, deemed too challenging by him can be shut out of the conversation. It’s honestly a pretty weak way to make change, if that’s even what you’re after.
Stop prioritizing civility
If white women were a terrible band, this would be the first track on our greatest hits album. White supremacy has taught us that unemotional discourse is how we solve problems. Two clear-headed parties come together with their arguments laid out and figure out a solution, usually a compromise.
The problem with this is that it’s easy to discuss the pros and cons of a situation if you’re not being harmed by it. If I’m not being harmed by, or even if I’m directly benefitting from, the gender pay gap, it’s much easier for me to read articles discussing whether or not it exists. Demanding unemotional, scientific discourse is putting the players on the same level of understanding, which they inherently are not. A scientific compromise doesn’t make sense, because halfway to oppression is still oppression.
Are you in a position to compromise someone else’s dignity? Do you feel comfortable finding a middle ground between silence and violence? I sure don’t.
Start prioritizing BIPOC voices
My story at the beginning wasn’t a particularly proud moment for me. Even after that, I stayed in the job for too long. I gave an uncomfortable smile when I heard problematic things. I avoided conflict in order to keep the peace.
It’s remarkably easy to keep the peace when you’re not the target.
I like to think I’ve stopped these behaviors. I stopped prioritizing the perpetrator, I stopped prioritizing myself, I stopped prioritizing civility. I listen to BIPOC folks in the nonprofit sector, I use my voice to amplify their work, and I call out white folks who are messing up.
The next time someone in power does something problematic, I urge white women like me to consider what a public stance would look like. You may ruffle feathers and you may lose followers. You’ll feel very uncomfortable, and you’ll probably mess up.
But you will be committing yourself to more than peace. You’ll be committing yourself to justice.