In light of the unrelenting and vicious assaults on the Black community, and in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I have asked myself what more I can do to challenge racism, particularly anti-Black racism. One thing I am doing is challenging myself to be more aware and forthright in noticing and speaking out about the racism I see when I work with non-profit and public organizations. This post is an effort to name those things that often go unnamed to facilitate dialogue and action.

“For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts.” Robin D’Angelo, professor and author

It’s easy to see racism in extremists who use physical violence or racial slurs. Less blatant forms are harder to see and name, particularly for those who don’t bear the brunt of it. Defensiveness and denial are two of the biggest roadblocks I see in non-profit and public organizations. Racism is nasty and ugly and no good liberal or progressive-minded person wants to be racist. I know I don’t. According to Robin D’Angelo, professor and author, “For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.” As painful as it may be, it is important that we let go of an investment in seeing ourselves as non-racist so that we can do the work that needs to be done. By “we” I mean my white colleagues, and also non-Black colleagues of color, because anti-Black racism is a reality in our communities.

I am calling in my colleagues. I say “calling in”, rather than “calling out”, because this is not about shame or blame. I am calling us in to acknowledge that we are all participants in the system of racism. I am calling us in to recognize that our liberal, progressive, or radical politics don’t make us immune to racism. Only when we recognize how we are participating and perpetuating that system, can we take steps to dismantle it, and transform ourselves in the process.

Without getting into a lengthy explanation of racism and white supremacy, suffice to say that the issue isn’t solely, or even mainly about racial prejudices and biases. Racism is systematic mistreatment of people of color, pervading our culture, our institutions, our policies, our relationships, our subconscious and conscious beliefs, and our behavior. It is the concentration of power and access to resources among white people. It is also the belief in the superiority of white people, their culture, and their knowledge, both conscious and unconscious.

Without an intentional effort to unlearn and undo racism and the supremacy of white culture, our organizations become microcosms of the racism in broader society.

This also isn’t about the goodness of our intentions. Good intentions are not enough to stop us human beings from saying and doing things with devastating consequences. Good intentions aren’t enough to dismantle the ways in which our systems perpetuate racial injustice. Without an intentional effort to unlearn and undo racism and the supremacy of white culture, our organizations become microcosms of the racism in broader society.

Below, I have listed some of the patterns of racism I have seen in non-profit and public organizations, including some I have witnessed and others that have been pointed out to me by staff members of color. These dynamics include actions that perpetuate racism as well as inaction in addressing racism.

As you read, I invite you to reflect on the following: Is this happening in my organization? Could it be happening without me noticing it? How can I become more attuned to these dynamics? What responsibility can I take to address these patterns? I also invite you to reflect on your own reactions and triggers and discover what there is for you to learn and transform.

Community, Power and Resources

  • The community served or most impacted by the organization’s work has little or no power over the direction of the organization and how it uses its resources.
  • The organization is seen in communities of color as a white organization.
  • The organization holds a paternalistic and deficit-oriented frame and attitude towards their communities.
  • People of color are served by white professionals. They don’t see themselves in leadership roles or in the people they directly interface with.
  • The organization addresses issues that impact communities of color without understanding how racism contributes to these issues.
  • White-led organizations have greater access to funding and other resources than organizations led by people of color.
  • People of color feel used as “poster children” to raise funds for and enhance the image of the organization.

Organizational Culture

  • The culture of the organization does not support being able to talk about race, power, and privilege.
  • Values related to diversity, equity and inclusion are lacking or not understood and practiced.
  • There is no common language for understanding and addressing racism.
  • When race is discussed, special efforts are made not to offend the white leaders.
  • Staff members of color do not feel comfortable challenging the white leadership. Those who do are met with defensiveness or labeled as oppositional.
  • There is greater respect for the opinions of white people.
  • The interactions, behavior, and decisions of the organization are dominated by white cultural norms.


  • White leaders are not self-reflective or transparent about what it means to be white leaders of organizations based in communities of color.
  • White leaders are not proactive about understanding and addressing racism.
  • The concept of being “qualified” for leadership and other jobs in the organization doesn’t include awareness or competency related to race/racism or connections to/knowledge of communities of color.

Staff of Color

  • There may be a few people of color on staff, and Black folks are few and far between.
  • Staff members of color are concentrated in more front line and support jobs, with less positional power and autonomy.
  • Racism, in the form of micro-aggressions, occur on a daily basis and go unchecked and unseen by many.
  • Efforts are not made to create a welcoming and supportive environment for staff of color. Staff members of color feel unsupported by white leaders and peers.

Change Work

  • There are a few lone people, mostly people of color, who are advocating for change, and often carrying the weight of that work.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion work is relegated to staff members who lack positional power in the organization.
  • Work around diversity, equity, inclusion, or cultural competence is driven by requirements from funders or accreditation entities, rather than a deeper understanding and commitment.

I wrote this post in to support people in non-profit and public organization to see and name racism. When we see it, and name it, we can then find ways to act and transform it. The resources below may be helpful in that regard.

Many thanks to colleagues Loretta Hobbs, Jeff Kositsky, and Stacy Kono for their valuable input on this post. Thanks also to the many unnamed people who I have learned from over the years.

Sources and Resources:

Black Lives Matter

#BlackLivesMatter: 5 Tips and 25 Questions for Nonprofit and Public Organizations

Charleston: Questions for Consideration and Discussion


The Cost of White Comfort

Curriculum for White Americans to Educate themselves about Race and Racism

Racial Equity Tools

Is Reconciliation Possible? Lessons from Combatting Modern Racism

People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

Visions, Inc.

White Culture

Why it’s not Racist when People of Color Point out White Supremacy in White People’s Actions

Why Pressuring Someone to Educate You About Their Struggles Is Oppression, Not Understanding 

Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race

Within Our Lifetime

Note to readers: I hope you enjoyed reading “Lessons from the Field.” If you find this information useful and want to share it with others for purposes of learning (not for profit), please feel free to do so. Thanks!