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.
- 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.
- 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:
#BlackLivesMatter: 5 Tips and 25 Questions for Nonprofit and Public Organizations
Charleston: Questions for Consideration and Discussion
Curriculum for White Americans to Educate themselves about Race and Racism
Is Reconciliation Possible? Lessons from Combatting Modern Racism
People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond
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
As the Founder and Executive Director of the California Alliance of African American Educators (CAAAE) 14 years ago, I have been sharing 99% of these ideas since our inception and getting some of the same reactions from White people in the non-profit world! In fact, I have a PowerPoint entitled “The Color of Philanthropy or Why the Black Panther Party Did Not Get Systemic Funding” and it addresses the insidious nature of racism in the nonprofit sector, especially in the foundation world. This is a powerful blog and I will share it with members of the CAAAE’s network. True to how racism works, perhaps the nonprofit world will start actually acting on our decades of complaints because this is coming from a White person now!
Hello, due to recent events, I am compelled to speak out on stigmatization of mental illness in the non-profit sector. I intend to highlight and encourage those who work in, as well as those receiving services from service-based non-profit agencies to speak up about the inequality. I want to discuss the systemic racism and oppression found within non-profits. I saw your comment, and I know this article was written years ago, but I finally figured out why I had to leave the organization I worked for. It was because they were oppressing the very people they said they were serving and as a social worker, it ticks me off to see social workers staying silent which perpetuates the problem. When I spoke up, my voice was shot down and shamed. As a white woman, I know I could do more. I’ve been waiting for God to let me know when to speak out, and it is now. because I cannot handle seeing the hypocrisy, and I’m tired of it. I’m gathering and educating myself and would love a copy or presentation of the power points you’d mentioned, if you still have them. Thank you so much in advance.
Thanks so much for your comment and thank you for sharing. Yes, I agree that racism works that way and that when white people speak they are more likely to be heard by white people. I myself don’t identify as white. My mixed-race identity is important to me as it has shaped my experience of the world and has made me who I am, which includes how I see race. At the same time, I recognize that I have light skin privilege and many people perceive me as white. Because of this, whites may be able to “hear” me differently than they would hear a Black person or another person of color. I appreciate you naming this dynamic of racism! Laurin
What an concise overview and resource to use as a starting place for organizations that want to be about real change while working on objectives toward fulfilling the organization’s mission.
Thank you Phyllis!
Thanks for these important resources and tools to help us challenge the white oppressive power structure. I’m doing more reflection to change that power structure and this article is inspiring. I’m thankful to our Board Member who shared it with our board. I plan on sharing it out in my non-profit network.
As a white male Executive Director of an organization serving mostly people of color, the section about leadership hits home. Striving to do more has become a priority for me, and taking concrete steps is urgently needed . I also trying to view things through a class lens.
These 2 points resonate:
*”White leaders are not self-reflective or transparent about what it means to be white leaders of organizations based in communities of color. ” Got to keep on looking deep here, not be in denial.
*”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.” YES! Need more than good intentions.
I’m motivated to more action by your blog (and the replies).
Thanks for taking time to write Scott! Glad to know that the blog and replies are motivating to you.
Here’s another piece, published by Everyday Feminism on how white supremacy shows up on an every day basis. http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/09/white-supremacy-everyday-life/
It is true. If racism exists in a non for profit special ed preschool in the heart of harlem in nyc and a few blocks from apollo theatre, i can only imagine what its like in other cities and states. Dont be fooled by appearance of Diversity. sometimes they make conscious effort to make their establishment look good in paper or from th e outside but in truth there is a racist cilture within. This site is so informative. Racism do come in many forms and most of the time , you really cant tell unless you actually work in the place and actually observe and experience it furst hand.
Thanks for your comment! Sorry for taking so long to reply.
Great post. Can i share it?
Laurin – thank you so much for this blog and all the resources you provide. I just was hired as the executive director of a small non-profit, based in and serving primarily people of color. I have already identified a serious lack of diversity. Your points gives me more structure to make specific changes. I am grateful and will return to this again and again.
I’m so glad to know the post is helpful! Please check out other posts at mayenoconsulting.com. You might find some of them helpful too.
I wanted to write an article about diversity in the fundraising or sometimes Resource Mobilization profession but eventually I have stumbled upon this article. This was following my experience when I was told we are looking for a white when I applied for the Resource Development Director role with a large and Christian INGO.