New Day,” Jenny Downing

The statistics are not new, and neither are they shocking. We’ve been having this conversation for at least the past 15 years, and funny enough, it’s still just that—a conversation. But that’s one of the key pillars of modern polite white supremacy, isn’t it? The uncanny ability to talk in circles about an issue, without ever taking action on the issue. In fact, the conversation is glorified as though it were the action itself. Organizations introducing and discussing the racial gap in nonprofit leadership is seen as the equivalent of doing the work to bridge the gap.

Why is it that nonprofits are still over 80 percent white-led?

Why does that number increase to 90 percent when it comes to the 315 largest nonprofits in the country?

White supremacy.

Any white leader worth their weight in diversity grants can likely, albeit gingerly, provide that answer. They will tell you about their equity working group, or their beautifully worded mission statement, or the rainbow that is their “rockstar” staff. They may even be gracious enough to say that the problem exists in their workplace. However, they will never go further than that — words, quotes, statistics, empty pledges of allegiance to the cause. They will never actually fight the problem in radical, effective ways, for instance by removing themselves from the equation, as that would apparently mean career suicide.

To illustrate this point, take the response of certain nonprofits to the NYC mayor’s call for more diversity within the sector. In an article published in Nonprofit Quarterly, Steve Dubb begins with this quote: “While about two-thirds of New Yorkers are people of color, two-thirds of the people who run its cultural institutions are white.” He then paints a dismal picture of how that is indeed true, but follows it up with an optimism-tinged summary of the ways some institutions plan to tackle this problem:

The Public Theater, famous for being the place where the musical Hamilton was first performed in public, currently has a staff that is 57 percent white. It has set an official goal to be no more than 50 percent white by 2023.

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts has committed to analyzing salary equity.

The American Museum of Natural History has already increased its percentage of board members from 12 percent of people of color in 2014 to 21 percent today.

Are we truly paying attention to the kind of scraps being touted as revolutionary progress? The Public Theater set an official goal (whatever that means) to become 7 percent less white in the span of five years, thus ensuring that their entire staff remains a whopping 50 percent white in 2023.

Lincoln Center has made a vague commitment to analyzing, but not necessarily rectifying, salary equity within the organization. Who will be measuring the extent of this so-called commitment, how long is it expected to take, and what will be implemented based on the findings? Often, these fundamental questions are left up to the very same white leaders of the entity, who eagerly take credit for what is only a PR statement and not real change.

Finally, the American Museum of Natural History basically went from one in ten POC board members in 2014, to two in ten POC board members in 2019. Alleluia. Notice the language the writer uses; they have “already” increased their percentages, as though adding one more brown face in five years is speedy progress.

Now, the excuse that change takes time is bogus, and we can look to white organizations’ responses to the pandemic to prove this. A wave of flexibility, creativity and innovation happened overnight as people started to work from home. Protocol and procedures that dragged before were suddenly expedited. Decisions were made on the fly. Funds and budgets that were deemed complicated before, became accessible in crisis. Ideas that staff of color had been expressing for centuries were magically back on the table for consideration.

This shows that when there is a sense of urgency or pressure, nonprofits can move mountains to keep themselves afloat…sorry…to serve their darling less fortunate clients. Clearly, racism and white supremacy as our most constant pandemic is simply not a priority, not in pre-Corona America, and definitely not now. White leaders, all 83 percent of them as the statistic goes, are still refusing to defer to the leadership of people of color, even when their clients are predominantly people of color. Some might compare white nonprofit CEOs to slave masters who considered themselves “good,” only looking after the best interests of the plantation by overseeing labor and resources.

It may be a mind-blowing concept, so let’s break it down.

The philanthropic sector, by its very nature and definition, purports to serve “disadvantaged communities,” and over the years has presented itself as a more people-centered, equity-driven alternative to the cold corporate world. Due to historical racism and systemic inequalities, the majority of “disadvantaged communities” are predominantly lower-income black and brown citizens, who have little social capital and little financial security. The nonprofit industry rakes in billions of dollars annually off the creation of programs and services designed with this demographic in mind.

Then, white supremacy in a basic definition, means white people having the most access to and control over money, resources and people. If we sift through the centuries from slavery through segregation and ask whether there has been any distinct transference of wealth and power to black and brown people, the answer would be a resounding no. Today, in the age of mass incarceration, which affects more black people than slavery ever did, white people still create and maintain the unjust laws, they still own the prisons and jails, and they still hold the majority of positions of power to enact their skewed version of justice.

How does all this apply to nonprofit leaders?

Well, if white supremacy by definition means white people at the helm, then once white people continue to hold positions of power over black and brown people, white supremacy will continue. Even the most well-meaning of anti-racist allies will have blind spots and make grave miscalculations on matters concerning the well-being of people of color. Nevertheless, the nonprofit industry as a collective continues to hire and promote them, proving that it is more important to have gainfully employed white progressives with fulfilling careers, than it is to actually rectify systemic inequalities by putting the right people at the forefront.

Tené Traylor, who oversees grantmaking at the Kendeda Fund, put it best: “We still trust white folks to tackle black folks’ problems.”

On another note, these white leaders try to escape scrutiny and criticism by assuring us that they are accountable to black leadership, but how true is this claim? Are they referring to fellow big shot black friends who are too close and comfortable with them to be fully honest concerning their flaws? And besides, are these POC friends even active in the running of the nonprofit, to see where the leader falls short? Highly unlikely. The ones who can see the full picture are black and brown staff at the organization, who most white leaders regard as subordinates, and regularly dismiss their ideas and input.

Yet, this dismissal of real black leadership is not seen by white leaders for what it is. They often allow space for concerns to be “heard,” then carry on with their own plan and pat themselves on the back for the act of hearing POC staff and colleagues. It needs to be said. Simply being heard is neither a gift nor an honor when they do not seriously consider what we contribute and take steps to implementing it. The refusal to implement the sound ideas of POC staff is an act of white power itself, since it means they consider their ideas as a white person with a white lens to be better than those of us who have a lived experience closer to that of those we serve.

Even worse, the self-perception of being a superstar white ally and amazing leader after continually silencing POC staff, reinforces the delusion that they are helping the situation. On the contrary, they are further perpetuating white supremacy. The historic dynamic remains firmly in place, in terms of who calls the shots, who holds the purse strings, and who has the power to control the inner workings of an organization that affects black and brown lives, whether staff or clientele.

Philanthropy is really centered on this notion of charity and benevolence to its core. There are assumptions of privilege and power wrapped up in that. For us to see progress, it’s not just about trusting the black leader. It’s not just about having black folks at the table. It’s about right-sizing those investments accordingly. It’s about us trusting black folks to tackle black liberation and black solutions in a meaningful way. We need to continue to have the conversation. Certain folks need to get out of the way.

—Tené Traylor, “Leaders of Color Speak Out

White folks desperately need to reflect on what it means to stop centering themselves in this work. They are gatekeepers, holding fast to arbitrary concepts of non-profit policies and protocols as though their respectability depended on it. They are less likely to bend rules or think outside of the box for solutions to systemic problems. How much of what they do is for the sake of brandishing their reputation or checking off the latest diversity talking point? Clout chasing is a very real phenomenon among these white liberal leaders, who prefer to snag the interview themselves instead of elevating the voices of black people saying the same darn thing.

Here’s a challenge for all the white folks still reading:

Would you still work in your chosen career field, or at your current organization, if you did not hold the title of ED, COO, Vice President, Assistant Director?

  • Would you work there if you did not have a team to supervise?
  • Could you see yourself contributing a portion of your current salary to POC front line staff?
  • Could you see yourself exchanging positions with that vocal POC who intimidates you?

If these scenarios are too uncomfortable to imagine, or seem too far-fetched for you to actually do, that’s a big red flag. You may be part of the reason why the statistic remains at 83 percent. Your financial stability, comfort, power, sense of personal achievement and the illusion of allyship is clearly more important to you than racial equity. And who can blame you? Human beings are wired to be selfish. It’s also a lot easier when the scales are tipped in your favor. Slave owners were merely seeking to make the most of this life, and so are you.

The thing is, a real leader humbly serves others. A good white leader is a good white follower. If you cannot serve the cause of racial justice from the sidelines, instead of trying to be the superstar or the warrior hero, you’re not quite getting the concept of what black liberation entails. A good leader must know when to defer to the expertise of those more qualified than themselves, and I don’t mean paper qualifications. A good leader must know when to step down and step back. If white people continue viewing the nonprofit industry or the practice of anti-racism as a trendy career field, a stepping stone to personal enlightenment, or a way to publicly assuage their guilt, they will perpetuate the same white supremacy they claim to disown.

This article was first published on the Medium blog platform on April 28, 2020.