Doing Organizational DEI Work as a White Progressive
So you’re a white person, working in a non-profit or some other kind of organization, and you want to do diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Obviously, there are plenty of landmines you might hit, and questions you might ask yourself about what your role is in this work. Should I engage full throttle or step back given my privilege? How do I engage without stealing (or stealing the spotlight) from colleagues of color? I’ve compiled a list of five suggestions from my own experience, acknowledging that all of these learnings come from the collective work of many people of color and that I’m in no way an expert on this, but rather a peer looking to partner with other white folks around how we can be accountable for our role in systemic oppression and our privilege within organizations.
- Solicit feedback from POC, especially those who disagree with you. It can be tempting to just find the POC within your organization who say there’s not a problem (or not a major problem), and take their perspective as evidence of your good works. Resist that temptation. Instead, focus on what folks of color are saying when they leave your organization. Conduct exit interviews, allow for actual anonymous feedback both in exit interviews and in employee surveys, and look for external consultants who can take feedback and relay the results to your leadership. Be specific in taking action and addressing complaints. Be humble and honest, and admit your personal responsibility. Call racism what it is, including when you’re the perpetrator or complicit in racist systems. If you’re considering racial justice training for your staff and board, make training mandatory and hire outside trainers who are people of color. If the training makes people uncomfortable, good. Trainings conducted by well-meaning staff (especially white folks!) aren’t nearly as effective because they replicate organizational culture. When you’re thinking about organizational policies, use a justice-based approach rather than focusing only on diversity or equality. Put in place actual consequences for racism as part of workplace disciplinary policies.
- There is no such thing as hiring “enough” POC. I’ve worked both in very white organizations and in organizations with more staff of color, and I can tell you that all those organizations have had problems with systemic racism. If your kneejerk reaction around DEI work is that your organization has plenty of staff members of color, ask more questions: Is there equal racial distribution across all role levels? What about equitable pay? Do you have a “white benefits culture,” where the benefits you offer are entrenched in white cultural values? What are your organizational cultural practices, and how might they stem from white dominant culture? Are you mostly hiring non-black people of color? What about women of color and QTPOC? How does respectability politics play out in your organization, and how are staff of color expected to assimilate to white norms? Are people from the specific communities you work with represented in your staff and on your board? Is the organization as aware of structural racism as individual racism? If you’re an executive, consider taking a pay cut in order to free up resources for equitable pay. Advocate for open salary policies within your organization.
- Say no to the white culture of credit claiming. Real talk: white people can’t actually create anything. We’re taught to value our individual contributions and to assume that all thoughts we have are original and valuable, but this is just not true. Pretty much everything a white person “creates” is stolen. You probably didn’t come up with an idea. Even if you’re not consciously participating in intellectual or cultural theft, you benefit from the cultural production of folks of color and your “ideas” are informed by unpaid labor. It’s a good idea to avoid “thought leadership” as a white person within an organization, and instead to point folks at the work of folks of color and to demand they be compensated for that work. Ask yourself: Is your organization taking space away from people of color and POC-led organizations? Who writes blog posts, publishes papers, or speaks for your organization? How is your organization taking funding away from people of color?
- Put away the tokens. Don’t represent your organization falsely. If your staff and board are all white, you can’t erase the racism you engage in by using stock photos of people of color in your materials. Rather than focusing on surface representation, ask tough questions about whether your organization is actually anti-racism. Talking about racism isn’t enough. If you use “POC” in your language, is your organization backing that up with actual programs designed by and for people of color, grants for people of color, etc.? Do you actually prioritize POC in your work? If the answer is “no,” then be honest about your gaps and don’t try to smooth them over with token representation.
- Think critically about funding dynamics. Do programming that you can actually be proud of and justify asking for funding towards. When you do the work, insist on results or outcomes, not just activities. Rather than counting the number of folks you reached with an outreach campaign, for example, look at the actual impact of the campaign on a community. Admit failure or non-representation. If you’re a non-profit leader, be courageous enough to be honest about whether your organization should exist.