Dismantling progressive white supremacy
Why is ‘progressive white supremacy’ a problem?
The colonial history of Australia and much of the global south, provides the indisputable context and evidence for why our social, economic and political systems are racialised (i.e. why white supremacy exists). Therefore it is not difficult to understand why having a ‘social change’ sector predominantly controlled and funded by white people is a recipe for disaster. Missions and missionaries have been key to the colonial project in Australia and globally, hence white saviour culture (apparent in the non-profit sector, but also increasingly in corporations) can be viewed as an extension of this system of oppression. The conflict at the heart of so-called ‘progressive’ movements and organisations born out of this paradigm is that they attempt to be a response to a problem that they are deeply embedded within.
What does ‘progressive white supremacy’ look like?
The diagram below concisely summarises the experience of not just women, but people of colour (PoC) of all genders (and I’m sure translates across many experiences of marginalisation).
The consistency of traumatic PoC experiences in progressive spaces (whether in non-profits, philanthropic organisations, social businesses, CSR or sustainability practices) is terrifying but incredibly validating. This validation is important because inevitably these environments leave you burnt out and feeling that you are the problem.
For white people who don’t experience this day to day here I some examples I have experienced or observed:
- White people being offended by being called ‘white’ because they are not used to being racialised. This is hilarious given white people literally invented whiteness (refer to the White Australia policy for example).
- Administrative processes being used as a tool of oppression. An organisation I previously worked for developed a rule that yoga was banned due to OHS risk (directly in response to me being a yoga teacher and bringing my cultural/spiritual practice to my team).
- PoC undertaking volunteer roles that should be paid (particularly community organising).
- Being called aggressive for simply speaking about race or raising issues associated with racial (and other forms of) discrimination.
- White people commodifying their new found ‘wokeness’ around race and/or relationships with PoC to maintain their position, build their personal brand, or secure a sought after role in a ‘progressive’ organisation.
- White people designing and delivering Indigenous or PoC programs despite hard evidence that this doesn’t work. (Note: PoC are guilty of doing this to First Nations people. White supremacy is a system of oppression that can be upheld by anyone, including people of colour, just like women can uphold the patriarchy).
- White people stealing the ideas of their PoC colleagues and passing them off as their own.
- White people consistently centering their own experiences even in conversations pertaining to race (this baffles me still tbh).
- Being forced forced to cook curry (or do something else visibly ‘ethnic’) for Harmony Day.
- White people willing to be your ally privately but not publicly when it really matters (makes me think of the quote by Martin Luther King – “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”).
There are several more incidents I am aware of that relate to persistent racial discrimination, harassment, bullying, racist institutional responses to complaints raised, and serious mental and physical health impacts to victims, but these cannot be disclosed.
What can we do about it?
Organisations can get a bit carried away with various reviews, strategies, frameworks etc. (read: pointless activity that makes you look productive without making tangible progress), but there are 3 simple questions that truly indicate the level of commitment of an organisation to dismantling white supremacy:
1. To what extent is power being ceded to Indigenous people and PoC in the organisational structure?
2. How has your organisations’ analysis of the social or environmental issue you work on shifted through application of intersectionality and critical race theory?
3. How has your organisations’ designed strategies or interventions shifted as a result of your new analysis of the social or environmental issue?
To make number (2) and (3) above clearer, let me provide an example:
- The white analysis: Your org focuses on increasing the number of students from LSES backgrounds who graduate from university. You diagnose it as a ‘lack of resources’ issue. Therefore your main intervention is scholarships that ease the burden of university fees.
- The intersectional analysis: Your org realises that a large proportion of LSES students are indigenous and from CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) backgrounds. You find out that university services are disconnected and in silos, so it is very difficult to access what you need if you experience multiple forms of marginalisation. You also find out that the majority of university support staff are white. You redesign your support services to be more relational and integrated, equipped with staff from relevant cultural backgrounds. You decolonise the curriculum. You create scholarships to support students with the ongoing costs associated with being at university beyond fees.
White supremacy is complex, but some aspects of it are quite simple. There are several actions that organisations can take today to cede power – but many simply choose not to. Evidence clearly shows that social change is most effective when it is community-led and when organisations reflect the communities they are working within, but somehow most major progressive organisations do not operate like this.
To make it really easy for you here is a list:
For white leaders in progressive organisations –
- Give something up. Risk your reputation to stand in solidarity with someone who needs you. Reflect on whether you are doing a role that is more suited to an Indigenous person or PoC (particularly if your organisation’s core work is about race). If you’re not in a position to give up your job, seriously start thinking about succession planning (including recruitment practices) for your role (and other senior roles).
- Set clear expectations around discrimination of all types for all staff (particularly senior leaders).
- Establish a culturally safe process for staff to raise issues.
- Embed metrics around equity and intersectionality into KPIs (particularly senior leaders).
- Do not hesitate to take appropriate measures to discipline someone who has displayed discriminatory behaviour (e.g. targeting training, performance management or dismissal).
- Learn to follow (rather than lead) when working with First Nations people and PoC.
- Use your white privilege to the advantage of communities of colour (e.g. by channelling resources directly to them, without exerting power/control over how they are used).
- Stand up to other white people taking leadership roles in progressive organisations that would be more appropriate for someone with a relevant lived experience.
- Sponsor up and coming PoC.
- Collect and analyse date on the racial pay gap.
- Do not associate yourself with PoC publicly (through social media or other channels) until you have done the above steps.
For white staff working in progressive organisations –
- Do more. Don’t use the excuse of not wanting to speak on behalf of others. If you’re worried about what to say, get advice from First Nations and PoC colleagues, but do not stay silent. That is complicity.
- Do not cry when race is raised as a topic of conversation (or use any other defence mechanisms).
- Do not complain about how hard it is to raise difficult issues (such as race) that put you in conflict with colleagues/leadership/Board. Imagine how hard it is for PoC who are constantly doing this.
For philanthropists –
- Look at the actual numbers on how much money you give to First Nations people and PoC.
- Give more.
- Focus on seeding radical new organisations led by First Nations people and PoC (for us James Baldwin quote rings true – “The place in which I fit not exist until I make it”).
For Indigenous and PoC staff in progressive organisations –
- Use the whitest framework of all time (risk management) to influence those in power. Understand everything about how risks are identified, monitored and controlled. The Board and Leadership are legally obliged to manage risks, so there is no escape. There is something really fun and subversive about doing this.
- Actively work through internalised oppression. This is hard but necessary. Otherwise we lose connection with ourselves, and/or end up not being supportive of other PoC (i.e. lateral violence).
I’m going to leave you with a quote from Audre Lorde –
“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of colour to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”
- Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture
- Talkin Up To the White Woman
- 8 Ways People of Colour are Tokenised in Nonprofits
- Me and White Supremacy Workbook
- Race to Lead (an analysis of the US nonprofit leadership gap)
- The Value of Lived Experience in Social Change
- Cracking the Glass Cultural Ceiling
- Diversity and Inclusion: Essential to All Non-profits