Opinion

10 predictable responses from white dudes when people criticize inequitable systems

Written by Vu Le

This post may ruffle some of you, especially if you’re a fragile white dude, so before I begin, I want to let you know that some of my best friends are white dudes. (Ben, Chris, Kevin, I miss you all; let’s find a time to hang out; I’ll download some Creedence Clearwater Revival and Johnny Cash we can listen to.) I say that as a joke, but it’s also true. There are amazing white dudes in our sector and in society doing critical work making the world better. Still, we need to have a talk.

Over the past several years, I’ve been bringing up all sorts of issues with our sector, like the fact that 90% of philanthropic dollars go to white-led orgs, how inequitable it is for nonprofits to ask their own staff to donate, and why we need to always use the Oxford Comma. I’m very appreciative of colleagues who take time to read and consider, even if they don’t agree with the stuff I say. I get plenty of pushback, which is fine. Our sector can often be too nice; we do need to be a little more assertive.

All that said, lately the responses from white dudes when their buttons are pushed when inequity is called out have been so predictable as to be boring. Not just on this blog, but everywhere. I love a good debate, but so many responses from white dudes are nowhere in the realm of validity or originality. They are pedestrian! Jejune! (And I do not use “jejune” lightly).

I am listing some common ones I encounter and also providing some counterarguments to save you time when you run into similar responses; maybe just forward them this link and the number(s) that pertains to them (“Chad, please see Number 2 and 6”). But also, if you’re a white guy, use this list to check yourself when you are about to push back on something that a person who is not a white dude says regarding inequitable things that need to change.

  1. “Instead of just complaining, what solutions do you propose?” White dudes love calling out what they perceive to be the lack of solutions. However, people who have been most affected by systemic injustice have been proposing solutions. We do it all the time. But when you have privilege, it often prevents you from being able to even perceive, much less comprehend, solutions that might challenge that privilege. I call this “Solutions Privilege;” read up on it.
  2. “Prove it! What data/evidence do you have?” There is so much data that’s out there regarding every point we bring up, and a simple google search would bring it up. For instance, someone demanded I “prove” to him that there’s a racial element to wealth and wealth hoarding. The Whiteness of Wealth by Dorothy A. Brown is an entire book with data about how wealth has been concentrated in white communities through racist policies. What these “prove it” people want is not data, but for us to do the labor it takes to distill that data down to digestible bits that they can then dismiss, and no amount of data would actually change their mind.
  3. “People would listen better if you were nicer.” Over the past few weeks, I’ve been accused of sounding angry several times. A white dude recommended I be nicer because it’ll be easier for people to take things in when they’re gently talked to. Yeah, no. Marginalized and racialized people have been nice for decades; it often doesn’t work. If someone has the energy and patience to help people with power and privilege walk down the path toward equity, that’s great. But those of us who are angry have every right to be, and the focusing on civility and respectability makes you the kind of white moderate that Dr. King warned us was the biggest barrier to justice.
  4. “The system is what it is; you just need to develop skills!” “Grants are not inequitable; you just suck at grantwriting!” “There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘100% of your donations go to programming’; you need to work on your org’s marketing!” “Women just need to learn to negotiate salaries better.” Why change unjust systems when you can just blame the people who are most harmed by them? But the reality is that the people most harmed by these systems actually have the best skills in navigating them. Like poor people are amazing at financial management; they have to be in order to survive. Marginalized people have plenty of skills; that’s not the problem.
  5. “People have a right to do whatever they want; if you don’t like it, don’t engage.” If you’re a white dude, you often have the privilege to leave or not engage when you don’t like something, because either way, it doesn’t affect you as much; this is not true for everyone. I talk a lot about philanthropy, and I frequently encounter this assertion that foundations and donors can do whatever they want with their money, why is it any of my business. Sorry, it’s not their money if they’ve been building the wealth off the backs of workers from marginalized communities, avoiding paying taxes, and hoarding money that could be used democratically, which disproportionately affects us.
  6. “The free market…supply and demand…Keynesian economics…” White guys love sounding smart by mentioning various terminologies and concepts, as if women or people of color have never heard of them. Dudes, we know them; a lot of our work is to undo the harm that many of these philosophies and concepts, which have often been unleashed on the world by white men, have caused.
  7. “Why are you bullying [white people, foundations, corporations, donors, other people with power]?” I got accused of being a bully for launching #CrappyFundingPractices, a hashtag on Twitter where I publically call out foundations for harmful or annoying practices like not funding staff salaries or requiring budgets to be done using the funder’s own template. I do not have the financial, legal, or political power of the average foundation or corporation so I am not sure how I can bully them. Calling out people and institutions who do have these powers is necessary for change, and those who have more privilege, especially white men, should be doing it more often.
  8. “Not all [white dudes, tech bros, donors, foundations, etc.]”: This is a classic! Whole articles have been written about this response. There are hashtags like #NotAllMen to poke fun of it. And we still see it all the time. “I’m a white man, and I grew up poor, so there’s no such thing as racism,” etc. The inability to separate specific individual cases from systemic patterns is alarming and irritating. If you read this list and you’re like “But…but not all white dudes do these things…” then you have totally missed the point. Find a white friend who gets it to explain it to you.
  9. “You’re the one bringing race into this; you’re the racist.” White people who call people of color racist whenever we bring up inequity, are exhausting. Their ignorance is draining. Most of us know by now that institutional power is an essential element of racism, so no, a person of color can’t be racist against a white person, because we don’t have collective institutional power. You would know this if you were up to date with your homework before you engage in the conversation. Until you catch up, stay silent; do not pollute the discourse with your willful ignorance.
  10. “I see that you’re not interested in a dialogue.” Fragile white dudes seem to think that people owe them intellectual debates at any given time, and when marginalized people refuse to comply, they deploy this sad-puppy response. A dude who has little experience in nonprofit and philanthropy messaged me on Twitter to tell me how disappointed he is that I won’t engage with him on his pushback to my assertion that philanthropy is rife with inequity. Sorry, I and others do not have time or interest to teach you stuff for free.

There are other responses (11. “Devil’s advocate,” 12. “all things being equal,” 13. “white men actually have it bad too,” 14. “freedom of speech/first amendment,” 15. “#NotJustWhiteDudes” 16. “Oh, so you can criticize white people, but we can’t do it back,” 17. “wow you really hate white people,” etc.) but I’ll stop here for now.

To the white dudes reading this and seething in front of their computers or phone, chill out. I didn’t call you a bad person. Your reflexive first responses are just predictable, boring, exhausting, and thoroughly debunked. You’re in denial, and it’s holding back progress. If we’re going to have thoughtful, productive dialogs that will move our collective work forward, our conversations can’t be stuck at this basic level.

About the author

Vu Le