OPINION: 20 subtle ways white supremacy manifests in nonprofit and philanthropy

Hi everyone, this post may be less coherent and more serious than normal. I can’t stop thinking about the news regarding the remains of 215 Native children found at the site of a residential school in Kamloops, Canada. White Canadians – teachers, administrators, the church, the government – murdered them. It is deeply sad and horrifying. I can only imagine the pain and trauma these children endured, and what Indigenous families and communities have been going through.

Meanwhile, this week marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, where in the span of hours a mob of white people murdered hundreds of Black people, left thousands homeless, and burned Black Wall Street to the ground. It is profoundly horrendous, and something I don’t think our white-centric education system taught many of us.[Update: I want to give thanks and credit to K. Kennedy Whiters, Architect and Founder of unRedact the Facts, for giving me feedback and wording to revise the above two paragraphs. Originally, I had used the passive voice, which is another way that we all perpetuate white supremacy].

Both of these atrocities, and so many others that we know about and don’t know about, are a result of white supremacy. However, so many of us are in denial. Not always denial like refusing to acknowledge that white supremacy exists. More so the subtle denial that we ourselves, who are Good People fighting for a just and equitable world, could further white supremacy. After all, we weren’t involved in the acts of genocide at Kamloops or Tulsa, we tell ourselves. This is what makes white supremacy so potent. It is often subtle. It happens in ways we often don’t think about.

When I bring up white supremacy in meetings or presentations, sometimes I get the feedback of “that’s a really heavy term. Is it really applicable to this situation? Can’t we just call it ‘inequity’ or ‘injustice’ or something that won’t turn people off?” We are a sector terrified of naming things, even as we seek to fight them. But how can we be effective when we refuse to name what we’re fighting?

Besides naming it, we need to have a better understanding of what it is. White supremacy is not just the cross burnings and racist marches and other awful things we see in the movies. In nonprofit and philanthropy, it manifests in ways we may not even realize, or in ways we refuse to acknowledge as white supremacy. These things add up. They make whiteness the default. They keep power concentrated in white leaders and institutions. It makes it easier for injustice against racialized people and communities to take place.

Here are some examples, some subtle and some not-so-subtle, in no particular order. You may find yourself or your organization or foundation in some of them, and it might make you uncomfortable. I hope you reflect on it:

  1. Your nonprofit or foundation board is mostly white when the community you serve is mostly people of color; that’s white supremacy.
  2. Your organization has been “snowcapped,” meaning senior leaders are white while less-senior staff are people of color, and there is no plan to change this; that’s white supremacy
  3. Your donors are mostly white, and your fundraising practices are all about making them happy; that’s white supremacy
  4. Your conference speakers and presenters are mostly white; that’s white supremacy
  5. Your foundation hasn’t examined where its resources came from—possibly from slavery, stolen Indigenous land, or other injustices—that’s white supremacy
  6. You lean heavily on data and metrics while failing to understand that so many of these concepts stem from elite white institutions; that’s white supremacy
  7. You have a disparity between how much you pay white staff and staff of color; that’s white supremacy
  8. Your foundation contributes to the fact that 90% of philanthropic dollars go to white-led organizations in our sector; that’s white supremacy
  9. Your white-led organization applies for significant funds without stopping to think about how marginalized-communities-led organizations might be affected; that’s white supremacy
  10. Your organization/foundation has had mostly white CEOs/EDs, and now that you’re in crisis, you finally think about hiring a person of color, a phenomenon called the Glass Cliff; that’s white supremacy
  11. Your foundation talks about equity, diversity, and inclusion without moving significant resources to organizations and movements led by racialized and marginalized communities; that’s white supremacy
  12. Your capacity building recommendations are based on having communities-of-color-led organizations operate more like white-led organizations; that’s white supremacy  
  13. You conduct surveys, focus groups, or other forms of research and you don’t disaggregate by race, which often means the results are skewed toward white respondents, since there are more white people in our sector; that’s white supremacy
  14. You have a DEI committee that is given very little power and can only make recommendations that are often ignored (by mostly white senior leaders and board members); that’s white supremacy
  15. You ask staff of color to sit on a DEI committee or otherwise do DEI work for free; that’s white supremacy
  16. You create a list of recommendations such as top 10 leaders in philanthropy, top 20 blogs about data and evaluation, etc., and it’s mostly white people; that’s white supremacy
  17. You don’t stop to examine your vendors and whether they’re mostly white-owned or POC-owned; that’s white supremacy
  18. Someone brings up diversity and you say something like “I only care about qualifications” (as if they are mutually exclusive); that’s white supremacy
  19. You, a white person, apply for an ED/CEO position at an organization or foundation without pausing to reflect on whether this makes sense in the context of community history and demographics; that’s white supremacy
  20. You and I, as people of color, not examining our anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity, and our often-unconscious desire to be in proximity to whiteness; that’s us perpetuating white supremacy

I’ll stop there for now. Please feel free to add to the list, in the comment section. If you recognize yourself or your organization in some of the items on this list, don’t spend too much time feeling bad; figure out what to do to fix it. Nonprofit and philanthropy can, and do, play a critical role in advancing equity and justice, but we can’t do it effectively if we continue being in denial about what constitutes white supremacy and the many subtle and pervasive ways we allow it to proliferate.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.