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Racism works to separate people - to undermine human relationships through fear, violence, and misinformation. Relationships are an antidote to these insidious, confusing ideas and building them is an essential skill for this work.
Too often white leaders are taught and rewarded as though their success is a competitive venture dependent on the unimpeded application of their natural or hard won exceptional individual attributes. Another sometimes tacit assumption is that deep collaboration and interdependence rooted in love are antithetical to success. Of course individual strengths have value. But building deep, authentic, trusting relationships within your organization is absolutely essential to dismantling white supremacy culture.
White supremacist organizational culture - and the larger umbrella of racism - are themselves dependent on and nurtured by the embrace of confused ideas. These include ideas about the necessity of unilateral power, the efficiency of a militaristic command structure, the limits of human potential and motivation as well as the concept that we can’t get too close to people because we might need to fire them.
Redistribute Power in Supervisory Relationships
Supervisory relationships are by design imbalanced in terms of power, accountability, and risk. Strong, respectful work relationships can include two-way accountability. These relationships also demand that white leaders show up themselves. It includes listening to lots of perspectives, saying no, saying yes when you don’t want to, taking chances and demonstration of being trustworthy, open, and interested in learning and growing. It demands true demonstrations of vulnerability. It includes apologizing for mistakes and making up for missteps in creative and meaningful ways. “Sorry” is too often not enough. Humility grows from learning and it can open up conversations and decision-making especially in the company of power.
Intentional Investment In the Leadership & Power of People of Color
To grow the relationships powerful enough to support truthful conversations it may be important to redistribute leadership and power to People of Color in your organization. Courage is needed to take the risks of sharing your positional power in real ways that distributed leadership demands. You will need to support people when mistakes are made and absorb some of the criticism that may come. You will need to resist taking too much credit for their successes.
Most importantly, over time, better decisions will be made. This is, in part, because more minds make for better decisions in complex, emotionally wrought topics such as white supremacy. Of course collaborative deliberation and decision-making take practice, a toleration for discourse, and the space for dissent. And it takes a rare talent for knowing when to curtail debate and move on. But that decision does not always need to be yours either.
Despite the real strengths you do bring to your job, your own lived experience is not one of them. As a white leader, you do not fully understand the impact, the pain, the humiliation and the internalized messages that come as a target of white supremacy. Investing in Leaders of Color is a strategic use of competencies and perspectives that you do not - could not - have. It is also the modeling of the change we are seeking in terms of moving toward more equitable access to opportunities limited by the systemic racism that still plagues us.
Find An Ally Committed to Anti-racism
As a white leader, the personal reflective work can be excruciating, but it is essential. Understanding more about what you have learned, how, and from whom and how racism survives in you is rough work. It takes more than reading books. Building a committed agreement with another white leader can be very useful. This is a peer whom you will trust and be trustworthy to. It is the place where you can practice, be confused, and learn together. Make this ally someone not in your organization who is also trying to move forward themselves.
Do the Work To Diversify Your Networks
Is it really possible to be an effective white leader working toward racial justice if your own life is defined by segregation? Intentionally broadening the personal, social, and professional relationships we have to make them more diverse can feel contrived. But white funders need to walk the talk by building new bridges. Join something. Reach out to people you know. Take risks. You will be rewarded in ways that go beyond success at work. But you can’t pretend. It won’t work.
Be Brutally Honest With Yourself
The last relationship that needs attention is the one you have with yourself. Ask yourself, how important is this work to you? Really? If it is not paramount, why not? What are you willing to do and endure to combat what might be the most abhorrent dimension of human relationships?
In the end, the path may lead you to understanding that an important, difficult step as a white leader is to step down or step aside so that someone else more suited can try. It is no small matter to give up your job and title. But it is not an uncommon conclusion among white leaders in philanthropy. Though I doubt this realization comes early in the process for many. I know it didn’t for me.
This work is not heroic and thinking about it as such will doom our efforts as white people. It is human work. It is fundamental work. It is difficult work. But is it the work of our time. And you can do it.
The Capital Collaborative by Camelback Ventures works with White funders and social impact investors who want to deepen their individual and organizational commitment to racial and gender equity in philanthropy — but may not know how. You can learn more about how to get involved by submitting an interest form for the Capital Collaborative’s 2022 cohort or signing up for the newsletter.