America is burning
White people in philanthropy, what is your move?
Ash is falling from the sky in Washington state, where an eerie orange sun glows from behind a gray haze of smoke. Forest fires are raging here and across much of the western United States, while hurricanes bear down on the Southeast. But forests aren’t all that is burning, and city infrastructure isn’t all that is underwater. In a nation still thrashing and struggling to evolve beyond its own rotten foundation of greed, slavery and genocide, our democracy, freedom, and liberty (in whatever small proportions they ever existed) are burning too.
Fire smoke, flood water, Charlottesville, DACA, Sherriff Arpaio, the trans military ban, and the Muslim ban can all be traced to the same source: the hubris of white supremacist conquest and imperialism and its insatiable thirst for total dominance over nature, over people of color, over anyone who is not white, Christian, cisgender, male, and rich. It has been a termite-like force that throughout history has eviscerated all in its path: the buffalo, the ozone, the opportunity and dreams of people of color, along with the humanity of those white people who have allowed it to grind on unimpeded.
America is burning. Given the circumstances, it may seem odd that I, a queer woman of color and child of a first-generation immigrant family, still believe that there are more good people in this country than wicked ones. The question I ask daily is, of these good people with kindness in their hearts, are there more outspoken than silent ones? Are there more activated people than passive ones? Are there more brave ones than cowards? And how long can good people with good in their hearts hide behind passivity and silence before they become wicked by default?
White colleagues in philanthropy, I’m speaking to you.
In this field, where only 20 years ago people of color were so rare that they were mistaken for waitresses and busboys at foundation meetings, where today we are only just beginning to hold leadership positions — you still hold the keys to the kingdom. You still control the vast majority of the money and nearly all of the decision-making power.
What is your move?
As my colleague Mia Birdsong, a Black woman, once said to white people, in a single sentence that rings clear as a bell, “You cannot call yourself my friend and do nothing to dismantle the systems that are trying to kill me and my children.”
Before you answer the question, consider the one thing that every white person of conscience should be considering in this moment: The only thing white supremacists are more afraid of than people of color, queer people, and black and brown skinned immigrants. . . is you. They fear you because if enough of you shifted out of neutral and took action for racial and gender justice, you would without question cause them to lose their hateful crusade.
Losing is high on the minds of white supremacists these days. How do we know? Because they are loud.
Throughout history, there is a pattern to when white supremacists are loudest: The white mobs who escalated the lynching of Black people for spectacle after chattel slavery was ended; the white women shouting at 15 year-old Elizabeth Eckford as she successfully integrated a Little Rock public school after the Supreme Court ruled that separate was not equal in the Brown vs. the Board of Education case; the white crowds that burned prospering Chinatowns to the ground across the West Coast and 35 blocks of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s wealthiest Black community; the groups of whites that shouted down and assaulted people of color at Trump’s rallies in the first major election following a Black U.S. president; and the white men in Charlottesville yelling at those who dared celebrate the removal of a Confederate monument. The pattern is clear:
White supremacists are never louder than when they fear they are losing.
Their fears seem counter-intuitive at this moment. Trump, a fascist sympathizer and the son of a Klansman, is president. He has filled his cabinet with avowed white supremacists, pardoned the racist and murderous Sherriff Joe Arpaio, and is now lunging at immigrant children and youth, while threatening entire communities with the largest immigration raid in ICE’s history. Draconian laws and policies are rolling back civil rights gains for people of color, transgender people, working class people, and women. Anti-Semitism, xenophobia and hate crimes are on the rise. This in addition to the long-standing dominance of white people, white men in particular, in power positions in American society — in Congress, in state houses and legislatures, in city halls and council chambers, and in the upper echelons of most professions. This list only scratches the surface and doesn’t even begin to name the disparities suffered by people of color in nearly every area of life, from income and wealth, to education, to health, to incarceration, and so on. The current political climate has certainly emboldened the white supremacy that has been deeply embedded in our society since its inception. But something else is stoking the flames: fear.
But fear of what? If we lift our gaze and look up ahead, the possibility of a different country shines on the horizon more clearly than ever before. By 2042, the population of the U.S. will be majority people of color. By 2025, Millennials of all races, who as a group represent the most diverse and most progressive generation ever on issues ranging from racial equality to immigrant rights to climate change, will make up the majority of the electorate.
The women who screamed at Elizabeth Eckford are in their 80s, their children are in their 60s. Their grandchildren (with the unfortunate exceptions of the few turning up at white supremacist rallies) are living with their gay lovers; are marrying outside of their race and grappling with how to raise and protect mixed race children; and are even donating to the resistance. Many of them are evolving.
The world is evolving. White people are evolving.
Last month, Seth DeValve became the first white player in the NFL to take a knee alongside Black teammates during the national anthem to express his patriotism for a better America where Black lives are valued. DeValve, who is married to a Black woman, said “I myself will be raising children that don’t look like me, and I want to do my part as well to do everything I can to raise them in a better environment than we have right now.”
Heather Heyer, the white anti-racist activist murdered in Charlottesville, was but one in a multitude of white people who took to the streets to stand against hate. Far from allowing Heyer to be a cautionary tale, her mother was defiant during her memorial, saying, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up — well, guess what — you just magnified her.”
Earlier this year, three white men intervened and had their throats slashed on a Portland train when a white supremacist became aggressive and violent with two Muslim young women. The sole survivor, Micah Fletcher, said to the Muslim community, “There are a lot of us that are not going to stand by and let anybody scare you into thinking you can’t be a part of this town, this city, this community, or this country.”
Throngs of white Bostonians were among the 40,000 people of all races who took to the streets to counter a white supremacist rally, outnumbering white supremacists 800 to 1; a scene that would play out in dozens of other cities across the nation where white supremacist rallies were quashed by counter demonstrators.
Let us consider this: when the white supremacist mob in Charlottesville chanted, “You will not replace us,” who were they worried about? Jewish people? LGBTQ people? Immigrants and refugees? People of color? Or the growing number of white people who are breaking their silence to stand against hate?
White supremacists are afraid of us. They are afraid of the tremendous and transformative possibility of a united, multi-racial force. If we, who together overwhelm their numbers 1,000 to 1, ever succeeded in building a united front, we would finally root out their hate and build a truly free and egalitarian society where people are free and supported to be Muslim, Black, Brown, queer, trans, immigrant.
What they fear is distinctly possible. It is not, however, inevitable.
History is filled with examples of countries that are majority people of color, majority young and progressive, but suffer under the tyrannical rule of a small minority of white supremacists. At the risk of stating the obvious, majorities aren’t enough to deliver better societies. Possibility isn’t enough. Creating a just society takes engaged and organized people.
Enter philanthropy and the white people working within it.
Large scale social change is not created by philanthropy, but philanthropy does have an impact on who has the resources to engage and at what scale. It has an impact on the pace at which people can be organized. It influences which strategies and leaders are legitimized in the eyes of those who have money and can thus affect who has the resources to shape narratives and drive approaches to social change. Money can affect the health of movement ecosystems. When approximately 95 percent of the $60 billion awarded each year by U.S. foundations goes to white-led organizations, most of which have no racial justice analysis and a poor track record of standing in meaningful solidarity with people of color, there is an impact.
If you are a conscious white person in philanthropy reading this, you might say, “But what about all of the white people in philanthropy who are fighting the good fight for racial and gender equity?!” I’m glad you mentioned them! They exist, it’s true, and our collective work is strengthened by their leadership. I consider them my friends and trusted colleagues and if you are one of them, good for you! But I know one thing for sure: there are not nearly enough of them.
Philanthropy desperately needs more Heather Heyers and Seth DeValves and Micah Fletchers. It needs more of the kind of white people who put a light in their windows and risked prison to shelter enslaved people along the underground railroad; that traveled the country speaking to audiences of white people about the need to abolish slavery; that went on Freedom Rides in the 1960s; and that interrupted their weekends in an emergency to move money to bail civil rights marchers out of jail. It needs more white people abandoning timidity for boldness, comfort for justice, and cowardice for courage. Philanthropy needs more white people who refuse to allow their white fragility and fear of making a mistake to paralyze them from rolling up their sleeves to work for racial justice, trying hard, and learning along the way. It needs more white people who stop merely distancing themselves from white supremacy for fear of being implicated in it and start stepping up to combat it in all its forms, structural and interpersonal, implicit and overt, intentional or not.
How will we know a sufficient number of white people are stepping up? How will we know when their efforts are enough?
● When the majority of foundation giving in the U.S. is going to work led by people of color who are advancing a racial justice agenda.
● When white led groups must demonstrate a racial justice analysis and solidarity with communities of color as a requirement for funding.
● When white people in philanthropy have shared power and relinquished dominance such that people of color working in philanthropy have an equal proportion of leadership positions and control over resources.
● When tracking demographic data, including race and gender data on the leadership of grantees, is the gold standard in the field instead of the current, shameful status quo where the majority of foundations conceal massive racial disparities in giving behind a lack of data.
● When white funders and donors are, without prompting from people of color, forming and running study and practice groups on racial justice within philanthropic affinity groups.
● When racist comments and micro-aggressions directed at colleagues of color are never allowed to pass but are called out by white colleagues.
● When the majority of foundations acknowledge the fact that white supremacy is in fact blocking progress on everything their trustees care about, and that they have little hope of advancing their missions, whether finding cures for cancer, ending malaria, improving STEM education, promoting the arts, or protecting fragile ecosystems, if they don’t fund work that recognizes and dismantles white supremacy.
We’ll know it’s enough when white philanthropic leaders are writing pieces like this one, instead of women of color like me.
In the meantime, Groundswell will continue to stand by our grantees until white supremacy is eradicated. We will continue to fund work that replaces hate with love, violence with safety, bigotry with inclusion, othering with belonging, cowardice with courage, homogeneity with diversity, and a broken world with a mended one. We will continue to speak out and work for equity and justice within philanthropy, and we will cheer on any colleague who cares enough to do the same.