This post has been a long time in the making.
This post is about a personal experience I had with a so-called progressive employer.
But I’m an anti-oppression educator. Silence doesn’t protect me. (that’s from a quote by Audre Lorde)
My realization that I needed to make my story (more) public happened while reading this lengthy article called White feminist privilege and feminist organizations. I had an epiphany of sorts.
Please read it. It’s a bit longer than most online articles but well worth it.
Sections of that blog speak directly to an experience I had a few months ago. I had been volunteering with a well-known leftist/progressive organization for years, then was a staff/employee/independent contractor person for about a year.
Then I was fired.
Here are some excellent quotes from the article. Just wow. My commentary is below each section. All bold in the quoted sections are added by me. Please note that the writer is a white woman who works in the classic co-facilitator style with a woman of colour doing anti-racist work.
There’s a white feminist 501(c)(3) that is interested in bringing in diversity counselors to help them… diversify. Let’s call the organization Too White For Comfort (TWFC). (There’s no point in picking on a single organization in this diary, because this story was repeated countless times.) They’re too cheap or too broke to pay for diversity counselors, so we’re asked if we’ll volunteer. Because we believe in what we do, and also have university jobs, we agree. We set up a time to meet together with the TWFC Board.
For the purposes of me talking about my experience, replace “feminist” with “progressive” or “left wing”.
Not having the money/resources, while a reality in most non-profits in Canada (this article is from the U.S., obviously) there is still the prioritizing of goals and directions. When all the bullshit is discarded, it’s not about money at all.
And “believing in what we do” has been used time and time again in the organization that fired me, to justify everything from the wages/honoraria/fees paid to the staff/employees/independent contractors, and to also justify hours and hours of unpaid work and labour.
For a pro-labour, left-wing website that’s quite the hypocrisy in organizational structure, since the place wouldn’t function without all the unpaid donated hours by the staff/employees/independent contractors.
While I did it without much complaint, due to both believing in the organization’s mandate and needing the money, it’s an extremely flawed business model. Lack of accountability being the most primary, lack of a wage/fee/honoraria grid for annual increases is another.
Since my firing earlier this year, this flawed business model keeps staff/employees/independent contractors silent about issues (such as harassment, discrimination and oppression), since there is no job security, and technically and legally, independent contractors aren’t covered under any employment labour law.
The women of color felt strongly that the organization was mainly “white” and that “white issues” had priority. All of the women present were aware of working “outside” their own communities, and most did so because they felt “the cause” was of primary importance. A majority felt that TWFC had not been responsive to their attempts to introduce issues of importance to their communities, and some had agitated for exactly the kind of diversity counseling that Mary and I were supposed to provide. Mary broke the women out into focus groups based on interest and suggested that each group concentrate on the specific, constructive, and realistic measures they felt TWFC could take to serve the communities they felt were excluded. After 45 minutes in break-out groups, the whole group came together to discuss and compile a document that included all suggestions for improvement. Emotions ran strong at several points during the meeting, when women described situations of racial friction that had caused them pain or angered them, but the bulk of the meeting was spent working cooperatively with the intent of offering the organization a path to improvement.
Working in all-white and majority-white contexts is the reality for progressive folks of colour, mixed-race progressive folks, and white progressive folks with a clue.
I volunteered with this organization for four years until I became a paid staff/employee/independent contractor. I presented many positive suggestions and some positive changes did happen.
It became clear that working class & poor women of color fell into the category most likely to inspire thoughts about “not fitting in.” This was something new for most of the white women in the meeting, who became very uncomfortable when they realized their biases. During these meetings, the white consensus evolved to accept that both the attitudes of the white women and some of the characteristics of the organization indeed had to change.
I didn’t fit in. As a mixed-race, middle-class, well-educated, light-skinned Canadian-born English-speaking able-bodied cis-woman, I didn’t fit in. I tried. I tucked away my anti-o analysis during most staff meetings and most social events. I smiled. I “got along” in the “why can’t we all just get along?” sense.
My only two allies were two wonderful white men, one of whom I’ve known in the Toronto comunity for many years, the other I had worked with only during the year of my paid employment/independent contracting and met in person only once. Two other maybe allies were two white women living in different parts of the country, and I was never able to have a private conversation with either of them about my struggles.
At any in-person gathering (the job took place for the most part online and in the virtual world of emails and conference calls) it was severely painful for me to look at the staff, board and volunteers, as well as the audience, and see the way the organization was completely closed off from any sort of real inclusion in terms of racial/ethnic/cultural diversity, but also being queer-friendly. In Toronto in the 21st century.
And it’s not like true inclusion is a mystery to me. Some of my paid consulting work involves working with organizations and showing them how to structurally shift their organizations to reflect the communities they serve. With support and buy-in from all stakeholders at all levels. This, however, is not work that I would do for free.
My observation, in these situations, is that when white feminists come face to face with their prejudices, they feel bad about them. They talk about their realizations as if their lives have already changed by the mere fact of their recognition. They tell stories to show each other how “bad” they have been, and are consoled by their peers, who describe similar mistakes. The meeting usually gets quite emotional, and it takes a lot of moderation to make sure that it doesn’t dissolve into a mass pity-fest about how bad making other people feel bad makes white women feel.
While this didn’t happen in front of me with this particular organization, I’m fully aware that “making progressives feel bad” is perceived as one of the worst things an anti-racist and anti-oppression educator can do. Because the feelings of white progressives are more important than anything, including the issue itself.
Plus, educators usually end up doing it anyways by talking about, hm, what’s that called, oh yeah the fucking truth. Then what happens is all “niceness” about listening and being open stops, defenses slam down and power that is claimed to be refuted in the name of being “progressive” magically appears.
Privilege has its privileges.
[T]he white women simply aren’t receptive to the core ideas put forward by the women of color. Those ideas are “too expensive” in money, time or resources. They’re outside the boundaries of “the purpose of the organization.” The white women “don’t think they’ll work” or don’t feel they’re “fair.” The donors might object. And so on. White rejection is usually passive aggressive, and resembles the Transactional Analysis game of “Yes, but…” The women who attempt to bridge are shut down by both communities because the women of color feel that “it’s happening all over again,” and the white women experience the list of proposals as some kind of “attack.”
In my case, the beginning of the end wasn’t a proactive move such as the move described above by Hepshiba about TWFC. It was my first direct complaint against a person (a former board member and current volunteer) known to make oppressive and disgustingly offensive communications to the internal staff team, almost all via email. Not only could I not longer bear the offensiveness of this individual in my workplace, it became more and more unbelievable to see and experience my colleagues’ silence, minimizing of his offensiveness and even joking along with him. Appalling.
While both sources caused me pain, it was the silence of my colleagues that devastated me. I was the only one who publicly stood up against him. And I was terminated.
Oh, and I still have all those emails he sent.
This is the moment when personal prejudice can be coupled with power to enforce discrimination at an institutional level: this, in short, is where racism lives. It is a small group of 4-5 women who really control all the decisions and resources of the organization, and who will set a tone of cooperation or poison the atmosphere. 501(c)(3)s — especially the small ones — are personality driven….They are comfortable with each other, often because they are all the same race and class, etc. Mary and I eventually came to realize that unless the core group wants the change, no change will ever happen. Short of voting with their feet (which many feminists do), the members of the organization have no instrument with which they can force positive change that the Powers That Be don’t want to make.
The bold says it all.
The core group began by thinking it was easy to go beyond tokenism to integrate women of color into the organization. They ended, however, with the realization that genuine integration means not only attracting more women of color to events, but also shifting the structure of the organization to include women of color as powerful forces in shaping the organization. Perhaps because their racism made them see me as a “white ally,” these resistant white feminists were often very up-front with me about their decision not to share power with women of color. One Board president told me it “simply isn’t worth it” to consult women of color about what they want, because she realized it would take the organization in a direction she didn’t want it to go, and serve a constituency she now realized (as a result of our “counseling”) she didn’t want to serve. Other white women said that it would make them “too uncomfortable,” and that, for them, TWFC would no longer be a refuge and a place that boosted their egos by affirming they “did good.” Instead, they’d have to be “careful” all the time, and would be self-conscious about what the women of color thought of them. In short, given the comfort of racism, and the discomfort of active anti-racism, they chose racism, outright. What was there for me to do at that point, except clarify that they had chosen to perpetuate racism, rather than to end it?
Again, the bold says it all.
Anyone who has done anti-racist work for more than a few years has run up against this problem: most racists are happy being racists, and simply don’t want to change. But at the same time they want to be protected from accusations of racism, and resent anyone who makes them “feel bad” about it. White feminists are no different from other white people in that regard, as feminists of color well know. A few are truly committed to diversity and anti-racist action, but the majority of us are not, and get angry and nasty when we’re driven out of our comfort zone. In my estimation, however, a racist feminist is no feminist at all.
When I talk to people about my work, work which I do almost exclusively with non-profit organizations, or registered charities, all within the sector of service provision or policy writing and networking within a service sector, they often say don’t “we” (who is this we?) expect more from organizations that provide much-needed and always under-funded services to various communities that have been marginalized systemically?
My answer is always no.
If my work had been at a soul-sucking puppet-of-capitalism institute, like a bank or insurance company or a large multinational corporation with its Canadian headquarters in Toronto, you can be sure they have exacting, following-Employment-Standards-Act policies, procedures, complaints processes in place. Risk management, legal liability and legal accountability are areas they have committed resources to. I would have been treated better, as a staff/employee/independent contractor in any of those places, than I was in the heart of the Canadian progressive beast.
So no, I’ve never had higher expectations of treatment in such organizations. Nor have I held expectations that such organizations will be more anti-racist, anti-oppressive and inclusive. Why should I? It’s never happened.
Note: Unlike the U.S., which the bulk of this blog post refers to, here in Ontario we have Bill 168: preventing workplace violence and harassment and the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s new Policy on Preventing Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment.