Most parents imagine “The Talk” as an awkward discussion about puberty with their adolescent children. For some families, it is so much more than that.
In 2015, Geeta Gandbhir and Blair Foster created a video called A Conversation With My Black Son. In the five-minute opinion-documentary, Black parents and adult children reflect on a different Talk—how to behave as a Black person when stopped by the police (when, not if). It provides a shocking glimpse into an everyday reality that is absent from the white experience in the United States.
One mom expresses her fears for her son: “He is going to turn into a large, scary Black man. That is not who he is, but that is how he will be perceived.”
In the years since, these parents’ fears have been validated time and time again. Some names made headlines in 2020: George Floyd, murdered by police after allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill, and Breonna Taylor, shot five times in her apartment by plainclothes officers serving a no-knock warrant. These incidents and others sparked social unrest, unlike anything we have seen in recent history. Activists and protestors took to the streets to demand police accountability and equal treatment under the law.
We have also seen one of the great laws of physics play out in social discourse—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more we demand social justice, the more resistant certain groups of white people become. Why?
Many white people have indeed been emboldened by racist, divisive rhetoric peddled by former President Donald Trump and other political and cultural leaders. Strong identity politics are in play here; racist narratives and Confederate symbolism made a predictable resurgence in recent years. Some research shows a spike in hate crimes following Trump’s election, even more so in counties where Trump won. The former president validated and approved outspoken racism through policy commitments that lead to a 2020 Executive Orders that banned all DEI training within the federal agencies, federal contractors, or organizations that receive federal funding. The reported rationale for this unprecedented move was the Trump administration’s framing of DEI training as promoting “divisive concepts”. The impact of this restriction was widespread and destructive. The opposition to DEI went even further with the publication of the 1776 Commission Report, which issued unfactual accounts of America’s history and disputed much of what we collectively know is true about the enslavement of Africans, and the subsequent oppression and marginalization of African Americans through systematic racist laws, policies, and practices.
Extremism exists, but it does not necessarily explain the ongoing, sometimes vehement, opposition which leaders and stakeholders express towards diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives within organizations. If nothing else, the business impact is real. Studies from Gartner, Deloitte, McKinsey, and more all validate similar outcomes—diverse, inclusive organizations are more likely to reach their financial targets and more likely to see increased revenues from innovation. After all, isn’t diversity and inclusion good for the bottom line? So, what is the real problem here, and how does the far too often abject rejection of the concept of equity fit within this paradigm of resistance?
In this series of articles, I will explore the many faces of white resistance to racial equity, including possible root causes and strategies for maintaining an open dialogue with white resisters. I propose that they tend to fall into one of two camps: those who feel threatened by racial equity, and those who refuse to acknowledge that racism exists.
Diversity Threatens Me
In 2015, Dover, Major, and Kaiser conducted a study exploring why high-status groups are threatened by pro-diversity organizational messages. Among other findings, the study revealed that white men were more concerned about fair treatment and anti-white discrimination when applying to a self-described “pro-diversity” company than a “neutral” one. In the introduction to White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, author Robin DiAngelo offers a broader perspective:
“We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.”
These fears are highly personalized and internalized. They pose a threat to an individual’s sense of self-worth and accomplishment. For a white resister, to discuss systemic racism is to admit one’s membership in a privileged group and one’s participation and complicity in perpetuating the cycle. It directly contradicts the individual’s self-perception as a “good person.” How could I be a good person if I have avoided admitting the many unearned benefits that I have been afforded, and the consistent barriers that have limited opportunities for blacks, people of color, and indigenous people (BIPOC)? Does acknowledging my privilege mean it was easier for me to get to where I am in life? Does the fact that I was born with an advantage mean that my accomplishments are less impactful or valuable? Does it mean I do not deserve it, or that others also deserve it, perhaps more than I do?
The underlying questions white resisters are asking is, “As a white person, how will this affect me, what power will I have to share, and where is my place in a diverse and equitably just society?” These questions are driven by an inherently white dominant mindset, as it implies that the perspective and experiences of white people are the focus and are being threatened, that Blacks and other people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+, and even women already have defined roles in society—roles defined by whites—and it is “un-American to challenge or even debate that the current state is unjust and requires change.”
My extensive work with boards and executives has revealed one alarming trend: white resisters are active members of these groups. They are non-profit board members, corporate leaders, and trustees at colleges and universities. Their viewpoints and opinions shape the mission and vision of these organizations. For decades, non-profit boards have kept a comfortable distance from the populations they serve. Their strategies focus on doing good work to people, e.g. providing temporary resources such as food or housing, rather than working collaboratively with the communities they serve to uncover root causes and address real systemic issues.
Historically, non-profit boards have been composed of relatively affluent white men. Their motivations are akin to what some call the “white savior complex,” or the idea that white people work to support marginalized communities out of self-serving interests. It promotes the appearance of non-profit leadership as kind, loving, and charitable. For the individual board member, it communicates a certain social status that may garner influence outside the organization. Above, we discussed the highly individualized reactions to discussions of race to draw attention away from systemic issues. In the same sense, board members can build policies and practices on transactional charitable outreach from them, the benefactors, to individuals and families in need. The nature of this relationship is one-way. It eliminates the voice of the marginalized community which an organization claims to serve. When the board is the loudest group in the room, they can drown out the big question: Why are these charitable actions necessary at all?
None of this is to say that charitable outreach is negative. It is absolutely necessary. When our community members are hungry, we need to feed them. We need to provide shelter for the homeless. We need to provide resources for families in need. We still expect boards to execute on the organization’s mission and vision, and continue to provide resources for those in need. Today, however, overseeing the transfer of resources from a charity to an individual or family is a small portion of the work that boards must do. It is time to eliminate the comfortable distance boards have maintained between themselves and the communities they serve.
Board members have conveniently avoided doing this work by refusing to look inward and asking the difficult questions. Why are all our board members white? Why don’t we represent the community we serve? Why do we not have real relationships with them? Are we listening to their voices? If not, have we even given them an opportunity to speak? Most importantly, why aren’t we trying to create systemic change? In many cases, there are no satisfactory answers to these questions, because the board has no real insight into the communities they serve. Those who are best suited to answer difficult questions do not have a seat at the table.
Racism Is Not Real
The belief that racism no longer exists has no basis in data, but there is no shortage of anecdotes from white people about their Black friends’ agreement on the subject. In a 2005 interview on 60 Minutes, Morgan Freeman expressed the view that we can end racism by not talking about it. Perhaps his thoughts on the matter have changed, but that has not stopped white people from citing this moment, a singular opinion from one Black man in the public eye, as a clear directive for the “right” way to not be racist, or for proof that Black people do not believe in racism either.
In 2020, a flagrant denial of racism came from US Representative Scott Perry (R-PA): “What is systemic? That means there’s a system of. If there’s a system, someone had to create that system. Someone is operating and nurturing the system to keep it going. I don’t know who in our country is doing that.” This quote is another racism denier’s attempt to assign a perpetrator to the crime, so to speak. In the absence of an obvious offender, there can be no offense, therefore racism cannot exist.
Racism-deniers are eager to explain socioeconomic disparities as the result of irresponsible lifestyles, low work ethic, dependence on welfare, children out of wedlock, the list goes on. They maintain the belief that every US citizen is born with the same opportunities and can progress through childhood and adolescence in tandem with their peers nationwide. If people end up poor, it is their own fault. This attitude blatantly ignores uncomfortable facts that wealth accumulation through home ownership has historically been replete with practices of redlining and discriminatory mortgage lender practices. Racism-deniers still have secure board seats in a variety of organizations, raising a serious question: if board members believe socioeconomic disadvantages are the result of personal failure, then what are their motivations for working with that organization at all? Other board members may know, but the disadvantaged communities the organization serves probably do not.
Boards and board members can no longer ignore these conversations. Prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a matter of responsible board governance. It is no longer optional. Organizations must face their fear of “rocking the boat” among donors, employees, and volunteers, and be prepared for the composition of those stakeholder groups to evolve. There are four ways in which non-profit boards must change.
1. Change the board composition.
Board members must get out of the boardroom to meet their constituents where they are. Conversely, constituents require a seat at the table. This dialogue is critical for enabling boards to better understand their internal systemic policies and evaluate them for inequities. (Policies rarely outright say they are racist, but they are often executed in such a way.) They need to see and feel the challenges firsthand from the communities that experience them.
Boards also must move beyond transactional relationships with their communities and begin to engage strategically. From an operations standpoint, the question might be: How can we get more food? The strategic questions are: How can we address the need for chronic hunger in this community? Where are the roadblocks?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to diversifying a board. Diverse representation within the group is highly dependent on the demographics of the communities served. Regardless, this shift requires intentional conversations. It is not something that “just happens.” Diversity requires a dedicated budget and people to do the work—not only to continue to provide day-to-day support, but to partner with other community resources to engage in lasting systemic change.
2. Provide education.
Resistance to change is about maintaining the comfort of the status quo. It is relatively easy for resisters to simply ignore it, and most boards have not been devoting time to these issues. It is critical that boards spend time providing education on racism and other social justice issues. Depending on the organization, this education may happen in informal conversations or meetings, by sharing resources and research, or by hiring consultants and trainers.
3. Use data for insights.
White resisters often use anecdotes or personal experiences to “disprove” the existence of systemic racism. These claims can be easily refuted with data. Boards cannot make forward progress on social justice issues without understanding the data first. Diverse, collaborative boards should work together to develop the right questions. Then, boards must identify the right metrics and indicators that can help provide insight and uncover areas for improvement. Finally, they must collect and analyze data to help uncover root causes and provide context for complicated topics.
Today, boards are not making data-driven decisions. Resisters within boards do not want to examine the data at all. They find no importance in this work and have no interest in progress. In many cases, quantitative proof is no match for their own individual experiences and opinions.
4. Make a public commitment.
A public commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion must become part of the fabric of the organization. It defines how the organization sees itself, how it sees the work, and how the community engages with the work. It should start with a board equity and inclusion statement that explains the board’s intentions publicly and demonstrates what the organization intends to achieve for their communities.
This written commitment must align with the organization’s larger strategic plan and reflect its mission and vision.
The goal of this article was to set the stage for further exploration into anti-diversity attitudes in general and, more specifically, resistance to diversity and inclusion initiatives from nonprofit, philanthropic, and academic board leaders. We have identified two major categories of diversity resisters and have begun to chip away at the underlying beliefs and experiences that exacerbate white discomfort with racial issues.
In future articles, we will explore resister categories and perspectives in more detail. We will take a deeper dive into the impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the board level, and offer strategies on engaging with board members who present as resisters in a capacity based on their perceptions of diversity as a threat or as an unnecessary solution to a problem that does not actually exist.