Nonprofits Might Mean Well, But Casual Racism Still Exists

Photo Credit: PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

| May 10 2017,

3:19 pm

My boss totally tried to 'home girl' me.

I walked from my cubicle in the open concept common space to the Executive Director’s bright,  corner office.  This was our first one-on-one meeting since I started at the maternal and child nutrition nonprofit a week prior.  She had similar meetings with all her employees.  She wanted to get to know me and learn about my interests as they related to maternal and child health.  Although everyone got this face time with her, I appreciated her setting time aside for me, so I prepared talking points and a one-pager of possible ways to turn my interests and ideas into tangible “wins” for the organization.

I told her I was interested in the intersection of race and maternal and child health, more specifically I was interested in racial health disparities’ negative impact on Black mothers and their children. Even more specifically, I wanted to see the health and well-being of Black mothers and their children become a fundamental component of the organization’s mission.  At the time, the message the nonprofit was pushing out had “All Lives Matter” undertones that worked well for Republican members of Congress who needed to be persuaded that kids deserved to eat but rubbed me the wrong way.

The ED appeared to be listening intently.  She’d scribble a few notes and nod in agreement when I’d say phrases like “We can move the needle on Black breastfeeding rates with culturally competent outreach and support” or “Proper knowledge of health communication is paramount.  You can’t say the same things to Black and white mothers and expect the same results.”  After my passionate spiel, the ED put down her pen and locked eyes with me.

“I’m just like you,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

I smiled incredulously as if to say “What you talkin’ ‘bout Willis?!”

                                            Photo: Giphy

“I’m just like you!” she repeated, this time with a more enthused inflection, “I grew up rough in Cuba.  We were dirt poor. My mom was a single mother with two little girls.  She only had a middle school education.  In fact, I was the first one in my entire family to go to college.  I went to a good school, just like you.  I stayed out of trouble.  I did what I was supposed to do.  I used the opportunities America afforded me and here I am.”

She gestured to her corner office, her sweeping hands landing towards me.

“Did I deal with sexism? Sure. But I persevered.  I stood up for myself when it was necessary, but I also knew how to pick my battles.  Sometimes you have to keep your head down.  I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”

She paused to get some confirmation that I indeed knew what she was talking about, but I hadn’t the slightest clue.   I didn’t grow up rough.  Sure, Mississippi sharecroppers were in my lineage, and I wasn’t ashamed of that.  I, however, grew up comfortably in the suburbs.  My mother was a stay-at-home-mom who greeted my brother and I with freshly baked cookies after school.  My parents met in college and had been married for 30 years.  My maternal grandmother went to college and was a nurse.  I didn’t stay out of trouble.  As my beloved mentor, Congressman John Lewis, would say, I got in good trouble. I led protests and die-ins on campus.  When fellow Black Lives Matter protesters blocked the highway, I was there too, ready to be arrested, knowing I had the bail money. I didn’t feel indebted to America in any way.  Everything I had accomplished up until that point was in spite of America not because of it.

As I left the office that day, I replayed her “we are one” pitch in my head.  Despite her acrobatic efforts to connect us, I knew we couldn’t be more different.  After all, she was a white, Cuban millionaire hailing private care to D.C.’s most exclusive neighborhood where she resided.  I, on the other hand, was the Black millennial on the back of the bus.

Looking out the window, I replayed how she laughingly told the office about her children accidentally calling their nanny “Mama.”  How in her past life, she named lipstick colors for a living and decided to create this nonprofit after having kids of her own because white privilege said she could.  How she effortlessly turned on a nauseating girlish charm when speaking to powerful men and only used her ethnic maiden name when it was convenient.

I was Black everyday.  I never mastered the art of code switching so my southern drawl and African-American Vernacular English were present at board room meetings and spades tables alike.  I lived with three strangers in an old house owned by a slumlord. I walked or took the bus to a job that paid pennies. And my hair was nappy on purpose.  

In her mind, this was all the evidence she needed to make sweeping, inaccurate assumptions about me.  She clearly had preconceived notions of Blackness as most people do, and she twisted and turned me until I fit into her narrow understanding of it.  Her words although offensive had no venom behind them.  She was oblivious to her own ignorance, falsely thinking that we had connected, that I would look at her as a source of inspiration because after all, she was just like me.

The ED and her casual racism came to signify everything wrong with the nonprofit sector.  I had encountered similar racism in academia, the private sector, and government, but I naively thought I would get a racist reprieve at a nonprofit that purported to align with many of my core beliefs.  What nonprofits lack in compensation for entry level employees, they claim to make up in purpose and impact.  No, you won’t be able to afford to eat lunch and dinner and pay all your bills, but the world will be a better place because of your sacrifices!

In the weeks that passed, when people asked the classic D.C. icebreaker: “What do you do?”, I’d proudly say, “I work at a nonprofit that focuses on maternal and child nutrition.  I do the U.S. work.  A lot of people don’t know poor nutrition is a huge problem in the States.”  I fed off people’s reactions.  They told me the work I was doing was important.  They told me how smart I was.  They told me they wished they had my job.  But deep down I knew hosting a Twitter chat or sharing articles on the organization’s Facebook page was doing absolutely nothing to feed hungry mothers and babies nutritious foods.

Not only did I come to the conclusion that the work I was doing didn’t matter, I started to question how effective the nonprofit could be in their mission if they saw a large swath of the people they claimed to serve as a cartoonish monolith instead of whole people.  Well-meaning, liberal whites still have the propensity to be racist.  As the ED personifies, this brand of racism is particularly dangerous.  It’s bumblingly unaware, yet powerful.  

The implicit bias I witnessed at this nonprofit wasn’t an anomaly; it’s indicative of a larger problem in nonprofits across the country. Despite being 30 percent of the overall workforce, people of color only make up 18 percent of nonprofit staff.  This is likely because nonprofits rely heavily on their existing white staff to pass on job postings to their almost exclusively white networks. Of the few people of color who do get their resumes in front of a hiring manager, those with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get an interview.  (My name is Katie Anne, by the way.) Additionally, white interviewers recommend Black candidates significantly less than white candidates with identical credentials.

The lack of diversity in nonprofits not only hurts people of color financially by robbing them of potential livelihood, it hurts the nonprofits themselves.  A group of tone-deaf white people are only a few glaring mistakes away from completely alienating the people they aim to serve.