Advice for white allies going through existential crises while doing DEI work

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, if you haven’t registered for the free webinar “Where Has All the Money Gone?” on October 19th at 1pm Pacific, please do so; it’s an important discussion. Also, on October 28th at 10:30am, I am giving a virtual keynote “A Better Normal: Reimagining Nonprofit and Philanthropy.” It’s FREE, thanks to ONEplace at Kalamazoo Public Library, but there is a cap on the number of attendees so please sign-up right away. Both events will have captions.

🎃 👻 🎃 Meanwhile, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a contest, so I’m announcing the Nonprofit Scary Story Contest! Write (or record) and submit a story of up to 250 words, by 10/27. 10 winners will have their stories published here on Halloween, as well as receive a package of assorted NonprofitAF swag. If you need inspiration, here are some terrifying stories. 🎃 👻 🎃

A while ago, a mid-age white male colleague emailed me asking to meet over lunch, and I said yes, because I used to never turn down free vegan food (and I still don’t!). He asked me to connect him with young professionals that he could mentor. “I’ve been learning about DEI. I just want to be helpful, especially to younger leaders of color. I’ll do it for free.” I sat with him, trying to find a way to gently let him know that few, if any, leaders of color would take up his offer to mentor them. Not that white colleagues can’t ever mentor people of color (some of my mentors are white), but the young leaders I knew would not go for it.

Related, at an event I spoke at later, I pointed out how top-down and white leadership has been in our sector, how 95% of foundation trustees as well as leadership at large mainstream organizations are white, and how 90% of philanthropic dollars in our sector go to white-led organizations because of it. During Q&A, a white colleague raised her hand, looking forlorn. “I really believe in DEI, and everything you pointed out is alarming. It seems we often do more harm than good. Would it be helpful if all of us white folks just…leave the field?”

Over the years, as we’ve been talking about equity, diversity, and inclusion, it’s been leading up to all sorts of reactions from white people. Many have been great about it, really delving into the work to undo the years of teaching and conditioning they’ve internalized. Others experience fragility, defensiveness, and existential angst; this article, for example, points out how white men have been feeling left out because of DEI work, and thinking they are being deprived of opportunities as people start equalizing out persistent inequity. And of course, there are the racists spending their energy whining about a Black mermaid or some Asian hobbits.

Among the thoughtful allies, many are going through a different sort of existential turmoil. One where they must figure out what their role is in the work, where they can contribute while still advancing equity, and also whether removing themselves from various spaces would actually be most helpful. If that’s you, and you’re wondering if you should just quit your job and build a start-up company selling dystopian square-shaped pureed food or something, I want to reassure you that you’re needed in the fight for a just and inclusive society, if you’re willing to do your part.

Here’s some advice below, things that leaders of color have said before, but it’s good to review them (Colleagues who have experience in this area, please add anything I miss in the comment section):

…Click here for the complete article.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.