The privilege to fail: How the benefits of trust and failure are not equitably distributed

[Image description: A little turtle balancing a bubble on their nose, looking upward. Wait, is this a turtle…or a tortoise? It’s on land, so I think it’s a tortoise. But aren’t all tortoises considered turtles? I am not sure, but Game of Thrones is on, and I don’t have time to google.]

Hi everyone, as usual, Game of Thrones is back on, with the Battle at Winterfell coming tonight, so the quality of this post may likely decrease. Don’t @ me, bro. Or whatever. See, I warned you.

A while ago, I wrote “Is Equity the new coconut water?” which likened the concept of equity to the refreshing tropical juice, both coming out of nowhere and suddenly becoming ubiquitous. Well, over the past few years there has also been a rise in “Failure.” Failure is now the new kombucha. Everyone is drinking it. Failure, like the fizzy fermented tea, is supposed to be good for you; kombucha has probiotics that restore the natural balance of your body’s biome or something.

One way the embrace of Failure shows up is in events where people talk publicly about their fiascoes. Last year I attended one such event. I sat enraptured as one nonprofit speaker after another came up on stage and told the audience about their screw-ups, consequences, and lessons. At the end of each story, the audience cheered with enthusiasm and support. When we are so conditioned to only display our strengths and accomplishments in public, this “Fail Fest” was refreshing, like a big gulp of ginger-berry kombucha.

However, like kombucha, this sudden rise in the celebration of failure can leave a sour taste. In the same way that Equity is always at risk of being Fakequity, Failure can become an indulgent fad and sometimes can do more damage than good.

For instance, Failure gives the illusion of risk-taking and progress, when we are actually risk-averse and not making progress: Talking about our “failures” within this sector gives the illusion that we nonprofits are actually allowed and supported to take risks. This is unfortunately not true. Funders and donors of our work are severely risk-averse, and so we nonprofits also become risk-averse. While the stories I heard at the Fail Fest were great, they were mainly smaller failures, which, unfortunately are the only types of failures nonprofits are allowed. Where are our failures of MoviePass caliber? Where are the examples of massive clusterfudges on equal footing with Juicero, the crappy WiFi-connected juicing machine that had 134million in venture funding? How will we address complex, entrenched problems in our society when we are given so little time and support to experiment and see what works and just as importantly, what does not?

The more important issue, however, is that the concept of Failure mainly benefits the privileged. It is mainly leaders with privilege—white folks, men, especially white men—who get the trust to fail, who are celebrated for failing, who receive support and encouragement to keep working until they succeed. Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, especially women of color, people with disabilities, meanwhile must often painfully earn each ounce of trust, and our failures are seen as liabilities, a confirmation that we do not have the skills or knowledge of our white male counterparts, even to address problems caused by a white patriarchal system. Here are several factors we should all be aware of:

The lack of trust of people of marginalized communities is pervasive. It is stifling and demoralizing. In funding, it looks like the constant need to prove ourselves. As I’ve mentioned in the past, it is no coincidence that the smallest, most burdensome grants are often the only ones accessible to grassroots organizations led by marginalized communities. I’ve been around the block and have seen white colleagues getting multi-million-multi-year grants with nothing more than a two-page concept paper, while my colleagues of color must submit a dissertation, a customized budget, a logic model, a theory of change, a work plan, an evaluation plan, board roster, and the astrological chart of every volunteer, only to be rejected for a 10K grant.

The inequitable distribution of trust leads to the inequitable distribution of resources: It is only natural, that if you don’t trust people, you are careful with your money around them. This is a reason why 90% of funding in the sector still goes to white-led organizations, a statistic I will keep hammering on every few blog posts because it has not changed in the past several decades and is a serious breach of equity. If we don’t trust people as much, we also tend to pay them less, which is likely a factor for the gender pay gap, and the pay gap between white professionals and professionals of color.

The consequences of failure are more severe for people of marginalized identities: Given the lower trust and resources allocated to people of color, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA folks, etc., combined with factors like implicit biases, we are more likely to fail. And the consequences are not distributed equitably. Take salary negotiation, for example. According to research, women get punished for negotiating more aggressively. A dude could just be assertive and negotiate for higher pay, and he might get it or not, but a woman may seem “too aggressive” in general.

When people of marginalized identities do fail, it is less likely to be accepted: When we fail there is usually no audience of funders, donors, bosses, etc., cheering. Unlike for our white colleagues, failures for the already-marginalized more often correlates with a loss of funding, jobs, respect, credibility, second chances. There’s usually no recognition that we were working with one tenth the resources and more obstacles and may have actually gotten further than anyone before.

Attributions of success and failure are different for the privileged: As pointed out in Kristin J. Anderson’s Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice, people do not apply the same theories when people succeed or fail. For instance, we tend to attribute skill and hard work when white men succeed, but when Black men are successful, people attribute it more to luck and other people helping. The reverse goes for failure. When white men fail, it’s often attributed to luck or uncontrollable factors, but for women and people of color, failure is often attributed to lack of skill or hard work.  

When people of marginalized identities fail, we represent our entire communities: It is a sad truth that when someone of color fails, people judge not just them but their entire community. Yet, when they succeed, they are seen as some sort of exception to their race/ethnicity. That is a significant and constant pressure to bear, and it affects our relationship with failure.

With all these dynamics at play, “failure” is not such a simple thing. A white-led organization gets tons of trust, funding, time, and acceptance at onset to fail whereas a community-of-color-led organization must earn trust one small grant or donation at a time. A straight, white, able-bodied, cis dude can publicly admit to his failures and get praise and possibly score some social points for being human and relatable. Anyone else might unknowingly jeopardize their credibility and unconsciously reinforce negative stereotypes about their entire community.

So please keep this in mind as you delve into the magic of Failure. I am a fan of all of us being more open about our mistakes, even big ones, as it benefits the entire field and thus benefits the people we serve. Funders need to make more significant investments and for much longer periods of time (I’m talking at least ten years). We all need to take bigger risks and accept the bigger failures that are part of the bargain.

But holy mother of scoby, we need to acknowledge and control for the fact that Failure, like time, like money, is a concept that more often benefits white folks, men, those who are currently able-bodied, and others with privilege, while leaving behind people from marginalized communities.

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