The subtle racism of expecting people and communities of color to always get along

[Image description: Two seagulls standing on the sand, looking in opposite directions.]

Hi everyone, before we get into this week’s topic, a quick shout out to colleagues at Momentum Nonprofit Partners in Memphis for taking a stand for equity on their job board by no longer accepting job postings for positions that pay less than $15, and also requiring all postings to disclose salary information. Y’all rock. You make me proud to have spent my high school years in Memphis (Central High! Go Warriors!). Other job boards should consider this.


Over the past six years, one of my greatest joys is being a father. I love it, even though I have little time to myself, and I have scars on my feet from stray LEGOS, and my diet is 85% leftover food that the kids refuse to eat. And the six-year-old thinks I’m going to die in the next ten years because “you are really old.” But it’s fun and rewarding. However, the kids fight constantly over things. When that happens, a quick resolution is to remove the contested item. Then neither of them has it, and the fight is over, and they hopefully have learned a valuable lesson about sharing and not bothering Daddy when he’s sitting fully clothed in the bathtub chanting “I love being a father, I love being a father.”

Unfortunately, I have been seeing these sort of dynamics happening in the sector, especially around funding. People and communities of color for some reason are expected to always get along, and when there is any sort of tension among us, folks with power and privilege freak out. A Black colleague told me “White people get terrified when two Black people argue in a room. I wonder what they think would happen.” It is especially alarming when funders are involved, because funding is often jeopardized under this paternalistic philosophy of “See, they can’t even get along; we’re not funding them.” Working with organizations led by and serving people of color, I’ve seen this multiple times with different funders who get upset or who roll their eyes and refuse to fund critical work because leaders of color have tension with one another.

This is a serious equity issue. I know it applies to other marginalized communities, such as people with disabilities; for this post, I’m going to focus on the pressure faced by people and communities of color. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are always trying to maintain this illusion for white folks in power who expect that we always get along and who deliver punishment when it seems we do not. This dynamic is ridiculous and unfair. It is also a subtle, but pervasive, form of racism. Here are several things we all need to consider:

POCS are always forced to represent our entire race/ethnicities/communities: There is plenty written on this subject. When a white person does something bad, society excuses it as an individual action not representative of an entire race or ethnicity. This is not true for BIPOCs, who fear every time a person of color lands in the news for something, it reflects on all of us consciously and unconsciously, perpetuating stereotypes. This has seeped its way into the nonprofit sector. This has serious implications, such as the aforementioned unfair withholding of funding and other forms of support for entire communities.

De-individualization is a manifestation of racism. A well-meaning white dude once told me “You Vietnamese are a noble race of people, very hardworking.” I’m sure his intentions were good, but I felt icky and didn’t at that time know why. People of color are not monoliths; we deserve to be individuals just like white folks, including being able to make mistakes and argue with one another over big and important as well as small and insipid things without reflecting, good or bad, on our entire race/ethnicity/community.  

Communities are affected by thousands of years of culture and history: Many communities have gone through war and other historical traumas over hundreds or even thousands of years. The ramifications don’t just end when we migrate (or are forcibly taken) to a new country. The expectation that people and community all work well together is ignorant and dismissive of diverse cultures, each with its own intricate, sometimes painful histories and dynamics.

Many of the tensions we have with one another are rooted in colonialism: Dividing people has always been an effective tool to advance racism and colonialism. An effective way to do this is to manufacture a sense of scarcity of resources. In our sector, a lot of the “in-fighting” that BIPOC get punished for is actually caused by funders and others in power, who tend to be white. Nonprofits led by marginalized communities are allocated less than 10% of philanthropic dollars in this sector across the decades to handle some of the most serious problems (problems that often stem from racism and colonialism), so then we jostle for resources and are perceived to “not get along,” which then justifies not giving out resources. It is a vicious cycle of inequity.

The expectation among white folks that leaders and communities of color always get along, and the punishment when we don’t, is patriarchal, insulting, and racist. And it is exhausting, another thing that BIPOCs have to deal with, on top of everything else. Not only is it helping to perpetuate inequity in funding, it is preventing us from tackling deeper issues. For example, I wrote earlier about anti-Blackness among communities of color. It is hard to tackle challenging issues like this if any sort of disagreement among us BIPOC means we and our communities might lose funding or other forms of support.

Racism manifests in many ways, and this is one of them, and you may not be aware that you may be a participant it. We, especially funders and others in positions of power and privilege, need to get a handle on this. Here are few things we should all do:

Funders: Please discuss this topic with your team. Be thoughtful when you observe tensions among leaders of color and do not be quick to judgment. Examine your own role and the role of other funders in these dynamics. Are your funding practices helping organizations work together, or creating competition and disagreements? Are you unfairly stereotyping entire communities based on the actions of one or more individuals? Are the conflicts you observe normal considering historical and other context? Would you perceive them differently if the leaders where white? Instead of punishing organizations by removing funding or taking a “wait and see” approach, see if there is anything you can do to help with the situation without being overbearing.

Leaders of color: Think about whether you are hesitating to address critical issues or voicing disagreements with other leaders of color because of the fear of how people outside the community might perceive things. We need to take a more active role in changing these dynamics. Be OK with conversations and disagreements with other leaders of color. Correct funders and donors when you hear them making ignorant remarks about community politics. Also, push back and educate as appropriate when you and your organization are the ones experiencing the tension with another group and funders and partners are asking you what’s going on. I know it can be risky, but if we do not counter unrealistic expectations and inequitable practices, they continue.

White allies/accomplices: You are privy to more information from other white folks, and you are also, due to implicit biases, more trusted. Use those opportunities to get people to consider things they may not have thought of. For instance, when another white colleague says something like “Wow, there’s a lot of tension between those two nonprofits [led by people of color],” chime in with “Yeah, it seems there’s some tension, but I wonder if those tensions would be perceived the same if they were white-led orgs, what do you think?” or “Yeah, but we don’t know the full story. And they are doing important work, so maybe a multi-year gen-op grant from your foundation to both of them at this point might help things.”

Let me know your thoughts. Thanks for considering this topic, everyone. If you need me, I’ll be in the bathtub.

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