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

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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):

Accept your feelings: It’s fine to feel a combination of things as you do DEI work, including confusion or worry about whether you’ll mess up or are even needed. As I mentioned in the post on Personal Integrity Paradox, the best allies are often full of self-doubt, while the worst “allies” think they’re amazing. It would be concerning if you don’t question your place as you do this work. So if you’re feeling like crap as a white person as you engage with equity and justice, it probably means you’re on the right track.

Realize this is bigger than you: It’s good to reflect on how you can best contribute as your awareness of the injustices in the world expands. But remind yourself that a lot of Black, Indigenous, Latine, and AA and NH/PI leaders are exhausted dealing with well-meaning white people’s feelings. While you are a part of this, don’t make this work about you. Don’t make your colleagues of color spend time and energy reassuring you that you’re a good person and that you’re needed.

Understand that sometimes your best contribution is money: Many leaders of color and the organizations and movements they lead right now need not mentorship, nor help with strategic planning or branding or communications, nor a sounding board. They need money. And if you have money and/or connections to get money, that may be where you can be the most useful. And there is no shame in that; some of the best allies embrace that.

Take a supporting role: Think of a play. For a long time you’ve been the main protagonist, or at least you’ve always been on stage. But right now, you might be needed to manage the spotlight and focus attention on the new main protagonists (people most affected by systemic injustice), or to navigate the sound systems and amplify their voices. These supporting roles are critical to the work. Lifting up leaders of color and marginalized communities may be your most important contribution.

Focus on other white people: Because you’re white, you’re more likely to be listened to by other white people. You can lead conversations on race, white supremacy, etc. You can provide coaching and mentorship. You can deliver feedback that we can’t. You can talk to funders and donors and people in power. Etc. Many leaders of color are tired and need a break from having to constantly argue with and educate white people on this stuff. Having white colleagues who “get it” step in to provide some of the necessary education to white colleagues who are not there yet, can be extremely helpful.  

Embrace your role as a transition force: Many organizations are not ready to support leaders of color, and they often end up worsening things if they bring on a leader of color without doing the necessary work. White colleagues who understand those dynamics can play a vital role as bridges to get the organization ready for leaders of color to succeed. If you’re leading an org that is ready for a leader of color, make a plan to clean house, remove problematic board members, build up a reserve of funding so the next leader(s) has a nice long runway, etc. Also create a timeline (of no more than one or two years) for your exit.

On occasion, yes, do step back or stay home: It may hurt to realize, but sometimes you can do the most good in the struggle for a better society by not participating in certain things. Be thoughtful where you shouldn’t and shouldn’t be. Don’t join certain boards. Don’t take certain jobs. Don’t accept certain invitations to be on a panel, to give a keynote, to author an article, etc. Maybe recommend a colleague of color instead.