Over the last thirty years I've worked with a variety of white-dominated feminist organizations that have expressed a wish to "diversify." While feminist organizations differ in structure and intent, the reasons these various organizations gave for bringing me in as a consultant or to hold workshops were strikingly similar. "Why," they wanted to know, "can't we attract women of color to our organization? And when they do show up, why don't they stay?" Sometimes I worked alone, but often I worked with an African American feminist partner. We found, over time, a depressing similarity of pattern as, one after another, the organizations we counseled decided that our suggestions would be "too difficult" to implement. This diary describes my experiences in the world of white feminist organizations and NGOs, and offers an analysis of the key problems of white privilege and the investment of many white feminist institutions in racist practices.
I'll start this essay with this comment: If you're a white feminist and an anti-racist, I'm not talking about you (though I would be interested in talking with you). If you're a white feminist and you don't like how I'm talking about racist white feminists, that's fine. But if you want to convince me that most white feminists aren't also racists (conscious or unconscious), forget it because it won't work. You'll be doing the racists' work for them, by distracting from a discussion about racism, and diverting to a lament about poor, misunderstood white feminists. Finally, if you're a white, racist feminist and you know it, get a clue, or take a hike. Or show your ass. And if you're not any sort of feminist at all, go bark up somebody else's tree.
One spring afternoon in the late 1990s I get a call from an African American feminist colleague. (We'll call her Mary, though that's not her name.) There's a white feminist 501(c)(3) that is interested in bringing in diversity counselors to help them... diversify. Let's call the organization Too White For Comfort (TWFC). (There's no point in picking on a single organization in this diary, because this story was repeated countless times.) They're too cheap or too broke to pay for diversity counselors, so we're asked if we'll volunteer. Because we believe in what we do, and also have university jobs, we agree. We set up a time to meet together with the TWFC Board.
When we all meet, Mary and I find ourselves at a table with thirteen white women, two Latinas, and one African American woman. Like many feminist NGOs, this one clearly has a small core leadership group of about 4-5 women, all of whom are white. The white women are the ones who describe the problem: they simply can't get women of color, and especially African American women, to join the organization or to get involved with programs in any real numbers. Mary looks at the women of color and invites them to contribute to the discussion, but they generally demur or repeat what the white women have said. We're used to this -- Mary will hear something different when she gets them alone.
And that's our first proposal -- we'd like Mary to meet with the women of color in the organization and brainstorm, while I meet with the white women and discuss possible strategies to invite more participation. The women of color nod in agreement, but the white women are nervous. "Is this a good idea?" one of them asks. "Won't it divide us instead of bringing us together?" Mary explains that women of color are often able to speak more freely when they don't have to fear offending or being misinterpreted by white colleagues. I explain that white women also need a space to open up about feelings and attitudes without fear of offending non-white peers. Only when we can be open about our attitudes can we begin to address any problems that are caused by our beliefs. We both explain that meeting separately is temporary, and that the goal is for everyone to come together and to express themselves in constructive ways. So we set a date for the meetings, which take place at the same time in different parts of the building. Afterwards, Mary and I meet to discuss our findings. For us, it's business as usual.
Mary reports that most of the women of color associated with the organization showed up -- 25 attended the meeting. It took a little while to break the ice, but after introductions and a brief discussion of the expectations that participants had, Mary asked her usual questions, which elicited the usual answers. The women of color felt strongly that the organization was mainly "white" and that "white issues" had priority. All of the women present were aware of working "outside" their own communities, and most did so because they felt "the cause" was of primary importance. A majority felt that TWFC had not been responsive to their attempts to introduce issues of importance to their communities, and some had agitated for exactly the kind of diversity counseling that Mary and I were supposed to provide. Mary broke the women out into focus groups based on interest and suggested that each group concentrate on the specific, constructive, and realistic measures they felt TWFC could take to serve the communities they felt were excluded. After 45 minutes in break-out groups, the whole group came together to discuss and compile a document that included all suggestions for improvement. Emotions ran strong at several points during the meeting, when women described situations of racial friction that had caused them pain or angered them, but the bulk of the meeting was spent working cooperatively with the intent of offering the organization a path to improvement.
What I had planned for my meeting with the white women of TWFC was a set of introductions, and an initial discussion of what, in their opinion, a truly diverse organization would look and feel like. As I expected, their views were universally that a diverse TWFC would be just like the current TWFC, except there would be more women of color attending events and volunteering for the organization. Their focus was on "attracting" more women of color. I urged them to shift the focus in two separate directions:
Question 1: "How do women of color stand to benefit by joining the current TWFC?"
Question 2: "Can you see anything about the current structure of TWFC that might serve as an impediment to attracting women of color."
Answers to Question 1 were clustered around the belief that TWFC helped "all women" and that a woman of color's interests were also served by the work of the organization because "they're women too." No one on the board suggested that the category of "women" was not universal, and that communities of women (or women from different communities) might have different needs, and different opinions on how to achieve those needs. There was a distinct air, in some of the comments, that women of color should be "grateful" that organizations like TWFC were fighting for "their" interests, and that the failure of women of color to join TWFC was a kind of ingratitude.
Answers to Question 2 were a bit more interesting. Some suggested that TWFC events were not held in black or Hispanic neighborhoods, that public transportation in the city was terrible for people who needed to travel from those neighborhoods, and that perhaps the hours of meetings were not convenient. Others attempted to argue that TWFC placed no impediments in the way, but that women of color "were just not interested" in participating -- the flaw was in them and not in the organization. The President of TWFC seemed to be in the latter camp. She mentioned, repeatedly, that they did have women of color on the Board, and that Jeannie (the African American board member) had no problems participating.
After that part of the discussion ended, I suggested that they not think about race in isolation, but also include the dimension of class. Is it easier to be a contributing member of TWFC if you are upper- or comfortably middle-class? Is it harder to attend events if you are a working mother? What class of women were TWFC events attracting? Were they serving poor women as well as they were serving everyone else? I asked them to take notes and return with their observations.
Mary and I held two more separate sessions. Mary's group refined their suggestions and researched what it would take for the organization to implement each of them. Her group worked cooperatively to come up with strategies to support each others' attempts to bring about change and to diversify TWFC. I met with the white women to further discuss the issues we had raised in the first meeting. Several white members reported back that TWFC events and meetings attracted primarily white middle- and upper-class members, with private transportation, copious free time, and a history of volunteerism for women's causes. The black and Hispanic women on the Board were also upper- and middle-class, with similar characteristics. Charity fundraising events were priced out of the range of working-class and poor women, although the funds were being raised in part to provide services to women in those communities. TWFC meetings and general assemblies were held in places that were difficult for poor women to reach. And when working class women and poor women did attend, they didn't seem to "fit in" -- some women confessed to feeling uncomfortable around "them." It became clear that working class & poor women of color fell into the category most like to inspire thoughts about "not fitting in." This was something new for most of the white women in the meeting, who became very uncomfortable when they realized their biases. During these meetings, the white consensus evolved to accept that both the attitudes of the white women and some of the characteristics of the organization indeed had to change.
In my third meeting with "my" women, the tone of the meeting shifted to the confessional. My observation, in these situations, is that when white feminists come face to face with their prejudices, they feel bad about them. They talk about their realizations as if their lives have already changed by the mere fact of their recognition. They tell stories to show each other how "bad" they have been, and are consoled by their peers, who describe similar mistakes. The meeting usually gets quite emotional, and it takes a lot of moderation to make sure that it doesn't dissolve into a mass pity-fest about how bad making other people feel bad makes white women feel. Our next meeting will be a joint meeting where we will begin to discuss concrete ways that TWFC can meet the needs of women of color, both as members and in terms of services it provides.
Mary and I meet jointly with our groups. The women of color present their document to the white women, who are given an hour to read and reflect on its content, and to prepare constructive responses. (The women of color sip coffee in another room.) And the big meeting reconvenes. Again, the pattern is predictable. The white women apologize to the women of color, still a bit mired in confessional murk. The women of color speak encouragingly to the white women, and forgive them for their sins, because the women of color want to move things along to a discussion of the meat of their proposals. White women's reactions to the suggestions of women of color vary from, "Oh, that would be easy to implement! Let's do it!" to "I'm not sure that's the mission of this organization," to "But isn't that too specialized and wouldn't that exclude white women?" to "But we'd have to restructure the whole organization!" Costs and resource allotment are mulled over. The women of color want movement and some pay-off for their efforts. The majority of the white women want time to think the suggestions over. There is always some tension in the room, and virtually always there is one woman of color (often on the Board) and one white women who attempt to ease the others' discomfort by serving as bridges and conciliators.
We hold two more joint meetings to further discuss the philosophy and practice of changing the organization. Both are focused on examining concrete suggestions and devising practical implemenations. It is at this juncture that it becomes clear to Mary and me if the task of diversification will succeed or fail. If it is successful, we will see women of color and white women increasingly begin to separate into multi-racial groups based on interest in particular program changes, and we will hear a lot of exchanging of phone numbers, and suggestions for meeting dates. This delights me and Mary when we see it, though, sadly, it happens rarely.
More often, however, splits emerge along racial lines -- the white women simply aren't receptive to the core ideas put forward by the women of color. Those ideas are "too expensive" in money, time or resources. They're outside the boundaries of "the purpose of the organization." The white women "don't think they'll work" or don't feel they're "fair." The donors might object. And so on. White rejection is usually passive aggressive, and resembles the Transactional Analysis game of "Yes, but..." The women who attempt to bridge are shut down by both communities because the women of color feel that "it's happening all over again," and the white women experience the list of proposals as some kind of "attack."
This is the moment when personal prejudice can be coupled with power to enforce discrimination at an institutional level: this, in short, is where racism lives. It is a small group of 4-5 women who really control all the decisions and resources of the organization, and who will set a tone of cooperation or poison the atmosphere. 501(c)(3)s -- especially the small ones -- are personality driven. This means that a small group of women pour their hearts and souls and much of their financial resources into building the organization, and feel a strong proprietary interest. They are comfortable with each other, often because they are all the same race and class, etc. Mary and I eventually came to realize that unless the core group wants the change, no change will ever happen. Short of voting with their feet (which many feminists do), the members of the organization have no instrument with which they can force positive change that the Powers That Be don't want to make.
I could go on for quite a while, talking about the passive aggressive and covert power relationships that thrive in many "feminist" environments, but a lot has been written about that already, and about "trashing," so I won't take up more time repeating those analyses. Instead I want to focus on the incredible rarity of genuine and committed diversity in feminist organizations. In the beginning, when Mary and I hadn't experienced this process enough times to see the patterns clearly, we used to meet "our" groups separately for one final time, to see what each constituency thought had happened. But if the group meeting had degenerated into "choosing sides," my final meetings with the white women were monumentally unproductive -- I inevitably faced a wall of resistance more entrenched than it had been when I met them.
Mary and I believe that this isn't because we were bad teachers, but because were were good ones. The core group began by thinking it was easy to go beyond tokenism to integrate women of color into the organization. They ended, however, with the realization that genuine integration means not only attracting more women of color to events, but also shifting the structure of the organization to include women of color as powerful forces in shaping the organization. Perhaps because their racism made them see me as a "white ally," these resistant white feminists were often very up-front with me about their decision not to share power with women of color. One Board president told me it "simply isn't worth it" to consult women of color about what they want, because she realized it would take the organization in a direction she didn't want it to go, and serve a constituency she now realized (as a result of our "counseling") she didn't want to serve. Other white women said that it would make them "too uncomfortable," and that, for them, TWFC would no longer be a refuge and a place that boosted their egos by affirming they "did good." Instead, they'd have to be "careful" all the time, and would be self-conscious about what the women of color thought of them. In short, given the comfort of racism, and the discomfort of active anti-racism, they chose racism, outright. What was there for me to do at that point, except clarify that they had chosen to perpetuate racism, rather than to end it?
Mary, however, did continue her final meetings with the women of color, and invited me to participate in them. Eventually she changed her tactics and invited everyone to participate -- even the white women who didn't want to change. In this meeting, we laid it out like we'd seen it unfold -- we praised and offered further assistance to the few organizations that faced or embraced the difficult process of true diversification. And if the core group decided not to pursue diversification, we called them on it, in front of the entire constituency. We then encouraged women of color to find other ways to get their needs met, and offered to share resources so they could start their own foundations to serve their own -- and other -- communities.
Anyone who has done anti-racist work for more than a few years has run up against this problem: most racists are happy being racists, and simply don't want to change. But at the same time they want to be protected from accusations of racism, and resent anyone who makes them "feel bad" about it. White feminists are no different from other white people in that regard, as feminists of color well know. A few are truly committed to diversity and anti-racist action, but the majority of us are not, and get angry and nasty when we're driven out of our comfort zone. In my estimation, however, a racist feminist is no feminist at all.
Eventually I stopped doing diversity counseling for white feminist organizations -- it's a task best left to people who still possess the idealism and energy that I no longer have. There's the old joke about the therapist and the light bulb: Q: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? A: One, but it has to want to change. So the only feminists I have time for these days are the ones for whom anti-racism is a motivating force...