Dear Non Profit: Hold the door, but don’t be cocky about it
Picture this. You pause to hold the door open for someone amid the rush of your busy life and they pass through without so much as a cursory glance, much less the appropriate thank you. Most of us feel momentarily annoyed by this, and understandably so. No one is obligated to hold the door open for another per se; we usually do it out of kindness or courtesy. All that we expect in return is a simple expression of gratitude.
Non profits often operate like thoughtful door holders, helping the “underserved” populations and expecting nothing but gratitude in return. They are kind enough to open the door, but don’t you dare walk through without acknowledging the golden opportunity to do so.
Gratitude in this context should be analyzed very carefully. Non profits market themselves as organizations selfless in their desire to serve, ahem, marginalized communities, underserved groups, the less fortunate, the underprivileged, urban youth, the inner cities, minorities, communities of color…the list of euphemisms is ever evolving. Many times, it is all code for “black and brown people”, code that fits more beautifully, politely and intellectually into the grant letters that sustain these organizations and the mission statements that define them.
Historically, black and brown people have been the survivors of state violence such as mass incarceration, imposed cycles of poverty such as redlining and gentrification, and the general status of being the underclass of a capitalist society that needs a rigid racist hierarchy in order to thrive. These are the people non profits claim to be assisting, in all the various ways: usually not by attacking the systems and authorities that persecute them, but instead through handouts, or trying to teach them to overcome the magnanimous obstacles they face.
Interestingly enough, the ones serving as helpers and fixers are often those who have never experienced the obstacles that these people face. They have no clue of the psychological trauma that comes with the trifecta of being melanated, poor and from a stigmatized neighborhood. It is common knowledge that the non profit industry is overwhelmingly white, with over 83% of the decision making positions held by white people.
It is safe to say that white people are the ones holding the door of “opportunity” halfway open, beaming with self-satisfaction as black and brown people trickle through, then utterly dismayed when these target populations are distrusting of them, can’t seem to be “fixed” despite their best efforts, or seem flat out ungrateful. But as non profit workers we must understand that our “clients” have a lot on their minds. A person who rushes through a door you’ve held open without saying thank you isn’t necessarily rude — they may be absentminded, in a hurry, or otherwise preoccupied. Did you hold the door open out of kindness, or was there also the expectation of recognition?
Black and brown clients are coping with trials in multiple facets of life, struggling with the weight of ongoing white supremacy. There are varying levels of education, varying degrees of willingness to assimilate into respectability politics, varying responses to always being treated as the recipient of aid, as the thing that needs to be fixed. They are up against mountains that we are only chipping away at very slowly, with even the lethargic pace of progress being by white supremacist design.
In whatever small ways we manage to assist the people, whether that be a mentorship program, tutoring, a rehabilitation program, an alternative to incarceration program, a feeding program, etc, for many of them, particularly black males, this is not enough to weather the storms of oppression. The police are still targeting them, banks still discriminate against them, they are still overlooked in hiring practices, they are still vilified by the media, and they are still caught up in cycles of poverty, despite our supposedly best efforts.
The least we could do is not expect these people’s gratitude. In extreme partisan terms, mean old white Republicans create institutionalized racism, then goodly white liberals make money off tending the wounds, on top of that expecting recognition and praise from the very populations they profit off, as well as from their peers in the industry. They are wounded by clients’ rudeness, offended by their honesty, bewildered by any lack of emotional self-control.
White non profit workers must ask themselves, are we holding the door open because it is the right thing to do, or are we just as invested in being acknowledged and thanked as a white savior?
Is the success of our programs rooted in genuine concern for those we serve or is it cemented in the need for us to continue funding our cush positions in this industry?
When clients fall through the cracks, or don’t respond well to us, is it upsetting because we failed to reach them or because it exposes an embarrassing blind spot in our woke liberal narrative?
Black and brown people deserve agency, not charity. The system itself must be completely revolutionized in order to effectively empower us, as much as non profits love to use the word empower in their mottos. There is a difference between empowering black and brown people, and leveraging your privilege to funnel a few meager conveniences into their grasp in a way that soothes your own ego and pays all your bills, while expecting them to rant and rave about it.
The non profit industry exists because the racist capitalist hegemony exists. If you want to be really cut and dry about it, the industry is likely an extension of the capitalist system, one that gets to enthusiastically tout diversity in a way that corporate America shuns, all the while still scratching their heads on how to actually diversify their overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly tone deaf leadership. Furthermore, they get to treat the surface wounds inflicted by the system, while allowing the system to thrive unchallenged and unscathed by their presence. It is high time for members of the non profit world, especially white ones, to wake up and smell the roses. For all your organized agendas, 3 day conferences, bestselling books, Board Meetings, planning, fundraising, and brainstorming, the target population’s real needs are not truly being met. That being said, may the gatekeepers hold their respective doors open out of pure moral inclination, without pretending that their doors lead us to the promised land.