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To speak or not to speak?: Challenging white male panels

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

So a while back I was invited to speak at a CharityComms ‘brand management’ event called ‘Keeping your reputation spotless.’ I agreed to speak if they were ok with me debunking the entire notion of ‘brand management’ in a digital era, and the ethical implications of it more generally. Then, yesterday, I discovered that I was slotted to speak on a panel of four white men. What do I do, as a white man who doesn’t want to contribute to racism and sexism, and the unspoken implication that expertise has a race/gender? After much consulting of friends on the interwebs, I wrote this letter.

We can do better than this.

We can do better than this.

Dear CharityComms –

When I was first invited to speak on your brand management panel, I thought it could be fun; rarely do I have the chance to speak to an audience so invested in the status quo of organisational communications and public affairs, so thought it could be a good chance to constructively ruffle some feathers. I’ve been genuinely looking forward to it. As I said when I initially accepted, I think brand management works against its own stated aims, focusing on image and reputation, rather than integrity. It is a plaster to avoid dealing with deeper organisational problems, which is ethically messed up, but is also a losing game in an era of increasing transparency, when Trafigura, Ryan Giggs, and of course the dreaded Streisand Effect are part of the new reality.

But that’s not why I’m writing this letter. I’m writing it because I realised yesterday that I was lined-up to be one of four white men at the event’s opening panel. Admittedly, I didn’t raise this as a possible concern when I first accepted; it’s something I’m working on getting better at raising, and have included on my generic talks/workshops CV, but don’t always remember to do each time I’m approached to do a specific event. So I’m sorry for not raising it as a concern earlier.

But as I did raise in emails since, I feel the implications of an all white male panel (even if the chair is a white woman) are not good. The subtext becomes: ‘expertise in this field is directly associated with race, gender, etc…’ And I don’t feel comfortable – even if I feel I would be adding a useful criticism of the other panelists’ perspectives – being a part of that unspoken subtext. While I am glad there are women speaking throughout the rest of the event, an opening panel sets the tone, and is often the source of the photos that outlive the event, so is particularly important to have thought about these issues.

When I was told in reply that there was no space for another speaker, and that you were really keen to have me on the main panel (after I suggested doing a smaller workshop in the afternoon, instead), I decided – in consultation with many others – that I had to take a different route. While hearing from you that this balance would be taken more seriously at a future event is good, I have too often seen this kind of future promise of action on inequality not translate into real action, once the heat of the current situation is taken off. Old habits die hard. I also consulted Twitter and Facebook, garnering dozens of responses, the vast majority of which encouraged me to step back and make conscious space for other voices to be heard.

So I am politely withdrawing myself from the ‘Keeping your reputation spotless’ panel, with the hope that:

1) whoever you find to replace me on the panel can break through the current homogeneity, and

2) that this will become a real deep thinking point for future events held by CharityComms, even if it means a lot of initial work to forge more connections into communities who are not currently part of your existing speaker pools, and a deeper analysis of how current organising practices may be inadvertently closing doors to others.

I realise that addressing this stuff is always a work in progress, and that one female/person of colour speaker will not properly address the ways so many organisations end up at the point of creating all white/male panels, but by making this issue public, I hope it will keep it from becoming the back-burner concern I’ve too often see equalities issues relegated to. I hope that it leads to a deeper organisational soul searching as to the ways privilege and traditional power structures might be shaping your work, as it does all of ours, if we are not explicitly conscious of it.

So I apologise for the inconvenience and challenge this may cause, but hope that just as choosing not to be involved is part of my own process of addressing my own privilege, it can also be a part of CharityComms process of addressing the privileges that might be subconsciously shaping aspects of its wider work. I am keen to see what response this garners, in practice.

With Love, solidarity and respect,

Liam

PS – Here are two places to potentially start conversations about gender (The Womens’ Room) and race (Writers of Colour), specifically. Happy to discuss further…







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No, I won’t shut up about privilege! …Will you?

Friday, November 15th, 2013

Disclaimer: As I write this, I am livid. I’m sick and tired of seeing my friends experience the costs of other friends’ inability to challenge our own privileged status in our organisations. And no, I won’t stop shouting about it!

White people: Available in positions of power everywhere!

White people: still pretty shit at recognising our own privilege. [CC Boston Public Library]

Before I begin, I’d like to suggest reading Sue’s ‘Open Letter to the Movement,’ Nishma’s ‘Inclusive movement: A call to action,’ Guppi’s ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs,’ and if you want to really delve deeper, Andrea Smith’s piece on ‘The Problem with Privilege.’

…Think of this as one angry person of traditional privilege’s open letter to all of the people who also hold traditional privilege in environmental and social justice organisations.

We all hold privilege in particular situations, but some of us experience it as the norm, rather than the exception in our lives. We are usually, but not exclusively, white, male, straight and at least semi-affluent. And whether we pay attention to it or not, traditional power structures have been built in our image.

I use the verb ‘hold’ quite deliberately in relation to privilege. I increasingly feel it is less passive an action than I used to think. Traditional privilege is held by those who’ve always had it, by continuing to pursue the status quo, as others are excluded and silenced by it. When we aren’t actively challenging privilege, we may well be perpetuating it, regardless of what other worthy work our organisations are doing.

Very few unions, NGOs, voluntary or non-profit organisations I work with have bucked this trend.

Discrimination: Still going strong

We’ve had information about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. available to us for a long time now. We’ve seen lunch counter sit-ins and riots, and declared ourselves to be friends of those who have struggled – and often given their lives – to create a world that treats them as human beings.

Most of us will acknowledge many of the ways that discrimination still takes place in the world: police violence, pay gaps, media portrayals…

But there are plenty of ways we still don’t acknowledge discrimination.

  • Do we acknowledge the ways that only posting our new jobs on job websites frequented primarily by others with considerable privilege is likely to mean we continue to look like the same organisation we have since the 1950s?
  • Do we know how much more difficult it is for someone who has grown up in a home that speaks another language, or even dialect, to feel comfortable enough to claim ‘excellent written and spoken English’ when they see it as a constant requirement in all our job descriptions?
  • Do we look at the ways that the dismissal of visceral, spiritual, traditional forms of knowledge that are core to so many other cultures, can make it far harder for others to feel comfortable in meetings, or working relationships more widely?
  • Do we ask ourselves how it might feel to attend yet another panel filled with white men, given yet another space to tell a wider audience what various white men have to say about a topic?

While it’s not to say there aren’t specific – and at times valid – reasons for each of the above, continuing to assume that their occasional validity makes them universally ok, means we are constantly closing and dead-bolting our doors to others who should be free to help shape the organisations and movements we are a part of.

Maybe some people with less in the way of traditional privilege really won’t want to engage, preferring to create alternative spaces that work for their communities. But even if this is the case, there is a level of responsibility on those of us who hold traditional privileges to make sure that is not the only option on the table.

As a white male, I won’t pretend I understand all of the ways in which lots of people struggle with discrimination in work places. But I’m also doing my best to accept what I’m being told about so many other peoples’ experiences of organisational cultures, rather than trying to judge them through my own lenses. When one story after another corroborate very similar feelings of dismissal and exclusion in social change organisations, I have to assume that I’ve got it wrong, and that my lack of understanding is the result of a blind spot afforded by so many layers of privilege I bring into my work.

I know that several of my good friends have become deeply depressed, and even suicidal, in large part due to their inability to be heard or have their concerns addressed within the largely white, patriarchal structure of our organisations.

Too often, when they have reached this point, their issues have been dismissed as unrelated mental health issues, absolving the people and organisations’ of any culpability for what has happened, de-legitimising peoples’ own perspectives on their lived experiences.

This is why I’m so angry. These stories are avoidable, if we actually took on the realities of the harm we are causing our friends, and to the causes that are losing their efforts and perspectives, each day.

From intellectual to visceral change

My gradual process of accepting the judgements of others about their experiences of our organisations, comes from a visceral acknowledgement of the issues, not just an intellectual one.

One way that organisation’s perpetuate certain demographics and dynamics is through the notion of professionalism that tries to keep everything work-related within the realm of intellect. This is European Enlightenment thinking (which feels incredibly foreign in much of the world), dominating our organisations. Many other cultures see more visceral, emotional understandings, to be just as important as one’s intellectual, rational point of view.

The empathy we need to find is not going to be found via intellectual understanding of someone else’s struggles, but through a visceral sense of empathy and human connection, and a clear sense that what they are experiencing is fundamentally wrong. When we try to relegate these conversations to the intellectual, we can easily make the rational case for why we continue to do what we’ve always done. When we feel some sense of connection with what someone else is feeling though, it’s far harder to ‘mansplain’ (or ‘whitesplain’) it away.

Privilege as wallpaper

I’ve written before, as have others, about the invisible nature of privilege when you have it; that the same things that exclude some, make others feel at home (or at least not too far from it).

But when we feel at home, we often de-prioritise the need for change. Everything else comes to be more immediately important, even when we intellectually recognise that all is not right.

Every time we de-prioritise asking the questions about making our organisations truly welcoming places for people who haven’t had very similar life experiences to our own, we reinforce our power and privilege. Privilege is making the choice to continue to inflict hardship on others, because doing so is easier than digging into a realm of very difficult questions, about ourselves, about our organisations, about the ways we relate to one another and on whose terms. Privilege is also simply being ‘too busy’ to open this can of worms. Without much effort, I can choose to put privilege on the backburner again and again, but that doesn’t give someone experiencing its flipside the ability to stop experiencing it until ‘other things settle down a bit.’

Is privilege our priority? No.

Addressing this stuff is HARD. But not nearly as hard as it is to be on the receiving end of it, day after day. That’s why all of us, when we find ourselves in positions of privilege, need to push it to the forefront – shout about it wherever we can.

Maybe a starting point for those who haven’t begun to make an effort in this area, is to acknowledge – even to ourselves – that it is not as high a priority as we claim it is.

If we acknowledge that, how do we feel about that acknowledgement? Are we comfortable with knowing that when we choose not to prioritise looking at the individual and institutional forms of oppression we are a part of, we are assuming they are less-important than the wider social and environmental justice aims of our organisations? We are accepting the depression and the resentment of people we consider our friends as an acceptable cost of our work?

I’ll leave that with each of you to answer for yourselves. It’s not that any of us can change all the ways that privilege affects people’s lives, but we can be more conscious of it, along with the many ways we benefit in different situations. We can also change specific parts of our work or our behaviours to open up new spaces for others to be able to shape some of these critical conversations.

But here’s the simplest starting point, highlighted by Guppi in her ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs‘ post: listen to what others are telling us and don’t try to explain it away. If we can’t do that, we won’t be part of any solution.

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Chapter 4 of Anarchists in the Boardroom delves into the questions of power and privilege in social change organisations. Feel free to order a copy.

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Experiential diversity: A new way of understanding equality in the voluntary sector

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

‘Diversity’ and ‘equality’ are popular buzzwords in the voluntary sector, but how often do we think about what they really mean? Maybe if we were to have an open discussion about difference – in all its more and less obvious forms – we would be in a better place to answer the questions they raise?

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di•ver•si•ty

[dih-vur-si-tee, dahy-]
–noun, plural -ties.
1. the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness.
2. variety; multiformity.
3. a point of difference.

Photo by Christopher Edwards, Creative Commons

There are innumerable pieces of legislations around the world that exist to balance historical and present-day discrimination. These have, I believe, been created with the best of intent – honest attempts to right wrongs that have existed for generations and still hide in the crevices of our institutions and the subconscious of our minds.

But many of my colleagues – often those who would check more boxes than I do on an equalities monitoring form – feel that the current approach may intend to encourage diversity, but in fact creates a smokescreen for a more subtle and insidious form of discrimination.

As one colleague – a black man from a housing estate in Southeast London, working in a national charity put it – ‘I went to university to learn to be white’.

Or as another colleague who recently finished a report on race equality in the private sector found, many of the non-white senior managers interviewed admittedly described themselves as culturally ‘white.’

Diversity?

So while there has been a semi-successful trend towards more visibly integrated workplaces, there is still an issue with homogeneity; people who check boxes, but who have either:

a) Lived very similar lives to those who represent the professional status quo (which is still broadly white, middle class, university educated), or
b) Have adopted or adapted to the culture of the professional status-quo, to be ‘allowed’ into that world.

In either case, the result is the same: many workplaces are less diverse than their monitoring forms might suggest. They still hire exclusively ‘professionals’, and what we understand as ‘professional’ is far too closely linked with what we generally see to be white, male and middle-to-upper-middle class. Thus many of our voluntary and non-profit organisations are missing out on the vast potential energy, creativity, perspective and insight that people who have taken a different path than we have, could offer our work and the people we support. They may even have a lot more in common with the people we support than we do, the value of which should not be overlooked. If our organisations want to tap into the diverse potential that exists outside of our ‘professional’ cultures, we can’t just hire people who don’t look, but still very much act as we do.

That said, I don’t want to minimise the importance of the shift that has occurred – that an Asian woman or a young gay man are more able to get into the professional workforce than they were a few decades ago, is of course a terrific victory on many fronts.

However, if that Asian woman or that gay man must either be born into economic privilege, or learn to give-up significant elements of their own culture to be accepted, then, in my opinion, this represents a pretty significant short-coming of the current approach.

The Marxist argument

Point a) above essentially follows a traditional Marxist class argument and while valuable, has been rehashed many times before by others more qualified than I. I would only add that our institutions (on the whole) selectively include people from non-dominant communities, who still fit most of the economic (and, often correspondingly, cultural) criteria typically associated with the dominant community. Which raises questions about the kind of diversity that is (or isn’t) being fostered in many professional workplaces. We can handle the differences of skin colour, sexual orientation, and religion better than we used to, but when it comes to interacting with people who DO THINGS differently from us, we come up with a range of excuses for why they ‘aren’t right for the job’.

Or is it more complex…?

Point b), however, raises a less-unpicked argument; that the ‘DNA’ of the current professional paradigm (across the sectors), is still very much the DNA of a privileged, white, straight, male reality, and that those from outside this reality who rise through its ranks must adopt (to varying degrees) that dominant culture in order to do so.

Basically, our idea of ‘professionalism’ is not something we can honestly describe as culture-neutral.

The opposition

When I’ve posed this hypothesis to others, the negative responses tend to fall into one of two categories:

1) The DNA of the professional world is simply the most effective and appropriate for getting things done, and is not an issue of values or methods associated with any particular group.

2) While the professional ‘DNA’ may be reflective of a dominant community, there are too many non-dominant communities to shift it, so it makes most sense to maintain the current way of working.

‘It’s the best’

The first argument I simply can’t believe; there is too strong a correlation in a) western countries and b) in other parts of the world following periods of imperialism or top-down globalisation, to assume that the structure and modes of working are not associated with a particular dominant group. The ‘Efficiency Drive’ which justifies a vast array of negative practices across the sectors, does not appear to have emerged from, or grown naturally in many other cultures (beyond a traditionally European-descended ‘elite’), without economic or political coercion. The argument that it is simply ‘the best’ verges on discriminatory against the cultures that don’t automatically adopt its methods.

‘There are too many alternatives’

The second argument I usually counter with a less binary option: we need to actively encourage (as some workplaces do) a range of people from non-dominant groups to take more active roles in shaping workplace cultures, in their own images (rather than allowing the workplace cultures to force a shape on them, by default). A workplace culture does not have to be one homogenous entity, but can actually itself adopt elements of the range of influences it allows itself to open up to.

While different understandings of ‘professionalism’, working relationships, hospitality, non-verbal communication and countless other assumed subtleties may not immediately mesh with one another, I feel this is a challenge we are capable of starting to address in the 21st Century. We need to have the discussions about the assumptions our organisations subconsciously impose, within and beyond their walls. We need to acknowledge alternatives, learn from other communities, countries, our own personal lives even, and see how we could involve, say, potluck lunches, events with families of staff, changes to how we hold meetings, design office plans and how decisions get made…

Outreach

There’s also the question of the external image our organisations present. While our traditional definitions of workplace diversity may help foster some sense that our organisations are really ‘for everyone’, this is unlikely to last if those we’ve hired who check boxes on a form are still worlds removed from the experiences of the young people, ex-offenders, refugees or others we may try to support. This is not to say that everyone who works for an organisation should be from its client group, but that this can create a sense of shared experience which tends to make people more comfortable engaging with otherwise seemingly-foreign institutions.

Think of the number of times you’ve walked by an African barber shop, a gay bar, a mosque, a Polish convenience store, and never even thought of going in because the people hanging around were so far separated from your own experience of the world. Maybe this is something you’ve never even noticed, because the idea of walking into such a place is so radical it doesn’t even cross your mind at such moments?

When you’re part of a dominant culture it can be easy to forget that we create these same sentiments amongst others; that when a bunch of us who look, talk and act in similar ways work together, our work may well take on associations of difference to those who do not feel a part of that world. Then add to this difference the power dynamics still so often associated with a dominant group and you’ve got a pretty off-putting combination. If we want to be inclusive to those outside of our organisations, as well as those inside, we need to think about what we mean by diversity and equality. Any real attempts to address inequality must address the less visible issues of difference that continue to drive unspoken wedges between us.

Mixing it up…

How can we bring pieces of Ghana, Vauxhall, Pakistan, Peckham, Poland and Dagenham into our workplaces, without subsuming them in a still broadly Oxfordian establishment (which I feel most of us not of that ilk must conform to ourselves, even if it’s a more subtle shift)? I know that making a list from the aforementioned place names and putting them on a form with check boxes beside them is not the way to do it. It is not simply about including more people in the established protocols of the day, it is also about ensuring people can be included without having to take on the traits of those they have never shared true equality with. It’s about the system changing for the people, not simply the other way around. If the systems aren’t changing, what kind of diversity are we trying to foster? Is this a manifestation of true equality, or does it just allow us to see enough difference to stop asking the uncomfortable questions about power that we might not want to admit still need asking?

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