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By Nate Levin-Aspenson, writer and grants manager

Let’s be honest: As a white dude, you tend to get more credit than you earn. I know from firsthand experience. The bar is so far below ground that it has been reabsorbed into the composite metals of the Earth’s core.

My friend Jess Null recently started a book club for the Rhode Island AFP Chapter. It’s been great, and not just because I need structure and deadlines to finish anything. We’ve been able to have some really rich discussions of important texts in fundraising.

For the last one, I finally read Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth. Near the end Villanueva, a fellow North Carolinian, ties the book together by recalling the North Carolina state motto, and how that phrase informed the values he grew up with.

Rather than paraphrase, I’ll let him tell it:

The state motto of my home state is Esse quam videri, a Latin phrase meaning “To be, rather than to seem.” It was also my mother’s motto in child rearing. I can hear her now: “No half stepping! We must be real Christians, not just in name.” “We must really love people, not just do good for how it looks.”

I had to put the book down and sit with it for a minute because friends, those words haunt me.

The words feel like they’re written on the inside of my eyelids just before I wake up. As the day goes on, they migrate down my neck, settling heavy above my stomach while I’m brushing my teeth. In my best moments, I could say they live in my hands. Other times, I want to fling them at others, and I can feel them collecting — acidic — on the back of my tongue.

I have to keep the words close and sharp, because I know what happens if I don’t.

We could put on a show

Let’s be honest: As a white dude, you tend to get more credit than you earn. I know from firsthand experience. The bar is so far below ground that it has been reabsorbed into the composite metals of the Earth’s core. In 2016, I could get a standing ovation for showing up to a meeting and talking about how systemic racism is real. I once went to a rally and someone handed me the Oscar that “Crash” won for Best Picture in 2006 just for making the trip out. I don’t even know where they got it.

It’s a strange feeling to know you’re getting more praise than you’ve earned for doing something, although it’s a very common phenomenon for white dudes. It really messes with your ability to receive and process outside feedback.

There are a few ways this can shake out. For a certain number of cream-colored adult babies, it tilts the entire scale heavily towards the top, making outsized rewards feel normal and criticism feel alien and unwelcome. Other Tarantino fans have learned to put on a show, performing the behaviors that are socially rewarded by their chosen circle. I fall into the final group of boat-shoe enthusiasts, with the internal scale tilted instead towards the bottom — making criticism feel normal and positive feedback feel strange and unearned.

This sounds like a lot, but I can’t live with myself only seeming. I have to be the person that I say I am. White supremacy is ready to take me back the second I stop moving, and it polishes the world’s perception of me by design.

This makes three things true in my internal reckoning:

  1. I am always going to get more credit than work I have done to earn it, therefore
  2. Only my internal measurements of my work are reliable and
  3. The only thing I can really be sure of is that I’m not doing enough.

I know how easy it would be to perform the ‘seeming’ version of myself. To talk on Twitter, at work, among friends about the values I say I have without ever acting on them.

I know that if I’m not careful, I might actually start to believe that I wrote, produced, and directed the motion picture “Crash.”

I didn’t, though

I think the reason that we see failure after failure to meaningfully address systemic racism, sexism, and ableism in the nonprofit workplace is that these efforts are driven primarily not by a desire to correct systems, but by a desire to repair self-image.

But what I think about myself is A) a mystery, known only to me and mediated to others through the clumsy and imperfect medium of words and B) deeply unimportant.

In the grand scheme, anyway. Which is why I find it so surprising that it seems to be the guiding ideology of so much nonprofit DEI work. A huge chunk of the failures that I see in justice, equity, and diversity in the nonprofit field don’t seem to stem from mistakes that occur naturally in the course of any work, but from starting from a point of self-reflection rather than an earnest desire to change unjust material conditions.

We see this all the time. A horrible tragedy precipitates a flashpoint in the conversation around our sector. Organizations are driven first to self-reflection. Meetings are held. Statements are drafted and then released. Sometimes, but not always, policies are changed.

But why are these changes always reactive? The material circumstances that they are meant to address always predate the flashpoint. Gender and racial pay gaps have been around. Discrimination in hiring and lack of representation have been around. Overwhelmingly white and male organizational leadership have definitely been around. In many cases, people in leadership were already aware of the problem and perhaps taking incremental steps to address them.

Flashpoints only change two things: the circulation of information about the problem, and — perhaps more importantly — the social importance of the problem.

As the conversation shifts towards radical solutions and more social value is assigned to justice and DEI work, people and organizations are forced to reckon with the reality of their failure to address these issues in the past. Their self-image is called into question: ‘How can I be good, when my inaction has contributed to these problems?’

I think the reason that we see failure after failure to meaningfully address systemic racism, sexism, and ableism in the nonprofit workplace is that these efforts are driven primarily not by a desire to correct systems, but by a desire to repair self-image.

An unpleasant look in the mirror

2020 was scary for a lot of reasons. I remember a year ago last summer when there were protests on the streets of Providence nearly every night. Every time I saw sirens, I was worried that the Providence Police Department would hurt or kill someone when they showed. A few times, I witnessed the violence they were willing to bring to bear on people taking to the street, and that did nothing to alleviate my fears.

The nights when I couldn’t make it out were worse, because I could only speculate what might be happening out there between my phone ‘bwimp’ing with signal updates. It was miserable and scary, even from my position of immense privilege.

Guilt is not a good friend to action, but it is a frequent travelling companion of rest. Before bed I would have to remind myself that I was not the fulcrum on which the movement rested, and that it would go on fine without me. My head believes it. My heart doesn’t

Those nights went worse for others.

Okay, let me really be honest. Most of the time I feel like dead weight. I take up space in the movements I care about, and I’m not sure the meager time and energy I’m able to provide is worth the real estate I’m occupying.

I went back to work full-time in 2020, and the flexibility and additional time that my previous life as a consultant afforded me evaporated. I dropped out of committees. I narrowed my focus areas. I shrank. It feels selfish, making more money and spending so much less of my time on the things I care about.

The people I work with and the people I know doing movement work are so kind, and so generous, and they work so hard. They treat me like the person I’m trying to be, even though I don’t feel like I’ve earned being that person to them. I’m almost in tears writing this, but the kindness and esteem of my comrades unmasks me. I accept their words politely and file them away with other things ephemeral, and go back to sharpening the words that really matter to me.

To be, rather than to seem.

Every time I feel this way, I am desperate to feel anything else.

Desperation

So, we find ourselves at this tension point, between what we want and what we need — between what white supremacy demands of us, and what will actually accomplish our stated goals.

We are all steeped in white supremacy culture our entire lives, and it shapes how we view the world, how we think, and how we respond to problems. It is also deeply rooted in our organizational structures, including here in the nonprofit sector. It’s why DEI initiatives stall and sputter out between these moments of flashpoint.

White supremacy hoards power.

In order for power to be more equitably distributed — in wages, in hiring, in leadership representation — some people have to cede power. One of the reasons our DEI efforts so often feel cosmetic is that organizations attempt to solve a lack of equity and representation without a cessation of power. This cycle continues until another flashpoint, when they feel an increased demand for immediate action to demonstrate that their values are not only performative.

White supremacy demands urgency.

This sense of urgency exists for a reason: to perpetuate power. Quick solutions are rarely comprehensive solutions, and that is no accident, but is also not by conscious design. Our sector and the people in it want to do good. Faced with the reality that they are not, they are quick to act to correct that. Therefore, I find that urgency also has another parent: the desire to align with self-image.

White supremacy demands perfection.

Yet these actions have yet to yield the desired result. Too often, we fall into the trap of endless self-reflection and discussion. Iteration after iteration of half-measure programs with no editing or even retention of knowledge between steps. We talk ourselves in circles about learning and growing, but who does that help? But if we act only to satisfy the feeling of urgency, who does that help?

So, we find ourselves at this tension point, between what we want and what we need — between what white supremacy demands of us, and what will actually accomplish our stated goals.

When I find myself holding this tension, I ask: What is guiding me?

What guides me

I liken white supremacy to a kudzu. I am not the first one to do so. Cruel and invasive, it has grown over everything, even me. I may stand up from the bed of leaves, but its cuttings still weave through my flesh. Lay down for too long, and it will surely take root again.

I have to keep at it, but my obsession with my state motto is just another exercise in seeming. It doesn’t help anyone. For justice and DEI work to succeed, in our sector or anywhere, it must be guided first and foremost by a love for oppressed people and a desire to remove the material circumstances of oppression.

I keep the words of North Carolina state motto with me because at their best they are a tool against complacency and half-heartedness, but they are not enough. I keep them company with others:

This work can feel overwhelming, and our contribution to it, so small. But as a friend recently reminded me: you don’t have to be enough, because you’re not alone. That’s one.

Another is the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam — the idea that you come into a world that is already broken, and we have a collective responsibility to heal it. You are not responsible for finishing the work of fixing the world, but neither are you free to desist.

Or, finally, as Lizzo tells us, I know that it’s hard, but you have to try.

Nate Levin-Aspenson

Nate Levin-Aspenson

Nate Levin-Aspenson (he/him) is a writer and fundraiser based in Rhode Island. Born and raised in Durham, NC, he has since left the South and has not shut up about it since. He currently serves as the Lead Grants and Foundations Relations Manager at Newport Mental Health. He serves on the Professional Development and IDEA committees of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Rhode Island Chapter, and has several cool rocks on his desk. You can get in touch with him by email and he is also on Twitter more than he probably should be.

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