The Business of Prioritizing White Comfort | Sojourners

The Business of Prioritizing White Comfort

Photo by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash

The deeply rooted white American need to be comfortable is keeping many organizations (nonprofit, faith-based, and other well-meaning organizations) from engaging in the messy, necessary work of addressing white supremacy.

I worked for a nonprofit organization in 2018. At the core of their written mission statement were words like “social justice” and “voice for the voiceless.” But without acknowledging systems of oppression, “voice for the voiceless” is actually code for the silencing of marginalized voices.

After months of observing the organizing director’s patterns of white patriarchal supremacy, I sat down to speak with him directly. I went into this conversation with a sense of genuine camaraderie. I felt certain that I was observing patterns he wasn’t aware of and assumed he would be open to the discussion. I’d want someone to do the same for me. After all, the pursuit of equity means we are each showing up to this work with a willingness to be vulnerable for the sake of growth and healing.

Upon bringing these issues to his attention, he did something that I now know is common for white liberalism in “well-meaning” spaces. After insisting that he didn’t know what I was referring to and asking me to “point it out the next time it happened,” he gaslighted my concerns by highlighting all of the “good work” being done by the organization. To be clear, I believe this organization does a great deal of meaningful work. But too often, marginalized folks within these types of organizations are subjected to the same oppression the ministry or nonprofit claims to work to dismantle. I believe that doing the uncomfortable work of acknowledging ways we perpetuate oppression is vital. I left his office a little bewildered by the brush-off.

After four conversations bringing instances to his attention — ranging from overt bigotry and misogyny to microaggressions — the two of us sat down with human resources, and I brought the issue to the board of directors. I began to understand what was happening: I was hired for the optics of having a Black woman in a support role. Diversity, equity, and inclusion measures often give lip-service to addressing systemic oppression while prioritizing white power and white comfort.

I’ve written before about what I perceive to be some of the dangers of cancel culture. For me, if an injury does not threaten my physical safety, I do believe in trying to sit down with another human being, showing my humanity and trying to honor their own. I did not want this person to be chastised, or worse, shamed. In fact, it mattered very much to me that he did not experience any of those feelings. I wanted to normalize the naming of the oppression we have all internalized. As recipients of this lineage, we do not exist apart from it. We live in it and it lives in us.

The acknowledgement and naming of ableism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, and xenophobia need to be normalized in order for this work of dismantling to begin and continue. It is profoundly damaging for organizations (and human beings) to be so concerned about being perceived as “good” or remaining comfortable that it keeps us from radical, revolutionary change. And it is profoundly misleading to use movement language to describe organizations (and human beings) that are not about transformation. Frankly, it’s appropriation. Please, stop.

After being accepted to divinity school in 2019, I offered my letter of resignation to this organization — and not because I could afford to do so. The livelihood of marginalized bodies is almost always directly connected to our willingness (or unwillingness) to exist within oppressive workplaces. This is something we should all be committed to changing.

My sincere hope is that we can be vulnerable together; discover ways to be uncomfortable together; engage in healthy conflict together — because conflict is a part of being human.

My sincere hope is that we can stop prioritizing white power and white comfort and begin prioritizing the healing and human flourishing of everyone.

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