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Will COVID-19 end ‘white professional’ nonprofit culture?

April 2, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This guest column was written by Sam Chenkin (she/her or they/them), a community organizer and founder of the nonprofit consultancy Reclaim the Sector.
In most nonprofits, “professional” means adhering to a very specific set of rules. Trust authority. Believe in bureaucracy. Don’t be emotional. Avoid showing weakness. Dress in clothing both boring and obviously expensive. Pretend your personal life doesn’t exist.

These rules don’t make employees more effective. They are just ways to signal who is willing and able to conform to the status quo. White, economically comfortable, cisgender, able men have the resources and upbringing to effortlessly meet these expectations. For everyone else, it’s a performance.

For many of us, it’s always been this way. In queer communities acting the part is commonly called “business drag.” In communities of color it’s “code switching.” These experiences are not the same, but they are all performative and exhausting.

Enter COVID-19

Things have changed with COVID-19. People who previously thrived in white professional office environments — and are lucky enough to still have jobs — are suddenly working from home, which means:

  • Everyone is struggling with childcare
  • Everyone lacks the time and energy to perfect their appearance every day
  • Everyone has a workplace that isn’t properly accommodating their needs
  • Everyone is upset that the medical system can’t properly support them
  • Everyone feels unsafe and uncertain about their future

These challenges aren’t new to those with marginalized experiences. But now, those in power, who previously held others to “professional” standards, are experiencing for themselves how difficult it is to maintain those standards when life is hard. As a result, the “leave it at the door” mentality is changing.

As a result, professional culture is looking quite different. In the last two weeks I’ve experienced:

  • Executive directors wearing sweatshirts on camera
  • Children on people’s laps during meetings
  • Staff members crying on conference calls
  • Conversations about fear, loneliness, and resource insecurity

It is my dream that COVID-19 will mean the end of white professional culture and the workplace expectations that make nonprofits such a hostile place to those of us with complex experiences.

My experience

I have it easier than some — I’m seen as white before I’m seen as transgender. I grew up with class privilege and remain relatively economically secure. Depending on how I dress I can also enjoy “passing privilege” or people subconsciously perceiving me as a cisgender woman. Many people, especially those from different class and race backgrounds, find “passing” in white professional workplaces harder, or impossible.

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I don’t want to speak to others’ experiences (I’m sure I would miss important nuance), but I want to share some of my experiences in order to expose the costs of white professional culture. My experiences aren’t the same as those of people in other communities. Nor are they as difficult — particularly when compared to the day-to-day experience of black and brown people in this country.

Like many, my experience is one of performing and accommodating every day, multiple times a day. Just being trans is a silent challenge to the status quo. The more visible my experience, the less comfortable others are. And it’s really hard to keep my transness invisible. I put significant energy into managing other people’s experiences.

Is it safer in this situation to be visibly trans or to try to pass? Will I stop passing if I open my mouth and say something? Will I lose credibility if I state my pronouns? Will I burn too much political capital if I call out that offensive comment? Am I being treated as a trans person, a woman, or an expert right now? Am I physically safe? How can I make this person feel OK about their microaggression so that we can all move on?

Add in the expectations of white professional culture, and I quickly lose my stamina. This is especially draining because professional standards hold those of us who are different to higher standards. I have to dress perfectly or be pitied. I have to completely suppress my anger or be dismissed as an Angry Trans Woman™. I can’t show any sadness or fear without being asked about my hormones. I must hide to be perceived as professional and therefore palatable.

The underlying biases (and therefore the severity of the response) are different for other marginalized groups, but the expectations remain.

The result? We either quit or keep quiet, depriving spaces of our expertise and voice. Or we speak up, are labeled as disruptive, and sidelined.

The alternative? The “whole self.”

My experience is not unique — compared to many it is mild. Imagine the cumulative wasted energy of so many trying to perform the norms of white, economically comfortable, cisgendered, able, straight people. Imagine the intellectual drain on our sector. Those of us with marginalized experiences haven’t been able to fully participate in change work. Instead, a substantial portion of our energy goes to keeping silent or performing. Eventually many of us just burn out.

What’s the alternative? We’re doing some of it right now through sweatshirt-laden virtual meetings! Let people have emotions, personal lives, struggles with children and money. Make space for people to support each other. Stop enforcing inaccessible norms of dress and language.

These basic steps are required to create a safe place for anyone, including those with privilege. But it won’t be enough to support those with harsher realities. And it is those people with marginalized experiences that have the perspective necessary to build effective, equitable, and transformative approaches to nonprofit service delivery.

To make space for these folks, we’ll need to make our organizations places of healing. We’ll need to make space for clear and direct conversations about the experiences of people of color, queer folks, the differently abled, and anyone else who doesn’t fit into the mold. We’ll need to tolerate anger, fear, and being uncomfortable. In short: we’ll need to let people be their whole selves.

Success will be transformative. Organizations that can support staff with marginalized experience are also organizations equipped to understand and support their communities. As always, change begins within.

In the end, white professionalism and inclusivity are in opposition. Make the right choice for your staff and your communities; it’s time for change.

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