Should White folks profit from Diversity work?

When I attended and presented at the White Privilege Conference in April, I took part in and heard some amazing workshops and keynotes, and I learned a lot.  Some of them made me feel good, reinforcing some of my current views.  I mean, let’s be honest.  A lot of us attend conferences to hear our world view reflected back at us.  What I had not quite expected, though, was to be challenged to my core.

One of my mentors once told me that any time I find myself comfortable, it’s time to look around and unsettle myself because no true growth and change comes from a space of comfort.  Thus, knowing that it would make me quite uncomfortable, I decided to attend a workshop entitled, “Profiting from Privilege: An Open Dialogue about the Ethics Involved with White Consultants and Keynote Speakers on White Privilege” led by a professor at Metropolitan State University named Paul Spies.  It promised to grapple with the question, “Should white speakers and consultants profit from their ‘expertise’ in helping other white people understand and grapple with white privilege?”

Going into the room, I knew that I was going to be challenged a lot, and I kept repeating to myself, “Don’t allow feeling defensive to cloud your ability to listen to the legitimate feelings and concerns of others.”  My hands were shaking, and my heart was beating fast.  After all, the very nature of this workshop was challenging the foundation and ethics of the business that I have been working so hard to establish, that I care so much about, and in which I have invested a tremendous amount of money.

The dialogue was exactly what I expected it to be: challenging to my foundations.  The room was probably 35-40% white folks (most of whom likely worked in diversity/anti-oppression consulting for profit), and we all looked profoundly uncomfortable, like our secret had been exposed, a secret that many of didn’t even realize we were keeping.  The truth is that White consultants and presenters regularly make more than People of Color who are doing the same work. The truth is that knowledge of racism is a knowledge of People of Color.  It’s a Black knowledge, a Brown knowledge, a Red knowledge, a Yellow knowledge.  In the words of Ewuare Osayande, “it is an analysis born of the blood struggle for Black liberation and racial justice throughout American history.”  The truth is that it is not a White knowledge.  Those of us who profit from the work to end racism are profiting from the words of People of Color we have heard and read.  We are profiting from our relationships with People of Color.  We are profiting from someone else’s “blood struggle.”

The conversation was candid.  I appreciated that those in the room did not pull any punches.
“There’s no other way to say it: It is racist for a White person to profit from anti-racist work.”
“White people have no right to profit from Diversity work.”
“While White people have an obligation to act as activists to end White supremacy and racism, they need to do it as a responsibility and do it without pay.”

While I think most if not all of the White folks in the room were defensive, only a few spoke out defensively.  I sat and listened, reflecting, remembering when a mentor once told me, “If you’re defensive, it’s probably for a good reason.  Reflect on that defensiveness and figure out what you have done wrong.  Then apologize.”

I left the workshop feeling defeated.  I was thinking to myself (and even said to another participant), “I need to dismantle my business.  My business is racist.  No matter how much work I am doing to dismantle racism, the very structure of my business is racist.”

In what ways am I benefiting from racism in my work?

Following the workshop, there was a discussion of Osayande’s “A Word to the Wise.”  I couldn’t stomach it.  I was too confused and upset.  My foundations were too shaken.  I went and grabbed a sack lunch and sat down to reflect.  A friend I had made earlier in the conference, a woman of color, came and asked if she could join me.  I was upset and didn’t really want to talk, but I said yes.  She asked me what was wrong, and I restated my conclusion.  “I need to dismantle my business.  My business is racist.”  I went on to describe the workshop.  “I am trying to keep from being defensive and hear what the majority (if not consensus) of People of Color in that room were telling me, and that message was that I need to dismantle my business.”

She laughed and said, “Jamie, you’re being kind of racist!”

“How?”

“Well, you’re assuming that all People of Color agree on all things . . . isn’t that a pretty common form of white denial and racism? ‘Don’t you all just think the same?’  I, for one, think you have a valuable voice and need to do that work in a sustainable way.  If you were getting rich, that would be one thing, but you’re not.”

I took a deep breath, and I felt better.  All of the “safe” conclusions ran through my head.  “See!  A black woman approves of my work!  I am okay!”  “Well, I am just using my privilege to help in the struggle to dismantle that very privilege and oppression.”  I had been validated, so I could go forward without having to further question the validity and ethics of my business.  We talked some more through lunch, and my nerves began to calm.

After lunch, I pulled out the copy of “A Word to the Wise” that they handed out in the workshop.  I read through it and stopped when Osayande wrote, “Imagine a white anti-racist saying, ‘I’m going to use my white supremacy to help People of Color.'”  Didn’t I just say that to myself?

I realized that my feelings were simply validations of my world view.  To truly be accountable, I needed to follow these truths wherever they may lead, even if they lead to me dismantling this business I have worked so hard to build.  I committed myself then and there to broaching this conversation with as many people as I trust who are in the thick of this work as I possibly could, but in that, I need to make sure that I am not simply seeking voices that I know will be supportive.  I need to extend this conversation to those that scare me because they might just say, “Yeah, Jamie . . . you probably do need to dismantle your business.”

I’ve had this conversation selectively with activists, allies, friends and family, but I haven’t had the courage to have it publicly.

So, while it’s taken me five months to work up the courage, this post is my first foray into opening my personal conversation about a very public issue to the wider public.

Is it ethical for White people to profit from Diversity work?

Is it okay so long as I’m not getting rich?  Where are the lines drawn?

I often think, “Would that organization in rural Kansas (or Illinois or Tennessee or wherever) have hired me to speak to their students if I were not White?”  I was a safe choice for them as they looked to have a conversation about diversity.  I made them feel good in my White privilege, Straight, Male privilege that I would not say anything too terribly challenging.  While that is problematic, is there also something to be said for the idea that those conversations would not be happening otherwise?

I very much appreciated what a trusted activist and mentor said when I broached the conversation with her.

“Jamie, you should do the work.  There are so many voices spouting hate that we need every person possible speaking out for justice, and if you need to charge for your work and talents to make that possible, then so be it.  Do it for free when you are able, and be accountable.  Never forget this, though: There is a long history of White people profiting from the literal and intellectual labors of People of Color in this country.  It is the sad reality that this country is built upon.  Know that to some degree that is what you are doing and that it is problematic and hurtful, but do not let your voice be silenced.”

As I have reflected, I have come back to a few points made by Osayande over and over again.  There are countless examples “the ways that white anti-racists who are not in accountable relationships with activists of color can be used to work against the best interests of People of Color, whether knowingly or not.”  I need to ask myself every single day whether I am in accountable relationships across difference, and if I am not, I need to check myself and check myself hard.

If, then, I find myself doing the work as part of a larger tapestry of accountable relationships, is profit acceptable?  How should the profit be structured?  Should I, as I have discussed with a colleague of mine, pay myself the prevailing wage of what a Black or Hispanic woman makes in the economy (65 cents and 60 cents respectively) for every dollar that my female colleague of color makes (as for every dollar a White man earns)?

I also need to seek accountable answers to Osayande’s questions of, “What actually is a white anti-racist? Who defines such? And if that definition comes from a white person, how is that anti-racist?”

So I appeal to my readers.  I hope to start a dialogue, a healthy and vibrant dialogue that aims toward accountability.

What place to White people have in the struggle to end racialized oppression?  Is there room for white people to profit from that struggle without displacing the work and profits of People of Color?

Essentially, is my work inherently racist?

I haven’t come to any clear conclusions to these questions, so I hope to gain some wisdom from the insights of my readers.

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12 thoughts on “Should White folks profit from Diversity work?

  1. I personally think that as a white person, it’s not up to me to define what racism is or isn’t, but I think a good strategy if you continue your work would be to consistently include other voices–for example, in a very small way, expanding the “Resources” section of your website significantly, perhaps with important quotations from the books and websites, would lead others to the voices of activists of color. That might be a minor step, but it might be a way to use your privilege to get other whites to hear voices and messages they might be more uncomfortable hearing otherwise.

    At the same time, I wonder what would happen if you dismantle your work. Couldn’t you argue that NOT doing the work is being complicit with forms of white supremacy, too, but instead it’s by you as a white person being silent rather than overtaking other voices? Is any action you do as a white person always inherently racist? I’m tempted to say not everything you do is reducible to racism, but again, I realize it’s not up to me. As to the question of compensation, though, I wonder if donating a significant portion of your earnings to organizations that fight for anti-racist causes would be effective, but that’s just a thought.

  2. Jamie, I have heard you speak several times. Never have I gotten the impression that your work was inherently racist. While you may make more than people of color doing the same work, in what line of work is that not the case? Would you be able to feel comfortable knowing that at any other job you did, you were making more than a person of color? This is not to say that “oh well, can’t change anything, might as well reap the benefits.” In fact, it is quite the opposite. In your current profession, you are working toward correcting that wrong. However, if you were to change to a different career, would you still have the same opportunity to influence the change that you get to have every day? I doubt it.

    You pose the question “Would that organization in rural Kansas (or Illinois or Tennessee or wherever) have hired me to speak to their students if I were not White?” Maybe not. The thing is, you’ll probably never know. As a white man, you have the opportunity to reach out to those rural communities where you are needed most. I came from a rural area of Colorado, and my community was highly close-minded. If you weren’t white, if you weren’t a Christian, if your sexual orientation was not for the opposite gender, if you weren’t of average intelligence or weight or height or whatever, you weren’t very well accepted. In my town, if you came to speak about diversity and you did not meet the “average” stereotype, not many in my town would show up because it would be seen as “just another one complaining about the ‘wrongs’ they have suffered” whereas you might have a chance to reach the racists/classists/etc because they would come hear a white man speak. As a white speaker promoting anti-racism, you have the opportunity to reach racists who would not go listen to someone of color. You have the opportunity to reach the people who don’t know they want to hear what you have to say.

    Tim Wise said, “The power of resistance is to set an example: not necessarily to change the person with whom you disagree, but to empower the one who is watching and whose growth is not yet completed, whose path is not at all clear, whose direction is still very much up in the proverbial air.”

    You speak to people of all ages, I imagine, but I’ve only seen to speak to high school students. And I’ve seen the effect that you have on those kids. You challenge their beliefs, what they grew up believing was the truth. You ask them to question their beliefs, their values, their rights and privileges. I’ve seen seven Wall presentations by yourself, Marc Quinlan, and Terry Smith. While I realize that you don’t just present the Wall, I have seen the effect different speakers have on crowds. I’ve never seen a presentation done by you that has not had a profound impact on the students. You inspire them to make a change in the world.

    As I started out with, no, it’s not fair that you make more than someone of color doing the same work. But your work promotes the change to make it be that the person of color would make what you make. And with one less person working toward that goal, one less person promoting the change, one less person influencing all the people that you impact? What are the chances that equal pay would happen? I believe that it would still come, but I believe it would be a lot slower in happening.

    By speaking to high-school aged students, you’re catching them at a time when they are evolving into the people they’re going to become. Your message helps to inspire them to promote change. By speaking to adults, you’re providing them with the information they need to help make a change in the world.

    It all comes down to money. You feel guilty making more than a person of color makes doing the same thing, but that would happen in any career. Why not make your career doing something that will work to balance the inequality?

    I agree with your colleague, that perhaps you could work for the 60 or 65 cents that a woman of color would make compared to a white man’s dollar. Then, you would be making equal money. Or, continue to pay yourself the dollar for your work, and donate the difference to different organizations that promote equality. By doing this, you’d be promoting the change that you speak of, setting the example for the people you wish to influence.

    But I implore of you, don’t dismantle your business just because you make more a profit than someone else. No matter what, your friends will support you in your decision, but I know that it would be difficult to see someone with your talent give up what they love doing just so they can make a living doing what is just as racist in terms of pay grade, and doing what the love pro-bono when they can afford it. It would be hard to see someone stop making a difference just because the change he or she is working for isn’t coming fast enough.

    No matter what happens, you’ll make the right decision for you. That’s all that the people who love you can ask for, so long as you’re happy with the decision.

    PS- sorry for the novel 🙂

  3. The short answer? Any philanthropic, good-will type of career choice carries the burden of what your good will is worth.

    Pastors, non-profit directors, and professional speakers must face the question of basic-needs-met versus greed. Salary is a way to know you are efficacious in your work. You provide inspiration and knowledge, and other appreciate your work by paying you. My hope would be that those putting on such a workshop would want all speakers of your nature to strive for success (however it is measured, whether monitarily or not). Just because you are working toward a goal does not mean that speakers of color cannot also work toward the same goal.

    It is about unified teamwork. But I do appreciate your self-reflection and evaluation. Your mentor is correct in saying one should wrestle with those topics that make us most uncomfortable to gain wisdom/perspective.

    It may be helpful for you to know how speakers of color may feel about your career. However, it does not mean you chose incorrectly in starting your business.

  4. What if your business focused on helping change the way sexism has been institutionalized in American society and you were paid to speak on this subject? Imagine this conference situation except that it had been focused on Sexism in America? Maybe you were in a workshop that was full of super intelligent women who were so tired of men being hired to educate different groups on,say, the importance of empowering women, or how the media continually uses images or language that cement these sexist traditions into the collective conscience of America?

    Now as a man, you probably realize that there are some groups that may actually “hear” you when you talk about these things and would write a woman talking about the same things off as being a “ultra-feminist” or “way over-the-top”. Does this mean that a women couldn’t speak on these issues as affectively as you could? No, of course not.Is it fair that some groups or audiences would take you more seriously? No, for sure not.
    There are certain audiences who may even take your messages to heart over a women’s who would never even know or admit this about themselves.That may not be PC but it is the truth.

    I know there are a million ways you could give counter examples to this but I felt like thinking of it this way helped me critically think about this situation.

    Why would you ever stop trying to help make the world better? Why would you ever stop trying to use your voice where another’s may not be heard? To me it seems that you chose a profession where you can never be liked by everyone. You aren’t a person of color. You are a white man who chooses not to fill the role, a very racist and racialized society has assigned you. I fill like honestly, what you do is more for white people than for people of color. So obviously people of color don’t need your voice as a tool to talk for them but you know what? There are millions of white people who need their hearts and minds changed. I am sorry, but if those white people need that change in their lives they probably aren’t going to be inspired to do that by a person of color.Which doesn’t mean that a person of color wouldn’t be equally or more capable. Or that they couldn’t inspire or reach these same people. The problem though is not with them, it is with the audience, and their conditioned beliefs and ideologies.

    I took a class on White Identity.Only one and it changed my life forever. I am a better, and more observant person because of it. My professor was white, and he was young and very amazing in his beliefs and passion. I would have taken every bit of that class to heart no matter what color the professor had been. It was interesting to learn and be introduced to this subject by a man who struggled with being white in the realm he was in.An aside,the class started out at around 20 people or so and I think after 2 weeks there were only 10 of us. I mean, him being white didn’t make half of class more comfortable in confronting the harsh truths he revealed to us.

    I have a problem with the idea that whites should have a moral or ethical issue about teaching and educating on societal problems caused by white society/culture and thus affecting both black and white identities. I do think whites who do this should be humble and should try and really ask themselves lots of hard questions regularly.
    I understand in your case the issue stems from a financial standpoint. I don’t really have any answers, I do think that if you quit doing your work it would not be a positive action. It would be a negative reaction. I say try and think of a positive change you can make to create solutions.
    I don’t think you will ever, no matter what you do, receive accolades from all parts of the realm you work inside. I mean in a lot of ways you are the minority there. What I mean by that is that is that, you will always have to work harder to prove you deserve to to be there, that you’re not a fraud, or that you aren’t a “savior white”. Plus, you get paid for what you do, which opens another door for people in your realm to be skeptical of you.

    To me, the world you are in should always be focused on coalition building,building bridges, and getting people to feel comfortable to walk on over to the other side. To not feel afraid when their cultural identities are questioned or challenged. I think when “the other” is introduced and understood then people have a harder time continuing on with hateful behavior. If I was in your line of work I would want to reach the people farthest away rather than the people who already subscribe. I feel like you have a chance of doing that and I just hope you don’t let problems that have solutions keep you from sharing your heart and passions.

    Everything here is obviously my personal opinion and I in no way claim to be right or all knowing on any of these subjects and understand if you disagree with anything I have said here. I have thought a lot about these things and really enjoy feedback on these ideas.I understand if you think everything I have shared is garbage and there are no hard feelings at all. Also, I just kind of wrote this in a stream of consciousness so please forgive me for any confusion in the writing or stupid mistakes.

  5. When I was a first year student at Earlham (in 1974), I lived on a Living/Learning Hall…half white, half black. Lincoln Blake and Janet Dickerson led the inter-disciplinary course. It was the most challenging, uncomfortable, difficult thing I’ve ever done (and I’ve lived 55 years on this planet).

    I’ll never forget two workshops we did with Boniface Hardin, one at his place in Indy, and one in the Meetinghouse on campus.

    He knocked the naivete and innocence right out of me. I remember sobbing and feeling my heart break. I really GOT white privilege after that interaction, let me tell you. I am still aware of it, yet I still live within it.

    I found this blog post of yours, Jamie, very thought provoking. I don’t think I have an answer for you. I just know that you work with an incredibly open heart, and that is a fine and unusual thing in this world.

    We are, all of us, works in progress. Your struggle with this issue is a testament to your integrity.

    xo

  6. I guess finding useful, reliable irnfomaiton on the internet isn’t hopeless after all.

  7. You know what, I don’t understand why this is such a fraught and complicated issue or question. It seems obvious to me that it is in fact ethically ugly for white people to benefit financially from doing anti-racist work.

    In the “About Me” section of this site, you write: “My name is Jamie Utt, and I am fortunate enough in my life to be pursuing my life’s dream! I work as a full-time diversity consultant and professional presenter.”

    So you’re a white person, pursuing your “life’s dream” which is to make money from the existence of white supremacy? You consider that to be good fortune for yourself.

    Notice that your life’s dream is NOT that the system itself be dismantled. It doesn’t hurt you enough for that to be true. In fact, you benefit from its existence. Its existence is the foundation for your good fortune and your opportunity to pursue your life’s dream.

    This is telling. Stop and attend. This is telling.

    I call for honesty. If you want to keep doing this, do it. But – be upfront. In every presentation and consulting position that you take or seek, tell participants and decision-makers that it is your life’s dream to be doing this work.

    Clearly state that it is not your life’s dream that the system of white supremacy be dismantled.

    Then allow the responses to come as they may.

    Be honest. Be honest. Be honest. With honesty comes your answer. The rest of it is all a diversion from crystal clarity.

  8. […] complicated, and I don’t always feel good about it.  I have been struggling with issues like whether White folks should profit from diversity and inclusion work, and I have been trying to figure out where I fit in all of […]

  9. I have been a diversity facilitator/consultant for nearly 30 years and I am somewhat white. This question is a big non-starter for me. Everyone needs to be out doing diversity work in some form or fashion to make a better world for all of us. Everyone needs to be paid for their contribution if there is money to be had because we all need to eat. That is a factor involved in being part of one race, the human race. Sometimes those of us in the field get a bit hypersensitive and carried away. The question being posed is one example.

  10. […] few weeks ago, I read an online article, written by Jamie Utt, entitled, Should White Folks Profit from Diversity Work? I found the topic intriguing so I posted the article on my facebook page and posed the question in […]

  11. When my mother and her family were interned in the Japanese-American internment camps of WW2, it was Caucasian American lawyers working pro bono to help preserve as much humanity as possible while imprisoned, and help get them released as early as they did following the conclusion of the war. Not everyone can afford to work pro bono, however, and putting a “white face” on racism allows other “white faces” to see that maybe there’s something more than just “non-white faces” constantly complaining and whining. Frankly, I believe we need Caucasian support and allies– but it is a touchy subject. My response really is– I don’t care how much money you make– do people of color get quality value for that money? If you form a massive anti-racism organization that does work of the magnitude that the Gates Foundation does for its selected beneficiaries, for example, then I think you deserve proportionate reimbursement. Do you do good, meaningful work? Then thank you for your time and energy and caring and thoughtfulness.

  12. I also think there is a difference between diversity consulting (in the corporate world- diversity training is often very de-politicized- just “let’s be aware of differences without actually talking about them in-depth” and anti-racism work. I also think we need to draw attention to the fact that non-profits in general are very white dominated- and I would not be surprised if in general, non-profits that had more PoC on staff on average tended to pay less, just based on access to resources etc. Or to be more blunt about it, rich white people are probably more inclined to donate to things run by rich white people. Let’s talk about the privilege involved in choosing non-profit work vs. for-profit which might pay better, especially when a college degree is involved.

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