Like most of us, my inbox has been flooded for weeks with pointed statements from organizations condemning the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks. Most of these messages have shown support for the calls for justice and reform being heard across the country and taken a stand against racism and hate generally, and anti-Blackness specifically.
Many organizations have been applauded for these bold and vocal stances. But I’ve noticed another dangerous and more subversive trend that has largely been ignored. Multiple — primarily Black — leaders of nonprofit and youth-serving organizations have shared with me that they have faced negative backlash from “supporters” who found their statements off-putting.
These “supporters” have found the direct reproach of abject racism and calls for justice regarding violence against Black citizens just a step too far. It turns out that sanitized language regarding the education, housing, food, and health inequities faced by people of color is palatable, but direct language about Blackness — and the reality of our country’s history of fear and weaponization of Blackness that underpins those inequities — is a bit too unpleasant.
I founded and run the Surge Institute, an organization that supports, educates, and elevates Black, brown, and Asian/Pacific Islander education leaders. It’s why we exist, which means I’ve never felt the need to sanitize or downplay who we are and why we do this work. That has admittedly made it more difficult for us to secure some investments and scale as rapidly as we would like, but that’s been a consequence I’ve been willing to accept.
I didn’t have to hesitate to publish a statement from Surge in which I said, “We must understand and never forget that the roots of this nation are forever stained with the blood of our Black ancestors … We cannot — especially now — passively accept or ignore the anti-Blackness that infects our country like a virus.” In response, one of our most dedicated white investors responded with, “Surge’s focus on strengthening Black educational leadership seems even more urgent and vital for communities these days,” and pledged to continue to work in partnership with me and my team.
Conversely, a Black colleague and CEO who sent a much tamer statement in support of Black lives was told by a donor in writing that they would cease their financial support because of the statement’s “racially divisive” tone. They went on to remind this leader that the focus of their work was “education, not race.”
I worry, too, that when speaking out directly against injustice, our white counterparts are perceived as brave, while Black leaders see our anger weaponized. This difference in reception is not news to any of the leaders of color with whom I’ve discussed this issue. Quite the contrary. We are accustomed to being held to the impossible standard of speaking our truth, but not too directly.
This is the ugly truth far too many Black leaders are facing. I’ve spoken to leaders who are now facing six- or seven-figure losses in revenue for daring to take a public stand for the calls for justice, and all of them are leading organizations that directly serve communities that are primarily Black and brown.
This backlash is not trivial. It is well documented that leaders of color face steeper challenges in securing philanthropic support than their white counterparts. And in the midst of a global pandemic that has already led to uncertain financial futures and tenuous commitments, it is the type of thing that can lead to nonprofits that disproportionately serve those who can least afford to be without their services to sunset or downsize.
And fundraising challenges aren’t the only burden of fear these leaders are carrying. They are also carrying the weight of not speaking so bluntly about their outrage and pain that they offend non-Black team members who now have a budding consciousness of the reality in which Black people lived for so long.
This is not an irrational fear. I spoke to an executive leader this week who was called to the metaphorical principal’s office by his CEO because of an email in which he shared how he had been pained within the organization and provided resources and articles regarding white fragility and unconscious bias. Apparently, a white female colleague found his email deeply troubling, even threatening, so this gentleman was given an HR warning for sharing his truth in a moment of deep reckoning in this country. The irony of this is so deep it’s almost laughable.
But it’s not funny. It’s a natural extension of what so many of us have faced for so long. In 2012, as I shopped the idea for Surge around among my network, I consistently heard, “Surge sounds like a wonderful idea, but I would suggest you tone down the specific focus on the race of your fellows” or “This sounds amazing! But could you possibly incubate under [fill-in-the-blank white leader]? I think it would be better received by funders that way.” I wish I could say those were one-off comments, but they were not.
So my privilege in this moment makes me compelled to speak up on behalf of others who find themselves caught in this bind. If they speak with raw vulnerability, they may face the wrath of those on whom they rely for the financial lifeblood of their organizations or those internally who revert to fear tactics when they are made the least bit uncomfortable. If they don’t speak at all, not only do they suffer the personal trauma of internalized pain and racism, but they are also letting down their peers and those they serve by not utilizing their proverbial “seat at the table” to lead.
So, as you’re asking yourself what you can do in this moment, I say this:
1. If you have the means to support a Black nonprofit leader or other leader of color driving work aligned with your calls for racial equity and support for Black communities — just do it. (Here’s a list of nonprofit organizations led by Black, brown, and Asian/Pacific Islander leaders.)
2. If you know of leaders who are being negatively affected by their vocal stance in support of Black lives in the wake of the multiple crises being faced by Black communities, applaud their courage, double your financial support of them, and encourage others to do so as well.
3. If you are a board member of an organization being led by a Black leader, create the space for them to tell you what they need you to do to support their leadership at this moment, not just share how they feel. There’s a difference.
4. If you are working within an organization being led by a Black leader who has been relatively mute in this moment, give them some grace. Don’t assume that their silence means they are asleep at the wheel. Share how this moment is impacting you and ask how you can help them create space for others. They may surprise you!
5. If you are uncomfortable with these direct stances being taken by organizations that you have otherwise ostensibly supported, or have friends who are, encourage them to explore the sources of their discomfort.
We are all angry. We are all disillusioned. But outcry is not — and has never been — enough to quell the lie of racial superiority that leads to individual, institutional, and state-sanctioned acts to demean, disempower, and damage Black people. We must act, and act with a spirit of hope and optimism.
But that spirit requires honesty. Honesty about the impediments we face, the negative consequences often associated with speaking the truth, and the disproportionate weight carried by Black leaders and other leaders of color during these times.
Carmita Semaan is the founder and CEO of the Surge Institute.