CharitySoWhite: The charity sector needs an urgent spring clean of its hollow anti-racism work

Spring is a time for healing and new beginnings: and spring cleaning is underway in the charity sector with a leadership exodus. 

Recent months have seen a wave of people sharing horrific experiences of racism, sexism, bullying, and harassment while working in the sector.

These accounts are both the historical and present realities of our sector’s inherent structural injustice. 

Following these allegations, we have seen a spate of chief executive and senior leadership resignations from a range of organisations, including Versus Arthritis, the NCVO, the Institute of Fundraising and Pride in London. 

A common theme is that the majority of allegations were poorly-handled, pushing people of colour and minoritised groups to leave their organisations.

Is this exodus finally the beginning of sector leaders holding themselves accountable and instigating desperately-needed cultural transformation? 

Don’t count on it. Behind the symbolic resignations, signs of cover-ups and denialism across the sector are festering.

They are seen in the still enduring racism at work, and being forced to suffer in silence as their trauma is ignored by leadership teams. This deeply uncomfortable, widespread experience must be confronted if cultural change and safe work environments are truly the goals of the sector. 

There is such a thing as a bad apology

A number of organisations issued statements regarding the allegations and investigations. However, they fundamentally failed to acknowledge the distress and harm caused by racism and discrimination, and the traumatised staff who left the organisations as a result. 

Lengthy lamentations from Pride in London about exiting directors celebrated their past achievements, and ignored the reason for their departures.

This response was widely shared, minimising the unacceptable experiences of those victimised at work.

The chief executives of Versus Arthritis and NCVO resigned at convenient times, with little to no mention of the occurrences of abhorrent racism during their leadership.

Carefully-engineered statements do not acknowledge how organisations have failed past and present staff, or recognise that leaders have both overseen and been complicit in toxic environments. 

Apologies should create a sense of justice for those who have suffered. They require an acknowledgement of harm.

Empty, emotionally-charged statements, treat apologies as a tick-box exercise so perpetrators feel they can move on. Prioritising the perpetrator’s feelings over people of colour in this instance is the perfect example of a “bad apology”.

Time and again we have seen organisations and leaders tie soapboxes to bandwagons to herald the importance of diversity and equality - or proudly self-identify as anti-racist.

Despite this, they propagate systems of oppression, and foster harmful practices against staff. 

As they co-opt the language of allyship in "woke" tweets and speeches, they forget to cite the tireless, thankless, and unpaid campaigning and education from people of colour, women, and other minoritised communities.

Are the "beacons of progress" in our sector the people doing the work, or the mouthpieces for the work?

People of colour spearhead change while carrying immense emotional labour

Waves of change are the direct result of organising by groups such as #NotJustNCVO and the Pride in London committee.

People of colour have had to choose between tolerating daily degradation to pay their bills, or whistleblowing to spark critical conversations. 

Whether staff find success, or quit in exasperation, the mental and emotional scarring is there. 

No-one should be caused trauma in the workplace, or retraumatised as they see their experiences publicly debated.

The constant questioning of: “Was that racist?” creates difficult feelings that POC must grapple with on a continuum of validation and self-doubt. 

White leaders compound the pain of people of colour and minoritised people by publicly praising the work of harmful leaders, rather than discussing: “How can we appropriately deal with racism?” 

It is an active choice to focus on optics rather than substantial change and accountability, while they repackage the work of people of colour to claim credit.

We see through the facade and stand in solidarity with all people of colour in the sector who have faced this injustice. To heal the pain it is critical to share and sit with our truths. To heal the injustice, we must channel the pain into action. 

Where do we go from here?

This is not the first, or last, time the sector has been forced to reckon with its shortcomings.

Some instances have created genuine, tangible progress. Others have been an invitation to the table: yet when we go to sit, the seat is pulled out from under us, leaving us unheard - yet again. 

It is a disappointing reality that our sector seems incapable of genuinely learning from wrongdoing.

We ignore that accountability is an invitation to do better, opting to chase the desire to pat ourselves on the back as we celebrate decisions that we think create a modicum of positive momentum.

These sector-wide problems are created by those with power, and leaders must confront their own culpability.

There is no audit or investigation that could identify just one point of failure, as organisational cultures are reinforced over years. Upper and middle management only have eyes on these issues when oppressed groups quit –– leaving behind their unacknowledged and unpaid critical work. 

If organisations truly believe their racial equity statements, they need to face, embrace and heal from these failings.

When chief executives step down amid allegations of racism, discrimination, misconduct, or abuse, those headhunted to step up often share similar leadership styles.

Recruiting agencies must recognise their complicity in ushering toxic leaders between organisations, and prioritise the safety and wellbeing of staff by ending this practice. 

The sector’s interpretation of the government's Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report - and its denial of institutional racism in the UK - should be a fresh impetus for change.

The congratulatory attitudes of the self-appointed champions of racial equity in the report parallel charity sector leadership. Neither are fooling anyone. 

Every day we have called on organisations’ senior leaders and trustees to urgently implement anti-racist initiatives and centre the voices of communities of colour to address past harms.

It is time for that call to be answered. Step up and enact tangible, transformative anti-racist action, or get out of the way so others can. 

During this time of spring cleaning and objective-setting, charities must make a choice: will they continue to sweep their debris under the nearest rug; or come together to vacuum, mop, and polish the floorboards?

#CharitySoWhite is a campaign group committed to rooting out racism in the charity sector. Follow @charitysowhite to join the movement

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