Can Foundations Achieve Equity?

Thank you to our Patreon subscribers who help to keep the blog going: Aimie, Ali, Annie, Brooke C+C, Chelsea, Clarissa, Edith, Elizabeth, Evan, Jennifer, Kathryn, Kari, Kelli, Kirsten, Kristy, Lori, Matthew, Michael, Megan, and Miriam. If I missed anyone my apologies and thank you for your support.

By Erin Okuno, with thanks to Heidi Schillinger

“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” — Martin Luther King Jr.


Student artwork: “We believe in fighting apathy.” Taken at Ingraham High School, Seattle. Photo by Erin Okuno.

I’ve been mulling over the question of philanthropy and foundation’s roles in equity for several weeks. Working in the nonprofit sector most of my jobs, including my current job, have been funded by private philanthropy. At the risk of pissing off an entire sector and any future job prospects we have to talk about foundations, philanthropy, and racial equity. Many foundations and the philanthropic sector are having or starting to have conversations about their role in advancing racial equity. This is a welcomed change from the “we know best” savior mentality, and power lording over nonprofits. Even with these burgeoning conversations we owe it to those we serve to have the broader conversation about foundations and equity.

If you ask me today if foundations can achieve equity, my answer is no. The current practices and landscape of foundations and the philanthropic sector today does not allow foundations to be equitable. They can adapt their practices to be more equitable, but overall the way philanthropy is currently practiced falls into either providing access to money or programming our way to equity.

Can We Achieve Equity through Inequity?

Jondou Chen, a fakequity partner, is fond of asking the question “Can we achieve equity through inequitable means?” Many of the foundations existing today came about because of private wealth of some sort. Much of the private wealth generated in the United States was through exploitative means of people of color. Through policies such as slavery, underpayment of pocs, red lining, state sponsored practices such as inadequate funding of schools, opportunity hoarding, and other societal practices that favor white people. Wealth and opportunities benefited white people and allowed for wealth accumulation over time. Philanthropy has become a benevolent way for white people to feel ok about their wealth and to work to redistribute it, and at the same time it is also another way for white people to benevolently control the destinies of people of color. Put another way, it is a way for white people to incentivize and reward organizations who can code switch, model off of whiteness, or reward white problem solving for communities of color.

In a slightly off-topic but related story, I once spoke on a panel to mostly wealthy white people who were learning about philanthropy. I kept using the word equity and the philanthropist kept giving me weird looks. I finally stopped and threw a question to them. I asked “How do you define equity?” A bold person said “you mean like financial equity where you build wealth through investments.” In that moment I realized we were having two very different conversations and two different starting points for understanding equity. Since then I’ve become more clear about defining racial equity and not just using the word equity. It also crystallized that white controlled philanthropy has a very different starting point for understanding the impact of their role in undoing racism. In that room there was a skewed balance of power that tipped to the philanthropist because of wealth, being in a collective setting, and control of the agenda. I also wonder if they were ready to think about how their giving upholds or dismantles racism — they probably weren’t ready since I was standing between them and a buffet lunch on real china not paper plates.

In the book Unicorns Unite how Nonprofits & Foundations Can Build EPIC Partnerships co-authored by my friend-colleague Vu Le, the authors write that foundation’s money is for the common good. Once money is put into a foundation it ceases to belong to the person who placed it in the foundation. Yet, even with this belief and practice, many of the foundations existing today consciously or unconsciously practice white-biases and even white supremacy.

Whiteness shows up in who is on the board and staff, how the grant priorities and guidelines are put together, in the processes for distributing funds and the metrics used to measure success.

On a practical level I understand how these practices emerged and the demand to use money wisely. And yet we must acknowledge the inequities and unconscious racism embedded in the philanthropic system. Philanthropy wasn’t designed for people of color’s ease of navigation or access, and it definitely wasn’t designed for poc wellbeing or comfort, including for pocs working in philanthropy.

Who has Power and Control

Whether we acknowledge it or not foundations and philanthropy have a lot of control and power over agendas and nonprofits. Some of the power is used for good and some of it misplaced. When a foundation wants to make a shift or prioritize a new way of working they will signal that shift in their giving and if nonprofits who rely upon those dollars want the money to continue doing their work they have to comply with the shift. Sometimes the change is appropriate and it modernizes nonprofit practices. But when these changes are forced upon a community and without community voice to help shape the change that is how fakequity happens.

The nonprofit sector emerged to fill the gaps that government, individuals, and others can’t fill. We don’t like seeing hungry kids, unhoused people, animals being abused, or racism run amok – the nonprofit industry (it is an industry) chooses to act. We do it because we want to see change, but in order for the change to be equitable it has to be led by the community and those most impacted by the change – not driven by an outside agenda dangling a carrot of payment. This at the heart of Jondou’s question “can we achieve equity through inequitable means?”

Foundations, as we know them today, aren’t designed to share control and power. They are designed to have an agenda and to fund organizations that align with their agendas not a community of color driven agenda. The current model of foundation giving, even pooled giving or poc centered giving, doesn’t allow for this. Pooled and poc centered giving is still built off of models of white-philanthropy, so while foundations and funds centered on poc voice and experience are more equitable they still adopted many of the practices (e.g. grant guidelines, applications, contracts, etc.) and are accountable (i.e. IRS tax structure, laws governing nonprofits, etc.) to whiteness. If we are to achieve racial equity and racial justice we have to believe communities of color should be in control of our own destinies and build a structure centered on pocs, not rebuilding off of whiteness.

Foundation’s Can do Better

In order to do better we need to change. Jondou shared this quote from poet and activist June Jordan “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” We can’t wait for some outside force to bring about the change.

Since we probably won’t see a wholesale change to the philanthropic sector I will leave you with some questions to ponder:

  • Riffing off of the Martin Luther King quote at the top, is your foundation/giving looking at root causes of inequities for people of color?
  • Who is defining the request for proposal? Is it being informed by what pocs want to see funded? Have pocs been given the space and resources to think and redefine what a radical solution could look like?
  • Is the foundation’s board and staff willing to slow down and acknowledge the biases, power, proximity to other forms of power, and inequities it holds?
  • Is the foundation willing to share power and control and undo structures that favor dominant culture?
  • Borrowing off of another Jondou question, is the foundation willing to ask “What are the justices our community needs from us, and how can we be in a just relationship with each other?” Acknowledging both the giver and receiver have to have a more balanced role with each other.
  • Is the foundation willing to change, does it have the courage and humility to change? Will the organization let go of past practices, people, relationships that no longer fit a new vision? Is it willing to put resources into building new relationships and willing to go slow to build trust and put money towards trying new ways of giving?

If we can move foundations to being in more just and equitable maybe I’ll come around to believing foundations can achieve equity.

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar (desktop version). Support the blog by becoming a Patreon supporter.

Our very own Korean Drama: Part 1 – Are you my bio sister? – Pre DNA Test Results from Three “Sisters”

Thank you to our Patreon subscribers who help to keep the blog going: Aimie, Ali, Annie, Brooke C+C, Chelsea, Clarissa, Edith, Elizabeth, Evan, Jennifer, Kathryn, Kari, Kelli, Kirsten, Kristy, Lori, Matthew, Michael, Megan, and Miriam. If I missed anyone my apologies and thank you for your support. 

This week’s blog post is a bit long. It is long for a reason, it takes a look at three personal stories about one-family-set of DNA tests. Why is this on a racial equity blog? Personal stories and narratives are important to understanding people of color’s histories and truths. We also believe in relationships. Heidi and Marki are integral parts of the Fakequity family, understanding them is to understand the team as a whole. Thanks for sharing and trusting us with your story.

By Heidi Schillinger, Marki Schillinger, and family


This post is personal. Really personal. At the risk of no one deciding to read this post, I am really writing it for myself. As a way to process, heal, and normalize the experience of being an adoptee. I think sharing our personal stories is a way to connect to humanize.

Anyone who knows me knows I am addicted to Korean dramas. I started watching Korean dramas over 20 years ago to “help” with my Korean language learning. I am not sure it has really helped, but I keep watching. Korean dramas have evolved to encompass every possible storyline, but the best original K-Dramas had you in tears by the end of the first episode. They were full of family secrets, raw emotions, and unbelievable coincidences (not to mention love triangles, cross-class forbidden romance, and terminal illness). Recently my sisters and I have joked that we have our very own version of a real life Korean drama. Sad and true. Or true and sad.

I want my sisters to be able to speak for themselves, and the chief Fakequity editor enforces a word limit. So, I am going to do a quick summary of events to get you up to the point where I proposed to my sisters that we take DNA tests to confirm whether we are biologically related.

Episodes 1-5: A Quick Recap of the Long Search

My sister, Marki, and I were adopted into a white family (hence the name Heidi Schillinger) in the mid-1970’s. Our parents originally wanted to adopt one child but were swayed when asked if they’d consider siblings to keep us together. We joke that they were duped in a two for one scheme. We grew up like many Korean adoptees during that time, fully assimilated into dominate white American culture and disconnected from Korea. It wasn’t until my senior year of college when I studied abroad in Korea that I started to consider my connection to Korea.

While I was studying in Korea, people told me I should look for my biological family. Actually, they told me I should look for my “real” family, but that is for another blog post. That started a nearly decade long search for my biological family. At first, I searched because people told me I should, and I was young and impressionable. But it was emotional, overwhelming, and disappointing. It took a few years and coming up with my own reasons for searching before I started looking again. Thanks to a Korean friend, Marki and I appeared on a national TV talk show called Achim Madang (아침 마당) , on our local MBC Mokpo news program, in a national newspaper, and even in a Korean song dedicated to Korean adoptees. We met with families who had given up children, some exposing long held family secrets and shared tears with them over our common connection with loss. During other periods of living in Korea, I often wandered around Korea looking at older women and thinking about the title of the children’s book “Are you my Mother?” Years later, Marki recognized our bio mom randomly in the subway.

Just when I thought we had exhausted all of our search options and I had come to peace with the fact that we might never find any biological family, a Korean drama-like coincidence unfolded. I had since moved back to Seattle but happened to be in Korea visiting. At the same time, a distant paternal cousin happened to be visiting from Japan. And our oldest paternal aunt happened to be visiting from the U.S. (Boston). The distant cousin from Japan begins to relay a story she heard from her sister about our Achim Madang TV show appearance from a year ago to our paternal uncle, who lives in Seoul, and to our oldest aunt. Within about 24 hours, our orphanage in Mokpo and the Korean national TV station are calling my old Korean phone number, which the friend I am visiting still happens to be using. And a few hours later, our paternal uncle and aunt show up at my friend’s house in Daegu (5 hours from Seoul), claiming to be our bio family. It was a very emotional and confusing time. My first emotion was disbelief. Even though I wanted to believe, I couldn’t. We had met other families on this journey that didn’t turn out to be our relatives. At some point, I started to get numb to the process and prospect as a coping mechanism.

But my paternal uncle and aunt seemed sure. They seemed so sure they insisted I come home with them immediately. I didn’t. I made them convince my Korean friend who had been helping me search first. My uncle managed to convince my friend with old middle school documents that provided the same home address that was on our orphanage adoption paperwork. This was it. I had been searching and waiting for this day. This moment. What proceeded was a whirlwind of family stories, where I learned everyone has their own version of the truth. My uncle even led us on an investigative journalist style chase down of our biological mom, complete with the dreaded knock on her apartment door and her full-on breakdown in the backseat of my uncle’s car. In the meantime, I am asking myself, “What was happening? What did I just unearth? Is it worth it?” I’ve just disrupted so many lives. Including my sister, Marki’s life. She never signed up for this roller coaster ride. She thought she was just being supportive of me. Maybe she never really thought I would find anything or anyone. Back in Seattle, Marki was also being bombarded with calls from our biological family.

The other life I disrupted was of our oldest biological sister, Unnie (older sister in Korean, even though technically Marki is my Unnie too). Our Unnie immigrated to the U.S. with a paternal uncle in the mid-1990’s. She was married and had three children by the time we were reunited. And, her immediate family and in-laws had no knowledge of us. After I returned from Korea, Marki and I immediately flew to Boston to meet our Unnie and family there. I don’t remember much, expect there was a lot of food, a lot of crying, and a lot of exposing of old family secrets.

Episodes 6-10: Let’s Take a DNA test! Huh?

That brings us to now. Fifteen years after finding our biological family. Fifteen years of living as family with our Unnie in Boston. Those years included trips to Korea together, yearly visits to Seattle or Boston, seeing our niece and nephews grow from little kids into amazing young adults, and a lot of food. I mean a lot of food.

A few weeks ago, Marki and I visited Boston to see our family and attended our niece’s college graduation, Hooray, Carrissa! On our final day there, I pulled out three DNA test kits and proposed we take them and confirm if we really are biologically related. Our Unnie asks, “why now? We’ve been living as family for 15 years. Why do this now?” That’s a good question.

Why now? Seriously, I don’t really know. It could be because the DNA kits were on sale during Black Friday last year, and I thought why not. I don’t think easily accessible DNA testing was available when we first reunited. But really, the answer is maybe I am just curious. Curiosity has been a driver all along. Somewhere along the journey, I came to terms with the fact that curiosity can be enough of the reason. As an adoptee, I didn’t have the luxury of knowing where I come from, who my biological family is, where my physical and personality traits steam from, or even if I am truly connected to this place called Korea. People would often tell me if I am happy with my life and family in the U.S. then I shouldn’t be curious, but I believe this is a false and dangerous dichotomy. I believe curiosity about who I am and where I come from is natural, despite my current situation or relationship with my (adoptive) family.

Unnie asked me, “What if you find out we are not biologically related? Will you search again?”

What if? This is the scarier question. I have all these what if’s running through my head. I want to believe that regardless of the results, my relationship with both my sisters won’t change. But somewhere I wonder if I am embarking on another part of this journey that will disrupt lives again,including my own. Here are some of the what if’s running through my head- my feelings, my rational thoughts, and my feelings.

What if Marki and I really aren’t related?
We’ll be fine. Our relationship won’t change.
But what if it does?

What if Unnie is not really our biological sister?
We have lived as family for 15 years it will be fine.
Some little part of me is scared that it won’t be the same. It won’t be fine.

What if it says we are related? Is that the end of this journey? Will I be satisfied.
Yes, this is the definitive answer I have been searching for through this process.
I probably won’t be satisfied. I will want to meet our half siblings despite our bio mom’s objections

What if it says we aren’t related? Will I search again?
No, I’ll be satisfied with the “bio” family relationships we have created.
I’ll probably feel the need to search again.

Marki and Unnie already have their DNA results, but mine came back “unsuccessful” – perhaps because I am not human or had too much chicken in my saliva sample. We promised to wait until we all could open our results together. So stay tuned for the next episodes of our very own Korean drama – the DNA Results!

Marki’s Pre-DNA Test Result Reflections:

“We can only know where we’re going if we know where we’ve been.” Maya Angelou

My sister, Heidi, and I were adopted in 1975, from South Korea. We were young and were told we were biological sisters. I believed it. I still believe it. It’s what I’ve believed all my life. Our voices sound alike, we have some similar mannerisms, and we’re both terrible singers. I mean very terrible. Here’s one of our best photos together.

Heidi and Marki

Marki and Heidi as children riding a toy pony. One of the few pictures of both of them in dresses.

Heidi and I spent many years growing up in a small Washington State town. We played basketball together, we went on family vacations, and we fought like sisters do. We grew up in a family with four additional siblings.

About 15 years ago, Heidi searched, and found our biological family. We met our birth mother, birth father, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a sister.  We immediately flew out east to meet this sister we didn’t even know existed. Finding another sister in our 30s was amazing. We met her family and have continued building a great friendship with them all.

Marki and Heidi bikes

Marki and Heidi riding bicycles in Korea.

As adults, Heidi and I have remained close friends. We traveled all over, including a cross country trip in South Korea on our bikes. She said I snored, but I don’t believe her. Here’s a picture of one of our epic journeys together.

A few months ago, Heidi proposed we three sisters take DNA tests together. I was surprised, but curious. I had settled for the truth of what others had told me, but DNA could settle the matter once and for all. I wanted to know. Heidi and I flew east and took the 23andme DNA tests with our sister.

Initially, I was a cornucopia of emotions. I had so many questions. What if we weren’t really sisters? What if my life had been built on something false? What if it meant Heidi and my relationship would change? Where would I belong if I wasn’t related to my sisters? What if only two of us were related and the third wasn’t? What if… what if…  As I wait, I wonder…

Then, I remember all the memories. I remember all the times I spent with Heidi and my family growing up. I have memories of us at the beach, having picnics, playing basketball together, seeing newborn nephews and nieces, graduations… I have so many memories with Heidi. I remember sharing a room as teenagers and blasting my 80’s music over and over and Heidi trying to cover her head with her pillow to drown out the music. I remember drawing a line in the middle of our bedroom floor as to separate the space that was individually ours, and the other couldn’t cross. Except I didn’t leave Heidi any room to exit, she was trapped. Oh the things I remember. The funny stories, the tears, and the love. I remember our birth search we did together, I remember the awkward meetings between Korean women who wanted to be our mother, but just couldn’t have been based on information, ages, etc. I have more than 40 years of memories with Heidi and my family. I have more than a decade of memories with my newly found biological sister on the east coast. Those don’t just go away, the relationships don’t just disappear. I’m pretty sure we three sisters are biologically related, but there’s a chance we aren’t. In that case, I know where I have been. I know the memories I have, and I know my future will include my sisters and my family.

Boston Family’s Pre-DNA Test Result Reflections:

Unnie (via Our Niece): Yes, I think we ‘re sisters. If not, I guess we’ll still keep in touch and keep our relations. The past 15 years we believed we were sisters so now what? I’m going to keep believing we’re sisters.

Brother in-law (via Our Niece): (nodding head) I think they’re sisters. Too many family similarities; all have bad singing voices, all have bad skin, and all can’t drink.

Aunt (via Our Niece): They’re sisters. The address that you had matches up with the address that we have. Heidi looks exactly your mother. Marki looks like your grandfather on your father’s side. Kum Soon looks exactly like her grandmother on her father’s side.

Niece: I think they’re sisters. Definitely having the same home address is weird but the physical features are very similar. Heidi and my mom look really similar and oddly I look very similar to Marki. I definitely think it’s scary to ever think Marki and Heidi aren’t my biological aunts because they’ve been a part of my life for so long, but like my mom said so what? In my heart they’re always going to my aunts and a part of my lives. They have been with me through thick and thin and I couldn’t imagine a world without them.

For now we wait. We wait until Heidi’s results come back and the great unveiling. We wonder what will happen and what the next episode of the Korean Sister Drama will be. In the meantime we will practice singing, or maybe not, or maybe just to torture our brother-in-law.


If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar (desktop version). Support the blog by becoming a Patreon supporter.

Implicit Bias — You have it too

By Heidi Schillinger, edited by Erin

Thank you to our Patreon subscribers who help to keep the blog going: C+C , Kari, Matthew, Ali, Kathryn, Elizabeth, Evan, Jennifer, Clarissa, Aimie, Megan, Kelli, Lori, Annie, Miriam, Edith. If I missed anyone my apologies and thank you for your support.

Editor’s Note: Heidi wrote this in part to share ideas about last week’s blog post about Starbuck’s afternoon closure. This week we’ll go deeper into looking at implicit racial bias and why we need to pay attention to it.

cultural_unconscious_biasAll of us have biases. We develop them as we are socialized and it is part of who we are. As part of our work around being better humans and learning about race and its impact on people we need to pay attention to our biases and work to recognize them.

Acknowledge and Model Normalizing Implicit Racial Bias: It’s easy to point at others, or whisper behind their backs, and say how horrible their implicit racial bias problem is, but the reality is brain science points to the fact that is it human to have bias. And implicit (a.k.a. unconscious) bias comes from the socially designed construction of race— specifically, designed racial segregation, including colonization, reservations, slavery, racial restrictive covenants, legal segregation, Japanese Internment, Chinese Exclusion laws, Jim Crow, and now the current evolution of those explicit policies – displacement, segregation, etc. Repeat after me. It is human to have bias. I am not a bad person if I admit I have bias. No one took a training and presto eliminated their biases.

As a thought experiment have a conversation with someone about biases. If they say, “I am a good person, so I don’t have biases,” or if they tell you they got rid of their biases in 2005, share a recent racial bias you noticed in yourself, and admit you are human and have biases and that likely they might have biases still too. The key to this strategy is not to share a bias from childhood (sending the message that you only had biases when you were young), but to share one from today or the last few days.

In case you’re wondering people of color have racial biases too. We are human too (although the dehumanizing narrative of race still runs deep and thick). It’s important to acknowledge that racial bias + power = systemic racism, which is why white folks need to carry a heavier load of unpacking racism and biases. It’s also important to stress that racial bias just doesn’t show up as negative bias toward a group, but also positive bias toward your own group. Consider how white folks are often given the benefit of the doubt and can avoid things like traffic tickets, school discipline – or how white folks can use the restroom without paying for coffee at a café, walk around a neighborhood without people suspecting they/you don’t belong, or get hired on a belief about their/your potential even if they/you don’t meet the stated qualifications.

In the spirit of modeling, here is a recent example of my own. During a recent training session, I saw two young women of color walk into the session. My first thought (that inner voice) was that they must be interns, as I knew this organization was working hard to racially diversify their interns. I really wanted to ask, “Are you interns? What school are you attending?” But caught my inner voice, and thought since I’m doing a session on implicit racial bias, maybe I shouldn’t ask those questions as my initial conversation starters. When we went around the room to do introductions the two young women stated they are recent hires and engineers. That is when shame took over in my mind. But hey, I’m human too. The good news is I could catch myself before asking the questions, but I am sure I don’t always catch myself.

Action Tip: The takeaway from this strategy is to talk with one other person today about an implicit racial bias that you noticed in yourself, and try hard to normalize these conversations.

Slow Down and Notice Implicit Racial Bias: Okay, we’ve established all humans have implicit racial biases, now we need to slow ourselves down and notice them. I work with a lot of educators and love the teaching prompts “I notice… I wonder…” as a way to talk about implicit racial bias. Here is how this can work. When you’re sitting in a meeting today, slow down and notice who is in the room and who isn’t in the room. For example, if you’re having a meeting about how to engage people who speak English as a second or third or fourth language, stop and ask “I wonder how many people in this room have that experience?” If everyone says, they are monolingual English speaker, then say “I notice that everyone here is a monolingual English speaker, and I wonder how we might be missing important perspectives as we have this conversation.” Here are some other examples ways to practice slowing down and noticing race (and seeing if there is implicit racial bias) –

Action Tip: Notice the Race of the –

  1. Authors of your favorite books
  2. Most recent hires
  3. Board members and leadership team
  4. Closest friends
  5. Professional network
  6. Owners of the businesses that you support
  7. Consultants you hire

Most people’s gut reaction to doing this is to justify or say “yes, but…” Here is the thing if racial bias shows up in these analysis, you’re not a bad person, you’re just a product of our (racist) system. The question is, now that you know, will you do something different? Or will you just justify the results and continue to uphold the existing system of racism?

Be Curious and Consider the Opposite: Two of my favorite TED Talks – How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them and Color Blind or Color Brave offer examples of how this “consider the opposite” strategy works. Verna Myers in How to overcome our biases, talks about how she was really excited when she heard she was flying in a plane with a woman pilot, but when the plane hit turbulence she thought “I hope this lady can fly.” But then on the flight home, she realized that it’s always turbulent and bumpy and when there is a male pilot, she never questions whether they can fly. Mellody Hobson, in Color blind or Color brave, takes about how most board rooms are filled with white men, and we just believe that is normal, but if we were to walk into a board room filled with just black folks we would think that is weird.

Action Tip: Think about when your biases play out and think about the opposites of those biases. As an example if your bias is to listen to leaders talk but tune out others during conversations ask yourself why, does race have a role to play in who gets listened to and believed?

Design Around our Default Implicit Racial Biases: Once we can admit we have implicit racial biases, then we can design around them. Here are a few ways this is being done.

Many/Most HR departments are acknowledging that unintentional name bias is happening during the applicant screening process, so to design around this names are being removed during the review process. Taking a name off of an application allows for a first blind review and has the potential to screen in people with names that may be believed to be more racialized.

Women and minority owned business enterprise (WMBE) contracting efforts started as a government way to contract more with women and people of color. Once people acknowledged that most contracts go to white male owned businesses they can make a conscious effort to not leave women and people out. Side note, if you analyze your WMBE numbers, I am willing to bet unless you are being intentional most of your WMBE contracts go to white women. Which is another reason to also be explicit about calling-in race.

Action Tip: Pay attention to where you default to spending your time and money, then design your day to be more intentional about including people of color owned businesses or whom you spend your time with.

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar (desktop version). Support the blog by becoming a Patreon supporter.

Nine Things to Do While Starbucks is Closed

By Erin and Heidi

Thank you to our Patreon subscribers who help to keep the blog going: Aimie, Ali, Annie, C+C, Edith, Elizabeth, Evan, Jennifer, Kari, Kathryn, Kelli, Lori, Matthew, Megan, and Miriam. If I missed anyone my apologies and thank you for your support.

coffee cup

photo by Mark

Starbucks is in the news because they are closing next Tuesday, 29 May for a company-wide training on race. To quickly review in 2015 Starbucks launched a company wide campaign to start conversations about race. Baristas were supposed to write “Race Together” on cups, CEO at the time Howard Schultz (a white male) was front and center on the campaign. That campaign was short lived and fizzled faster than a Frappuccino could be made. In 2018 Starbucks is back in the news because a manager called the police on two Black men who were waiting for a friend at a Starbucks, they hadn’t ordered anything was the excuse/justification the manager gave.

Here is a list of nine-things you can do while Starbucks is closed for their company-wide training.

1. Visit a people of color owned coffee shops or business. Spending our monetary and time resources at poc owned businesses is investing in communities of color. If you need suggestions of where to go check out this map by Equity Matters. It is an open source map so please add to it and edit it as needed (e.g. add or delete businesses that are now closed). Bookmark it and refer back to it so you can invest your dollars into poc businesses. Here is a Black owned coffee roaster, Mt. Tahoma Coffee Company, you can order online so no excuses for those of you reading in other parts of the internet world.

2. Read the previous Fakequity article on “We Can’t Train our Way to Racial Equity.” The short version is one-time training won’t ‘fix’ Starbucks or any other organization. The racism that launched Starbucks into the news isn’t isolated to coffee shops it can be found almost anywhere. Racial equity and undoing racism work is a lifetime commitment.

3. Learn about implicit bias. The Starbucks incident is not uncommon, the same behavior of calling out Black and Brown people happens everyday in grocery stores, and even in people’s own homes. Implicit bias and white supremacy are built into American society.

4. Acknowledge we have racial biases. It’s easy to point fingers at Starbucks, and say how terrible their implicit racial bias problem is, but the reality is that all brain science points to the fact that is it human to have bias. It’s easy to point out other folks racial bias and it’s often done in a shaming way. This finger pointing and blaming makes folks defensive, shut down, and unwilling to admit we all have biases. Repeat after Heidi. It is human to have bias. We’re not a bad person if we admit we have bias. Once we acknowledge it we can begin to catch ourselves before we blindly act on them. We’ll blog about this more in future posts.

5. Recognize coffee’s history and origins. Coffee beans originally came from Ethiopia. Because of trade, colonization, and companies like Starbucks, US coffee culture is now synonymous with white culture. Many communities have unique coffee cultures and ceremonies that involve slowing down and connecting people to their histories, learn about them and remember Starbucks fast-mass produced coffee culture isn’t the norm. In the US there is a violent history of African Americans being segregated and not allowed into restaurants, spend some time learning this history.

6. Not everyone drinks coffee. We are currently in the holy month of Ramadan in the Muslim faith, which involves fasting from sunup to sundown. Many of us center our social lives and work around food and drink. Recognizing how prevalent our US lives are around food is an important part of recognizing some of our biases. I (erin) mark Ramadan on my calendar as a reminder to be conscious of the holy month when scheduling with partners. I don’t drink coffee either, never got around to liking it, so I’ll still meet you for ‘coffee’ but order a tea instead.

7. Design your no-Starbucks-cause-they-are-watching-implicit-bias-videos-afternoon differently. How many times do we default to using Starbucks or other large companies (amazon, Facebook, etc.) instead of defaulting to a poc centered way. Visit a poc centered and preferably embedded museum or cultural center such as Northwest African American Museum, Wing Luke Museum, American Latino Museum, Smithsonian Museum of American Indian,or Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. If you look hard enough you can find a poc centered community driven museum or cultural center, so don’t try to use the excuse “But I’m nowhere near the Smithsonian so I can’t visit a poc museum.”

Heidi also shares this: “I realized in my work I spend most of my money at white owned businesses, in fact too much money at Amazon, damn them for making it so easy to shop whenever something comes to mind. This was by design. If you feel a little uneasy about directing money towards people of color owned businesses in this explicit and intentional way, consider the opposite. Do you want to spend most of your money at only white owned businesses? Usually the answer is no, but that is the current default design of the system. In an attempt to make it easier to spend money at people of color owned businesses, we created an open source map of people of color owned businesses. So now if someone wants to have a coffee meeting or happy hour, we can just open up the map and easily choose a people of color owned business. Please add to the map. I’m happy to report it now even includes a marijuana shop (only to be used in states where pot is legal).

8. Don’t burden pocs, especially Black and Brown people, with educating you on race. In what limited information we’ve seen on the Starbucks training it looks like they engaged very well-respected and credentialed people to help them design the training. It will feature videos, a guidebook for facilitators, and conversation. We sincerely hope in those conversations the pocs in the room aren’t burdened with having to educate others or deal with white tears, fragility, hostility, and so on. Creating a space to learn together takes time and dedication, practice, and trusting relationships.

9. Register to vote. Spend the afternoon getting involved in civic actions. Voting is important to undoing racist policies at a systems level. Register to vote and help someone else register. Learn about an obscure race or ballot measure– those school board elections, initiatives and referendums, port commissioners races on the ballot. We have yet to meet someone who is well versed on everything they vote on. Engage someone unexpected in a conversation about these and think through how race impacts the election. The other day, while I (erin) was waiting for my kid to finish a project I chatted with a small business owner-of-color about Washington’s need for an income tax and how a regressive tax system holds back families-of-color like hers. She was confused, but it planted a seed of a thought for a future conversation.

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar (desktop version). Support the blog by becoming a Patreon supporter.

Being in Just Relationships

By Erin O. with much thanks and appreciation to Jondou Chase Chen for the ideas shared

Thank you to our Patreon subscribers who help to keep the blog going. Lori, C+C, Kari, Kathryn, Elizabeth, Evan, Jennifer, Annie, Miriam, and Edith thank you. If I missed anyone my apologies and thank you for your support.


Photo taken at the National Portrait Gallery by Erin Okuno

Today, at my organization’s coalition meeting I threw out an ice-breaker question inspired or riffed-off of (as he likes to call it) from Jondou. “What does community justice look like?” and “What does it mean to be in a just relationship?” The question left some scratching their heads and others dove right in. The answers that were shared out were interesting. One person shared that a sense of community justice had to be rooted in place and history, especially as it relates to understanding Native American and Indigenous contexts and the connectedness of land. Another person said a just relationship felt focused in the present and it was important to see it and feel a connection to each other. From what I could hear people wrestled and grappled with this prompt individually and had to define justice for themselves.

Justice is often conceptualized as a big and imposing idea. When I think of justice I often think of formal justice like law enforcement, judicial and court systems, and judges who adjudicate. There is a buildings called the “Temple of Justice” where court are held — it sounds very ethereal like justice floats down from the heavens on soft puffy clouds or more harshly through thunderbolts if you are in the wrong.

Yet in our everyday lives we have to balance and shift relationships to achieve what Jondou calls person-to-person justice, he uses the metaphor of the Chinese character (ping), shaped as balanced and translated to mean equal, level, peaceful, calm. When I pause to think about the people I value most in my life and the people I have the most meaningful and thoughtful relationships with are those where we seek to have person-to-person justice. This idea has stuck with me this week because of some activist moves I’ve had to take to advocate for my community to seek justice for ourselves.

What is a Just-Relationship

When I say just relationship, I mean to strive for and participates in acts of justice. I am using the adjective form of the word defined as “behaving according to what is morally right and fair,” not the adverb form meaning “exactly.”

Being in a just relationship implies, firstly, there is a connection of some sort. The relationship can either be a deep relationship such as a spouse, familial tie, friends or colleagues, or more loose such as two-Facebook friends, or in elementary school two kids who are friends one-week but frenemies the next. Add on levels of racial awareness, wokeness, sexism, gender-identity, power dynamics, and other layers of social context and relationships begin to get complex. Being in a just relationship means we need to attend to these complexities and sort through them as co-participants in the relationship.

In the book The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything James Martin, SJ, writes that friends do not exist to simply support, comfort, and nourish us. Friendships, which I broaden to define as relationships, serve as secure bases and there is a sense of freedom. Relationships aren’t a possession to own. Being in a just relationship with each other means we seek to balance and comfort and nourish each other as the relationship needs fit.

Since this is a blog about race and equity, I want to name that for too long white people and white institutions treat people of color relationships as something they can own and at the same time dispose of when the relationship becomes a liability. An example include Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player who refused to stand during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. He was valuable when he performed on the football field, but his form of seeking justice wasn’t palatable to NFL owners and due to his protest he remains a free agent with no NFL team signing him. Some might say Kaepernick should have known not to rile things up, that his job is to play football and to protest police brutality while in his role as an NFL is uncalled for. Yet can a person have justice and be in a just relationship with others if they have to censor themselves?

In another more local example, earlier this year the YMCA of Greater Seattle announced they are closing a beloved education program, Powerful Schools. The details are shared in this op-ed. When the announcement was originally made a group of parents sought justice through information, we wrote a letter requesting a meeting with the Y’s leaders– a call-in to build a relationship however fragile. Yet, from the start the relationship felt transactional and there was little person-to-person justice. Communication, transparency, and a willingness to engage in forms of justice seeking can help to balance power and build towards more just relations. These values have to be shared, when it is one sided the relationship is unbalanced and justice is harder to seek.

When justice is lost in a relationship we’re forced to seek other forms of justice, such as having to publicly call out an organization and institutions for their acts of injustice. Cell phone videos showing state-sponsored violence is an example; police (loosely using the word not saying every law enforcement officer) can be perpetrators of injustice and now with mobile technology and social media evidence of this is more widely shared — people seeking their own justice through social media. We lose a sense of humanity and good relations when forced to seek punitive forms of justice.

Historically white led institutions need to get better about realizing their responsibility in helping to bring about justice. They also need to get better about acting with humility and recognizing the histories of injustice that have led to our present day situation. My bitterness runs deep since I see how my community is owned, used, defunded and under prioritized because white-led institutions have the power to prioritize other relationships. If I don’t seek some justice for myself and my community we will be left behind again.

Before I end this on a completely bitter note, I will make a public commitment to seek person-to-person justice first. Relationships are important and we achieve more if we can be in just relations with each other. I will do this as a way to work towards justice and to hopefully write a more just-seeking future.

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar (desktop version). Support the blog by becoming a Patreon supporter.

Why Fakequity Isn’t Enough Part II — Men We Need to do Better

Thank you to our Patreon subscribers who help to keep the blog going. C2, Kari, Kathryn, Elizabeth, Evan, Jennifer, Annie, Miriam, and Edith thank you. 

By Jondou Chase Chen

Content warning: Patriarchy, misogyny, and racism in communities of color.

she the people
She the People, artwork by Anika Orrock, from


This year has been filled with some tough reckoning for me as a cishet man of color. Aziz. Sherman. Bill. Junot. Each of these men of color is in the wrong. Each of these men of color has positively impacted me. Both of these are true statements. That doesn’t mean they are equal or off-setting, though. In fact, they are connected. I’m writing now to try to make sense of that painful connection, to name the responsibility that men of color to do and be better, and to offer possibilities for justice not just for sexism but for racism as well.

I’m writing this having read and being committed to continuing to read and believing the experiences of women and GNC folks of color. I don’t intend to write to center another man of color’s voice. And if my intent doesn’t match my impact on you, I want to acknowledge this, ask that you stop reading this now, and offer if you’d like to write or have other writing that you would like to offer instead, to please share. For everyone – whether my writing on this works for you or not – if you haven’t already, please read Carmen Maria Machado, Roxane Gay, Adrienne Maree Brown, Janet Mock, Thi Bui, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Alok Vaid-Menon – who are each 1000 times the writer I am.

This post began as a friendly response to Erin’s post last week on why we center race here on Fakequity. It’s not because I disagreed with Erin. It’s because part of fake equity is oversimplifying a complex world into a single story. One of the many reasons I love being part of the Fakequity team is because we’re not all the same. We have different identities, different experiences, and different ideas. My biggest fear with Fakequity is I’m not sharing as much as I’m getting from the group. Erin’s writing pushed me last week. She had some ideas I hadn’t thought of before. She had some ideas I didn’t completely agree with. She had some ideas that raised up new ideas in me. For all of this, I’m grateful. And one more thing. I’m glad Fakequity isn’t just led by people of color, I’m glad it’s led by women of color who are consistently committed to speaking their truth and calling in other truths. This post then is my call-in to other men of color: until we deal with sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny within our communities of color, we will not end racism.

This is the violence of single stories. Why were these celebrity men of color so important to me? Because they were often the closest thing I had to a mirror for seeing myself and men of other PoC groups in the U.S. media. And as each allegation of sexual violence, harassment, and non-consent has entered the public domain, it’s been like watching a slow strike in bowling where the pins fall like dramatic dominoes rather than with one convincing crash. I can feel myself getting defensive, and I have to interrogate myself. I believe each accusation. I’ve seen brothers of all colors do this, get called on it, and still get away with it for years. My defensiveness verbalizes itself as, “But this is all we’ve got!” And where I need to push myself is, “And this has never been enough.” What we miss when we turn breakthrough figures into single-story heroes is that this can further oppression. In our joy at finally seeing a mirror of ourselves, we believe this is good enough. And when we find out that the mirror is cracked and our heroes are not only hurt people but are hurting people, we struggle to accept this because we are afraid of going back to no stories and no representation. This fear is real because our histories support this. Yet this fear cannot be all that troubles us. We have to believe we are worthy of more than single stories. Men of color, we need to refuse any narrative that explicitly or implicitly presents our story as THE story for all people of color.   

This is the violence of patriarchal racism. When dominant culture only allows for one success story from each marginalized group (and let’s be honest, “some” is more appropriate than “each”), who is most likely to be represented? Those in positions of power within the marginalized group. The straight or passable gay man. The person with lighter skin or more money or who is able-bodied. To make matters worse, this is rarely something that only passively happens. As people of color we are set up to compete with each other to be that single representative, and “by any means necessary” has meant tapping into the systemic power of sexism, heterosexism, classism, etc. We are told to man up, punch up, and grab the bull by the horns. And for those who have been selected to represent all of us, being at the top has meant having access to the rewards of hierarchy. Awards and titles are part of this and so is access to and power over people looking up to and even dependent on you. This is not a guarantee for abuse, but it certainly sets the table for it. And given the vast majority of minoritized peoples do not fit this single story of success, these single stories actually help uphold systemic racism.

Artwork from, Educate Yourself by Camila Rosa



And as a man of color far from the top of the celebrity mountain, I need to recognize the ways in which I have defended myself from racism by tapping into my dominant identities – by knowing how to be one of the boys, by being a “strong” (read manly) leader, by being confident and self-assured (which would be read differently if I were not a man). Does tapping into these behaviors help me survive racism? Yes. But does it actually do the work of liberating me or people of color more broadly? I don’t think so. And yes, I get that men of color are being held accountable in ways differently than white men and this is a form of racist patriarchy – but honestly, are you actually okay with anti-racist patriarchy? Men of color, we need to acknowledge that only highlighting male resistance (and especially cishet male resistance) to racism reinforces racism along with other systems of oppression.

This is what why we need real racial equity. In a reposted blast from the past, Erin wrote, “we can’t have other equities until we have racial equity.” I completely agree with this. And I’ll also add: we can’t have racial equity until we have all other equities within racial equity. Read all the writers I listed above and then keep going to prevent any of the authors I’ve listed here from being the single story of (faux) racial equity. Apply intersectional lenses to ourselves, our oppression, our communities, and our liberation. Recognize that success for individual celebrities and subgroups of the marginalized is model minority tokenism and wedge politics and not actual justice.

None of us are free, until all of are free. And for this collective solidarity to be really true, we also need to appreciate the intersectional needs that we each have. As well-intended as “my liberation is bound in yours” can start, all too often, it becomes a statement of false equivalency. For instance, when I hear white people make this statement to me as a person of color, I can’t help but think, “Are you saying your oppression as white people is the same as mine?” I then see my concern played out in anti-racist work when workshops and lectures on whiteness are repeated over and over again without ever getting to restorative justice, reparations, and self-determination. Turning the mirror on myself, I wonder how often people of color who aren’t men justifiably roll their eyes at me when I get on my soapbox talking about racial justice and what I really mean is “Just(ice) for Men (of Color)”? I need to commit to acknowledging my positionality, yes, and taking on toxic masculinity, especially in communities of color, yes. And then what is the justice for others that I need to hear and honor and commit myself to in order for there to be real, meaningful equity, and not just another iteration of fakequity.  Men of Color, we have work to do.

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar (desktop version). Please also check out the Support the Blog tab and become a Patreon subscriber.

Erasing People of Color


Artwork titled The Struggle for Justice featuring a Native American. Picture taken at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC by Erin Okuno

By Erin Okuno

A special thank you to our Patreon supporters. We started the Patreon page as a way to support the blog and your early sign-ups mean so much. Thank you Annie, Evan, Jennifer, and Miriam.

A few weeks ago, I messaged my friend Kirk to ask about a meeting we had both been in. I wanted to hear his thoughts and just to catch up a bit. He’s always thinking some deep thoughts about race, racism,  colonization, and other profundities. When I first met Kirk he was working in the business industry and I wondered how he could be a race and social justice scholar and daylighting (opposite of moonlighting) as a business person. I was confused by that identity mashup. I have a brain block/bias that he could be a business person reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, be unapologetic in his views of race, and be successful in the business world. Kirk challenges my assumptions and I appreciate him doing so. At the end of our message exchange, he said he was thinking about the erasure of Black people and left it at that. We didn’t have time to go deeper and he left that thought rolling around in my head. It got me thinking about how society systematically erases people of color.

I want to acknowledge Kirk started this thought as the erasure of Black people, and I’m adapting the thought to the erasure of people of color for this blog post. I’m shifting the topic to people of color because I can’t write authentically or do justice to the erasure of African American and Black people and do not want to do more harm in overstepping. I welcome thoughts on the erasure of Black and African Americans, and other people of color so we can learn together, email to share your thoughts.

How People of Color are Erased

I’ll admit I live and work in a bubble of people of color. My cozy bubble is pretty great, it feeds me well. I can ignore or at least have stronger defense and tolerance for white nonsense because I see pocs all around me — we are doing our thing being amazing, behaving badly, and just being ordinary. When I step out of my bubble I face the reality that people of color are systematically erased, sometimes intentionally sometimes because people don’t stop to think and act differently.

Historically, erasure happened as white people colonized and took over what we now call the United States. My kid and I share a read-aloud book most nights. I chose the Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich. The series follows Omakayas, an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Native American) as a young girl and her family as she grows up and her family is forced to leave their ancestral home – a forced migration that erased them from the place they had established as home since time immemorial. While this story is historical fiction I share it because the experience of reading it makes real an episode of history few are taught. Many other Indigenous People were erased through diseases introduced by colonizers, their languages erased through being forced to speak English, boarding schools or religion erased many indigenous ways. These practices were systematically put into place to take and remove barriers for those in power.

In a more modern example, gentrification is an erasure of people of color. In my twenty-ish years living in Seattle, I’ve seen people of color leaving Seattle for other cities. Neighborhoods that were home to African Americans and immigrants and refugees are now gentrified with only shreds of reminders of who made those neighborhoods what they were. The Central District of Seattle was once a thriving African American neighborhood. Today few African Americans live there, displaced by high real estate prices.

Trump’s talk of building a wall along the US-Mexico border is feeding the fuel of erasing Mexicans and other brown people from the US. A few months ago Trump’s travel-ban stopping people from primarily Muslim countries from entering the US was another attempt to erase and eliminate people of color from the country.

Erased on Paper

The previous examples are physical removals and in some cases extermination of people of color. Our systems also erase people in other ways. Just today I was emailing with a government agency asking why they aren’t tracking race data on a project they just launched. They argued they don’t want to over-collect information especially data connected to race, which I understand, and I argued back if they aren’t tracking race data they don’t know who they aren’t hearing from. Their data collection system is online, which favors white, middle class, and requires English literacy and computer access. This small form of ignoring race has bigger consequences for erasing people of color from the project. If they were centering people of color they probably would have also created pathways for data collection more welcomed and favored by people of color, or at the least track survey returns so they could do targeted outreach along the way. When we aren’t paying attention to race it is easy to fall into habits that lead to systemic racism.

I’ve written before about how poc history isn’t included in history books, or if it is it is told through a perspective of a white author. In TV and media whiteness prevails and pocs are relegated to bit and minor roles. Dylan Morrison (I believe a white male) took several popular movies and edited them down showing just where pocs are speaking, the movies are considerably shorter.

How to Un-Erase

Ensuring pocs aren’t erased is easy, but it takes intention and calling out systems when we see it happening. As an example, a few years ago, I was sitting in a presentation listening to an esteemed professor talk about employment-data. His slide deck was fabulous and super interesting, I was soaking in the data and processing what I was learning. Yet at some point, I notice the datasets were missing Native American statistics. During the break, I handed him a note asking why Native Americans weren’t included. He followed up with me later that day and said the line in the note that made him pause said: “Not including Native Americans makes them invisible.” Data invisibility leads to missing people of color and not seeking out solutions to helping them be more visible.

Un-erasing pocs also means acknowledging our histories and recognizing the historical traumas that brought us to our current situations. Doing this helps to explain the current context and we understand our current communities of color more completely.

We must train ourselves to see people of color and to see pocs everywhere we go. We are here and we are here to stay. We now need to ensure we are counted, present, and able to speak up for ourselves.

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar (desktop version). Please also check out the Support the Blog tab and become a Patreon subscriber.

My mom still says “Oriental” and she’s not totally wrong


Photo from Jondou Chase Chen

Orientalism: You don’t have to say it to mean it

By Jondou Chase Chen

Confession: My mom still uses the word “Oriental” sometimes. My Taiwanese mom – all 5’2” (tallest among five sisters) and 97 pounds of her – grew up with parents forced to speak Japanese, siblings forced to speak Mandarin, and kids forced to speak English. She is a three-time cancer survivor and raised three kids who collectively outweigh her by 500 pounds. My mom’s not just tough, she’s a survivor. I remember once in my late twenties, my mom told me, “Look, I know we’re in America, and I was supposed to hug you and tell you how much I love you. That wasn’t how I was raised, though. I always told you what was wrong with you and what to improve so that I knew that you’d make it when I’m gone.” That’s my mom.

To thank her for such incredible love (because that is unquestionably what it is), I figured I’d help her out by letting her know we’re not supposed to say “Oriental” any more. Use “Asian” instead. My mom acted surprised the first time I told her, dismissive the second time, and finally the third time I chided her she was ready. “I know, I know, I know. You think your old momma is so ignorant. But why does it matter whether or not I say ‘Oriental’? It’s not going to change how people treat us.” Game. Set. Match. Old momma 1, Jondou 0.

Let me be clear here. This is NOT a blog post about it being okay to use the term “Oriental.” This is a blog post, however, about this truth that my mom gave me: you don’t have to say the word “Oriental” to do the work of the word. Yes, words matter. And the reason why words matter is because they have power. And power is power – including the power to oppress – whether or not you use particular words. The word “Oriental” has power not because it describes rugs instead of people. It has power because it has come to represent a millenium of Western eyes not just gazing at the continent of Asia, but exoticizing it, exploiting it, demonizing it, and erasing it. My mom’s point is whether we call ourselves Asian or Oriental, that history and ongoing politic remains. Here are five ways this happens.

    1. When you ask us where we’re from. This is basic, and I mean basic. Asking Asians where we’re from (as with other immigrants or read-as-immigrants of color) has a violent history. It has meant not being allowed entry into this country, the presumption we can’t possibly be from here or truly American citizens both in the past and the present. To be clear, asking Asians where we’re from hasn’t just been about a point of information, it’s been a precursor to violence, exclusion, and erasure.
    2. Not knowing where we’re from. Now I’ve probably confused some folks here. Good. If all you want are the magical words to know and say so you don’t sound racist, you’re not actually here for our justice. You’re here for you, and you want us to flawlessly fit your logic so you can feel good. That’s using us. Real justice would mean recognizing and amplifying our humanity which includes our complicated truths. That means allowing us to be our whole selves, wherever we are, with all that we are, with all that we bring, and with all that we seek to be. This means taking the time to build and be in good relationship with us. If you take the time to know me, there’s no way you won’t know where I’m from. You will know how much my family, our culture, our stories, our politics means to me. You will even know that when we really know each other – after we’ve demonstrated we’re committed to building a just relationship together – that it’s actually okay to ask where I’m from.
    3. Lumping “us” all together. By “us,” I mean all people of color, all Asians, or even all Taiwanese folks. I love spending time with my family where we joke with each other about the ways each of us is Taiwanese. We have different favorite dishes and have varying degrees of connection to different aspects of Taiwanese language, tradition, culture, and community. Yes, sometimes the joking goes too far. Yes, we have work to do. Yes, things are going to change. And guess what? That’s the way it’s always been. Cultures and ethnicities existed way-way before racism and will hopefully far outlast racism. We’ve adapted and creatively responded again and again. Our diversity is our evolutionary strength. To borrow from Skip Gates, for as many PoC/Asian/Taiwanese people there are, there are just as many ways to be PoC/Asian/Taiwanese. This is true within ethnicities, between our cultures and nationalities, and across our racial groups. And when we bring it all together, respecting our self-determination and differences and showing up in solidarity for one another, that’s when we are most powerful – not when we are all uniform cookie-cutter cut-outs.
    4. Modeling us as minorities. Back in the day, someone decided to draw a circle on the map around 40% of the world’s landmass and call it Asia. Today, 60% of the world’s population lives or diasporically came from there. Yet in the U.S. we’re seen as the new kids on the block and often as a single story. We weren’t here first. We’ve never been the biggest group. We were banned or incarcerated as entire ethnic groups for a while. And when the U.S. finally started letting more of us in, it was under strict selection and under even stricter PR. My folks were like many (but not all) Asian Americans, cherry-picked for their desirability as people likely to contribute here. Their story was then twisted to extract more value from us and other PoC. Because they were so “smart” they were expected to work more and receive less compensation. Other Asians here under different circumstances were expected to do the same and along with other PoC groups were shamed for not producing in the same way. And then this is how all PoC can be orientalized: if we’re not producing or complying as desired, we are forced to, told to, or treated as if we should leave.
    5. Assuming we all need the same justice all the time. Even though I was born here, I had minimal English speaking skills when I entered school. What I would have benefited from the most was dual language instruction to support my multilingual potential. Instead, I was treated like an English language learner. This made marginal sense in elementary school but became a gross stereotype when I was designated for ELL services in college and again after receiving my doctorate (Sound weird? Ask me about it some time.). What I needed for justice changed over time. My kids are going to need a different type of justice as multiracial Asian kids with English fluent parents. My neighbors and community members who are refugees that came over 30-years-ago from Vietnam versus 30-months-ago from Syria are going to need different forms of justice from us and from each other. And the justice we need as a pan-Asian community are different from what our Native, Black, and Latinx communities need. For folks seeking to be in just relationship with People of Color, don’t assume by addressing the needs of one community that you’ve addressed all of our needs. And please, please, please don’t tokenize us by trying to collect one friend from each of our groups. (And yes, representation matters, but representation without just relationship is just oriental tokenism.)

I used to feel ashamed that my mom still uses the word “Oriental.” I’ve come to understand, though, that she’s keeping it real in her own way, and she’s keeping it real with me. The burden shouldn’t be on us to end the use of this word when we neither created the word nor have ever benefited from its application. There cannot be justice from the prohibition of this word without an accompanying change in systemic power. Until then, we’ll make our own justice by speaking our truths, growing our community, and welcoming solidarity from those who seek to be in just relationship with us. And finally, our fight to end racism will only truly succeed when we recognize that Orientalism and  the settler-colonizing of Indigenous people and lands are opposite sides of the same system along with all other forms of racism and intersecting oppressions.

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Five Ways to Center People of Color

By Erin O.


Flat rocks stacked by the ocean. [Photo by Erin Okuno]

I often use the phrase ‘centering people of color’ and I’ll share my secret – it’s jargon. It is a lazy way of saying what takes a lot of words to say. I know I shouldn’t use jargon and I sometimes feel bad writing and saying ‘centering pocs,’ but I do it anyway. To atone for this jargon, I’ll explain what I mean when I say centering people of color. This isn’t an academic look at centering pocs, nor is it an exhaustive list – just some thoughts to get the conversation started and to help make sense of this phrase.

My overall definition is: Centering people of color is about shifting power, control, and well-being/comfort to people of color. 

1. Sharing Power and Control: Shifting power and control to people of color needs to be an action not just talk. Actions are important to shifting power and demonstrating intention. As an example of shifting power is looking at who speaks and when they speak. Are you consistently calling on the first person who raises their hand? If you are perhaps shifting power looks like pausing for a moment allowing people to gather their thoughts, important for those who aren’t English (or the dominant language) speakers, then calling on a person of color first. If you want to take it a step further call on a youth of color, or another person who may not be the first to speak. Who speaks first often drives the line of thinking so this is an important way to shift power in meetings. Be careful not to put people on the spot if they aren’t ready. Other ways of shifting power are agenda control, seating arrangements, decision making control, power of notetaking and publishing, etc.

2. Well-being/Comfort is something we often overlook. Heidi thinks about this a lot and wrote about it in some of her previous posts. I use the terms well-being and comfort interchangeably depending on audience and mood. Well-being looks like where is the meeting, is it culturally attuned, who is in the majority, who is included in the conversation. Sometimes well-being is something we can experience such as moving meetings into community settings where pocs are already familiar with. Other times comfort comes in who feels like they can relax into a space and feel safe. This is harder to quantify but important to look for. At meetings I facilitate, I use the Color Brave Space meeting norms developed by Equity Matters to help pocs feel like they are seen and the meeting is about them and to set expectations for white allies.

3. Resource Sharing: Centering people of color and communities of color means giving control of resources to communities of color and trusting them to use the resources wisely to achieve the best outcomes. Centering pocs means trusting pocs to use money, time, human capital where needed. Along with this, please don’t burden poc organizations with five-billion pieces of paperwork and forms to get money. Also, reimbursable grants and contracts are a pain in the ass and is anti-power sharing – I think I’ll try this tacit with policymakers: “I’ll pay my taxes after you prove to me you turn in to me proof you governed for racial equity, and make sure to track your hours spent on different projects then I’ll pay you.” That wouldn’t fly for power and resource sharing so why is it ok in mainstream work?

4. Expertise: Seeing people and communities of color as the experts is necessary to solving problems. Who knows better about the problems people and communities of color face than the people living them. Centering pocs as experts means we shift our dominant culture viewpoints on what expertise looks like. Such as a formal schooling doesn’t mean the person understands a community, and really the expert is the mother who has kids in the local school.

A colleague of color shared she applied for a job and was turned-down because of her age. A competing employer got a hold of her resume and saw she had led a PTA at a school with a lot of diversity. The employer said ‘I know you are interested in an office job, but I want you as my lead community organizer. You’ve led a PTA in a school with a lot of diversity, that takes a lot of community building skills.’ He saw her as an expert and centered hiring for racial equity skills which led to great results.

5. Humility and work towards learning together: Centering people of color isn’t taught in schools, books, or almost anywhere. We need to acknowledge it isn’t a natural occurrence in most places we operate (at least in the US). In dominant culture, we’re taught and we function in a hierarchy favors white people and caters to their needs first. Centering people of color means white allies, and even within communities of color, we humble ourselves to learn from each other. No single-person understands all of the experiences of people of color. Working intergenerationally, cross-racially, across language, with people with disabilities, with immigrants, etc. means we need to be humble and learn from each other. The act of centering each other means we recognize multiplicities of identities and create space for people of color to be our whole selves, this benefits allies as well since they can see more depth and hopefully find more common ground to connect with.

Access Isn’t Equity, Part 1.5

dolphinBy Erin O.

This is a short blog post for a couple of reasons — 1) I’m working on my netbook and it is really sloooooow , 2) it is spring break – I have to get back to drawing dolphins with the kid (her request), and 3) Heidi wrote a lot last week so if you need more to think about feel free to re-read what she wrote.

Since Heidi promised a part two to her blog post this is part 1.5. Heidi laid out some ideas on how to think about equity and what is more equitable and what is simply giving access to a system not designed by or for people of color. In this part 1.5, I’ll give five quick examples of where people try to pass off access as equitable practices. I’ve been doing my job long enough to have a list of activities people have mentioned as equitable practices but they are more around access and inclusion than equitable in principle and nature.

Translation and Interpretation: This is the number one practice people list as being equitable, it is also one of the most basic practices of racial equity. Providing language access is an important and one of the fundamental ways for many people of color to participate. Translation and interpretation should be high quality, no Google or Bing translate, and it should also be culturally nuanced.

Translation and interpretation fall under access because it is providing people of color (and other non-dominant language speakers) access to an already existing system. It is important access but it isn’t equitable since it wasn’t designed by the people most impacted.

Going into the Community, Evening Meetings, and Town Halls: Having time and location accessible events is an important part of attracting people of color to participate. An event a few streets away is much more appealing than having to figure out how to get across town, pay for parking, and know I probably won’t be in familiar company. Having events in local communities and going to people is important for reaching diversity and inclusion goals. These activities fall under access and inclusion because the process for these meetings is probably not one designed by people of color for their comfort (see last week’s post for more details on what this means). Evening meetings and having meetings when people are available is important, but if the meeting is still all about you and your agenda it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, I call fakequity.

Scholarships, Fellowships, and Diversity Efforts: These are great for helping people of color and others who are traditionally outside of a system into the door. So many people have found success because of scholarships. In a very roundabout way, because of a philanthropic fellowship and the network and access it provided, I got my present job. Scholarships and the like are great at bringing people of color in to help diversify efforts. Many times these efforts aren’t designed for poc comfort and can have a tokenizing impact on pocs, there is also the pressure to assimilate as well. That said often the access is meaningful and important, such as a college scholarship can change the trajectory of a person’s life, but we should also recognize access to a system and process not designed for pocs isn’t equitable.

Such as think about how many people of color with college scholarships drop out because they feel isolated, have additional barriers (i.e. transportation, needing money to pay for living expenses not covered by the scholarship, housing, family obligations, etc.). A friend who is a Dean of a college told me how she learned of a immigrant student who was in a master’s program and doing well, until she wasn’t. The staff asked the student what was going on and they learned she had to start driving for Lyft between 11.00 – 2.00 a.m. to make extra money to stay in school and help her family. The college gave her access to their program and some support, but that wasn’t enough to remove the most basic barriers to her participation in school. In a more equitable scenario, the student would have received comprehensive support including housing, cash assistance, and been continually consulted to make sure she had what she needed thus changing the system and centering her and other students of color. For a more privileged student a scholarship would have been enough access to complete the program, pocs often have additional hurdles where a scholarship isn’t enough.

Task Force Me to Death: Whenever I hear of a younger or less jaded colleague joining a task force I first congratulate them on their appointment to the prestigious task force (all task forces are special otherwise they wouldn’t exist), then I tell them to take all of their expectations and reduce it by two-thirds, possibly four-fifths depending on the task force. Task forces are important tools for gaining buy-in, highlighting inequities, and hopefully doing some of the background work needed before taking things to the public. Yet task forces are often working with dominant culture standards, timelines, and practices which aren’t designed with the comfort and control of people of color at the center of it.

Public Testimony at Government Meetings: I wrote about this before so I won’t go into detail, but let’s categorize public testimony and really most of the current ways of policy making under access. Control of the process is still held by a dominant white culture way of operating. Public testimony gives people access to influence the system but the final decisions and entire process isn’t determined by those most impacted.

Heidi still owes us part two of her previous blog post. When it is published we can see what examples she has and how she describes access isn’t equity. Access is an important step in reaching more equitable results. We need to overhaul our systems and work to change practices to say access and inclusion are important, and they aren’t enough. We need to aim for equity and in some cases recognize access and inclusion are tools to help us get there.

Heidi, you’re now up for part two where I hope you’ll delve into the other categories and how transformational equity with penguins is key to a better life.

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