I was planning to write about another topic tonight, but decided to pivot after spending an evening with students at Seattle University’s Masters for Not-for-Profit Leadership program – Redhawks! My colleague and friend Jon is teaching a class on public policy. In his opening, he talked about how public policy is never race-neutral and how we need to operationalize racial equity principles and values. Through our time tonight, I threw a lot of new information at the students. I watched as they processed the new information trying to make sense of a lot of new content very quickly and reflect on what it means to them personally and professionally (apologies for overwhelming you).
As we closed Jon talked about how important it is to not let perfectionism stop us. Jon explained the aim for perfectionism, is built on racist notions of white supremacy. I’ll elaborate: white people know best, white people have the answers, white people are in charge, therefore, their answers are perfect and all-knowing, white people can solve poc problems. I also told the students this shows up as internalized oppression for pocs – we feel the pressure of having to get things perfect because we only get one chance to be heard, we have to be perfect because we represent all pocs, we have to be perfect because our elders and ancestors never got the chances we have, we have to be perfect for other pocs (group over self), etc. All of this is false, white people aren’t perfect nor should they put that on themselves, and pocs we don’t have to be perfect all the time, that is too much pressure and unachievable.
Perfectionism is a Myth
What I forgot to tell the students is perfectionism in racial equity work is a myth. There is never a perfect time, a perfect way, perfect circumstance. Racism keeps conditions chaotic as to have the upper hand. This is what racism and chaos look like:
- Fractured communities so we don’t have the perfect coalition and conditions to work together.
- Using one community of color or a subset of people of color to create a wedge issue and point to that group as the ‘model-minority.’
- Saying there isn’t enough time to do something to work towards an equitable outcome.
- Rushing a process to keep the project on-time, thus leaving out people of color who aren’t already in the know.
We can use all of these and millions of other excuses to say we shouldn’t start something, but they are just the types of excuses allowing institutional and systemic racism to prevail.
The second myth I forgot to bust is perfectionism exists in racial equity work. We ALL mess up when doing racial equity work. It is impossible to be right all the time. If you’re doing equity and justice-based work you will screw up, and that is a good thing (sort of) – it means you are engaged, learning, trying, testing boundaries, and pushing boundaries. Race is an ever-changing construct. What was ‘right’ even five years ago is now outdated thinking and terminology. There is no perfection, instead, it is important to be a learner and to learn from mistakes.
The myth of perfectionism shouldn’t stop you from trying. I’ve seen and heard many people, especially white people, refuse to engage in conversations around race because they are afraid to say the wrong thing and called out. I’ve had to sit through many awkward and frustrating conversations because the presenter felt the weight of perfectionism and therefore kept the presentation too safe, refusing to name the problems we were supposed to be talking about. Instead, they use coded language, rather than saying words such as race, Black people, white supremacy, Asian, Latinx, Native American, disabled, etc. You may say the wrong thing, but if you are open to learning and not a total jerk many people will allow you grace, if they do practice humility and acknowledge your mistake.
A lot of racial equity work, coalition building, and community engagement work is iterative – building from itself and correcting errors and omissions along the way. Imperfections, and correcting the imperfections as we move forward is better than not having any work done.
This isn’t an excuse for mainstream organizations and white people to plow ahead with work saying, “I have to do something and I’ll ask for forgiveness later.” As an example, I once saw a white presenter do a Native land acknowledgment that went bad. The presenter hadn’t done their homework and was reading off a pre-written script. The presenter stumbled on the Tribal Nation’s names, didn’t acknowledge several non-Federally recognized Tribes from the area, and it was clear they were making the acknowledgment for woke-points. In this case, a little more time to get the acknowledgment perfect would have been well-spent.
At the end of Jon’s class tonight, I asked everyone to pause and write down one action they can take to act on their new knowledge. One student said he would make a donation to an organization he feels advocates effectively for causes he cares about, another person said he was reaching out and checking in on colleagues who are apprehensive about a work situation, and another person said she would use her position to influence whose voices are heard in an upcoming video her organization is producing with the hopes of including more Latinx and Spanish speaking voices. These small acts are important to creating a larger change. These doing somethings may not be perfect, but they are better than doing nothing. People of color can’t wait for perfection, we need justice now.
Special thanks to Jon and his class for welcoming me and sparking this post. Light the nonprofit world on fire — be the change we need in the sector. Go Redhawks!
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