What it means to be Asian American, on the mainland

I’m out of topics to blog about this week and I’m too lazy to think hard about race, equity, and policy stuff. Instead, I’ll write about what I know well, what it means to be Asian American. This is a privilege of the blog, controlling the content and unfairly using the pulpit to focus and aggrandize me, I promise not to make this a regular thing.

Asian first or Japanese first?

2016-07-16 16.49.41

My kid wearing my kimono looking at ikebana.

I’m Asian but haven’t always thought of myself as Asian. I was raised in Hawaii where Asians are everywhere. Hawaii’s Governor George Ariyoshi was a Japanese American governor during my keiki time (Hawaiian word for child). He was the first Governor of Asian ancestry to ascend to governorship in the county, he broke the bamboo ceiling. More recently Hawaii Governor David Ige is the first Okinawan American governor in the nation. This is what I grew up with – seeing Japanese and Asian Americans and Asian immigrants around me.

Growing up in Hawaii I didn’t see myself as Asian, I was seen by my familial ethnicity of Japanese first, and a bit of Okinawan. It was great, I was secure in my ethnic identity. Teachers looked like me, my neighbors and friends were diverse, going to the store we didn’t need to shop at the Asian food store or aisles to find nori, Okinawan sweet/purple potatoes, or mochiko. Visiting my grandparents, we got our doses of Japanese and Okinawan culture and sprinklings of language. One grandma played old school tinny Japanese records and I think my first kid size kimono was a gift from her. My other grandma taught me how to be Japanese and Okinawan through feeding people. Food was her love language, “You hungry? Eat more.” Through her I saw what it meant to be in a Japanese community – you feed each other, literally and figuratively, the aunties and cousins would be over, and the food would spill out of the kitchen and be present whenever people were around.

Ohhh, now I’m Asian

I moved to Seattle for college and it was in college I figured out “Ohhhhhh, I’m now Asian – not Japanese – Asian.” On the mainland, what Hawaii people call the continental United States, label me first as an Asian, and maybe get around to understanding my ethnicity and culture. Being on the mainland I learned as Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) we have to fight to be seen in a way I didn’t feel like I had to Hawaii. Hawaii’s demographics and culture are more centered towards the API experience and the population density allowed us to be seen differently than in the continental US.

Growing up in a state that was “majority-minority,” a term that is now outdated and pejorative but is descriptive of the time, gave me a grounding as an Asian American. I didn’t walk into a room and scan the room to see if there were other Asians because there almost always were other Asians. This is a habit I learned when I started working on the mainland, I scan the room and count to see if there are other people of color. Being part of the majority meant I had safety in numbers, my identity wasn’t unusual in a space like it is now, being somewhere I wasn’t the exception to the rule, and it also meant I was accountable to others who knew how to hold me accountable in cultural ways, not just traditional accountability.

As an Asian American in Seattle, I can see how growing up in Hawaii gave me a different lens to the API and poc experience. In some ways growing up in the majority means I expect things that others may not feel I have the right to expect. Such as I expect APIs and POCs in leadership roles. I expect the Asian experience to be understood as nuanced not as a monolithic group. I expect our identity as APIs and pocs to matter and to be seen as both, not forced to choose whether I am Asian, Japanese, or poc. When I walk into a meeting I expect to be taken seriously and be given the benefit of the doubt because of who I am, not have to prove I belong there. Some people read this as arrogance at worst and self-assuredness at its best, I think it is somewhere between both, and apologetically I don’t know how to think otherwise.

At times systems and institutions don’t know what to do with Asians. I know I have access and privileges because I’m a poc that can code-switch. Growing up in the majority taught me how to navigate in dominant culture – I can speak up, I can bridge communities and institutions, and I work to understand poc cultures. That said at times systems and institutions don’t know what to do with Asians (broadly speaking, not just me), they want to consider us white believing we’ve transcended racism, but if you talk to many Asians we tell a different story. I do my best to own the privileges Asianess has afforded me and my family, but being an Asian with many privileges doesn’t mean I’m white. I can’t walk into a room and trust I will be in the majority, I can’t trust systems to recognize the migration stories, languages and cultures embedded into the API experience, and I know if I step out of the bubble that I created for myself surrounded by strong poc leaders, I am more of the exception than the norm.

API stories and leadership matters. APIs are a rich race group with over 40 unique ethnic groups. Our languages, histories, cultures, and migration stories are different. My API experience is different than others in my extended family and friend network. Heidi and Jondou, two close colleagues who contribute to this blog, are both Asians and their stories are different than mine, yet many look at us as Asians first and assume we are the same.

Some readings to learn more:

Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.


Stop Saying We’re Winning, We’re Not

Before we start, if you’re not paying attention to the battle for the internet, you should. The FCC has proposed changes that will eliminate net neutrality. The short version is ending net neutrality will create more of a digital divide by creating more of a market based system where you pay for what you need, sounds good but if you are poor or a small business it is hard to compete with people with faster internet. If you care about ending racism, you should care about freedom of information and who has access to it. Rise up and get mad about Net Neutrality, link to the FCC comment page, enter code 17-108.

I’m torn between writing this post and writing something about being thankful because it is Thanksgiving weekend. Alas, this is Fakequity and we rarely do what is expected.

Last week I attended a policy-wonk conference. It was interesting and a great way to learn more about federal tax policy, meet other colleagues, and learn some new things. I learned a lot of new acronyms like EITC (earning income tax credit) and terms like Con Con (look it up) that make little sense to non-wonks. The wonk-factor was high at this event in a good way.

Several people mentioned how different this conference felt than the year before. The 2016 conference happened right after the presidential election that elected Trump. It sounded like a collective mourning and shrouds of darkness hung over the event. This year we didn’t kid ourselves that things were rosy, but the light was peeking through despite being in windowless hotel conference rooms. There was ‘fight’ in the room, I was waiting for someone to play Rachel Patton’s Fight Song as an anthem.

During one of the plenary panels, several speakers said: “We’re winning…” The multiracial panel talked about how we stopped the Republican’s attempt to squash the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Others talked about success at multiracial organizing and bringing white rural people along. It was interesting and inspiring and an important shot of go-go juice, but a third of the way through the talk I wrote myself a note “Are we really winning?”

I may be standing alone in the corner in the policy-wonk land, but I don’t think communities of color and the progressive movement are really winning right now. We may feel like we’re winning but we’re just slowing down bad stuff from happening. Our causes are in defensive mode and we’re responding. We’re doing a great job at slowing down crap from happening, but I hesitate to call this winning.

Holding the Line

Last year at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center conference I dropped into a panel discussion with Dr. Ben Danielson. Dr. Danielson is a local legend for his work at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. While on the panel his co-panelist talked about the defensive policy moves we would have to take after the Trump was elected. The panelist talked about steps to save Apple Health for Kids (state medical insurance) and rural versus urban politics. These were important points, but nothing really stood out until Dr. Danielson answered a question and said something along the lines of “I’m worried we’ll hold the line and we won’t make progress.” This honest sentiment resonated.


Artwork from the National Portrait Gallery Struggle for Justice exhibit. Photo by Erin Okuno

Holding the line and fighting to keep what we have is important, but does this come at the expensive of working for more? People and communities of color are already behind. It is important to protect the gains we’ve made, but if we’re not pushing for more we risk staying behind. We need to be honest about where we are and the gains we’ve made. We also need to believe we are entitled to more. By declaring we’re winning we’re putting blinders on to the fact we are wasting a lot of energy fighting for things we already fought for. If we weren’t forced to save healthcare, we could use that energy to work for some greater achievement.

Be Bolder

A few months ago, I was working with the Chinese immigrant community and my colleague and friend Jondou asked the parents a simple question “What are your dreams for your children?” People who work with Asian immigrants are probably chuckling a bit, in the Asian community we don’t talk about dreams. We may talk about aspirations, but not in the terms of dreams. One of the participants answered this question thoughtfully by saying “I don’t even know my own dreams.”

It is hard to dream when you have been told to stay inline and to be grateful for what you have. The message mainstream America tells people of color is “You too can achieve this dream if you work hard.” But what mainstream America doesn’t explain is how racism works. The American dream is also just that, a monolithic American dream, don’t dare to want something different than that dream or to ask for more, or to question if the resources and tools are there to achieve the dream.

Jondou shared with the group “I think one of the ways that…racial inequality happens is when people can’t even dream anymore. We’re so busy looking for a translator that we can’t think our own thoughts.” Many of the parents we worked with said their identities as Chinese people weren’t recognized by the school system. They didn’t have aspirational dreams to share because they were caught up in asking the school system to provide little things many of us take for granted. They were asking for basics like interpreters, to making sure their children weren’t misidentified as needing special education services when really the child didn’t understand English, and to be seen by the school system. I hear similar stories out of other communities of color. It is hard to dream when you’re worried about physical safety – is it safe to walk home from a neighbor’s house past 10.00 p.m., is it safe for your African American teen to walk your sweet pit bull at night, do you dare to dream about college for your child when your kid is constantly told they need to behave differently to stay in class.

This is how systems tell us to stay in our place and we call little things wins – Yay we got an interpreter today, never mind the bigger dream of changing the system so we have bilingual teachers and education for all. We are too busy fighting for things that should be provided. When we speak up to demand what we should be entitled to it we’re told we’re being too forward, too audacious, too outlandish. The subtle message is we should be more reasonable, shut up and be grateful for the pittance of wins. So yes, we are winning, but we’re not winning fast enough to stay caught up.


My resolution in 2017 is to practice more gratitude. The challenge for me is to remember gratitude doesn’t equate with settling. As an example: I’m grateful we saved health care, I’m still annoyed we had to fight that fight.

Join me in celebrating the wins but continuing to call out fakequity. I will share what I am thankful for as it relates to winning and holding the line:

  • I am thankful for the policy wonks who wonk-out and provide the data needed to prove we’re winning and how we’re not winning. At another time I’ll blog about how you need to wonk-out with activist to breakdown silos.
  • I’m thankful for people like Dr. Ben Danielson who speak truth-to-power and brave being the lone person on the panel saying nope, we’re settling for less than we deserve. There are many of you who model this — thank you.
  • I’m thankful to the families who showed up and stayed in the uncomfortable space of talking about their dreams. In American terms they “leaned in,” which trust me doesn’t translate well into Chinese or other languages.
  • Thankful to the people who feed me both literally and figuratively.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.


We Can’t Train Our Way to Racial Equity

Erin is gone on a “work trip” and told me it’s time to write this blog post that I promised weeks ago. In true Heidi fashion, I need to start off my post with a disclaimer. I make my living as a racial equity consultant and most of my work comes from requests for trainings. So, it might not be in the best business interest to criticize the core service of my business, but here it is. I too am learning to undo the ways I uphold systemic racism and support white supremacy. Change, reflection, and applied learning are values I strive to model in my own journey towards racial justice. This is one of my “show what you’re learning, not what you already know” moments of living the Color Brave Space norms.

Training is NOT the destination


Heidi preparing for a training

I now realize many mainstream organizations are approaching “training” as the destination for their racial equity work. This realization and discomfort are affirmed through employee surveys, where overwhelmingly the most common response to what their organization is doing to advance racial equity is training. Believing we can train our way to racial equity is fakequity.

There are two fundamental reasons training cannot be our destination. First, paraphrasing the Racial Equity Tools definition, racial equity is when race is no longer a predictor of outcomes. Training does not guarantee disparities by race will be eliminated. In the article, The Subtle Linguistics of Polite White Supremacy, the author defines the system we are trying to dismantle as one that protects white comfort, white control, and white confidentiality. Training also does not guarantee these systems of white supremacy will be undone or even disrupted. As our friend at Nonprofit AF writes, racial equity is about money and the ability for communities of color to have power and control over how money is spent to address racial injustice. Training does not guarantee money will go to communities of color to fight racial injustice. (Sidebar, I know you will continue to conduct training so please ensure you are hiring facilitators who are people of color. Hiring white facilitators because it makes mostly white participants feel more comfortable continues to center whiteness.)

The second reason training is not the destination is most organizations have staff who are starting at such varying and disproportionately low skill levels. Having participants at such varying skill levels makes conducting an effective workshop almost impossible. I use language learning as a parallel cognitive skill. Imagine you were trying to teach a Spanish class to participants who don’t know any Spanish, who know some Spanish, and a few who are fluent in Spanish. Then imagine the expectation was that after 8 or 9 hours of training everyone will be fluent. We are setting ourselves up fail. We are creating a false sense of progress that upholds the very system we are working to dismantle.

Relying mostly on training continues to give whiteness the benefit of the doubt

A predictable pattern of systemic racism is giving white people the benefit of the doubt while requiring people of color to show proof and evidence. This double standard plays out in who organizations hire and promote based on a perceived potential. It plays out in requiring people of color to prove or show evidence of racial discrimination before we are believed.

Relying mostly on training to achieve racial equity continues to uphold this double standard. People of color are required to know how to navigate white systems before we are deemed “qualified.” Yet through training at mainstream organizations, mostly white people are disproportionately invested in and seen as having the potential to learn strategies to achieve racial equity. Going back to the language analogy, we are trying to train people to speak Spanish in a few hours, when what we need right now are fluent Spanish speakers.

Moving beyond training, addressing racialized POWER

  • Hire for Racial Equity Skills – Hire people already fluent in understanding systemic racism and strategies to achieve racial equity. This should be a required, not just a desired, qualification. At the very minimum, stop hiring people who don’t believe systemic racism exists.
  • Promote based on Racial Equity Skills – Like hiring, racial equity skills should be viewed as a required qualification. This means developing and using job performance “metrics” reflective of this requirement, and of course having evaluators/supervisors with high racial equity skills as well.
  • Design for Racial Equity – One of my favorite examples to share is the behavioral economics study that looked at different rates of organ donors in Europe. What the study found is the opt-in or opt-out form at the department of motor vehicles had the most influence over rates of donors. We currently have an opt-in approach to racial equity, when what we need to design are programs and process that default to racial equity. Erin wrote Luck Doesn’t Create Equity – Good Design Yields Better Results back in 2015, it is still one of my favorite blog posts.
  • Put your Money Towards your Racial Equity Values – We need to do a better job of tracking where our money is going. Often people get uneasy when I tell them I consciously try to spend money at businesses owned by people of color (if you haven’t seen our open source POC business map, check it out). If I asked you, do you want almost exclusively to support white businesses, the answer is usually no. But if we are not consciously thinking about it, we probably are supporting mostly white businesses. That is what the default system is designed to do. Be transparent with your money, how much is supporting white businesses, white staff, white consultants and how much is truly being directed at poc businesses, poc staff, and poc consultants?
  • Change Decision Making Tables – Decision making is connected to money and resources. Who sits at the final decision-making tables for how money is spent, invested, or how staff time is used? If these tables have been and continue to be disproportionately white this is systemic racism at work. If you continue to justify why and how these tables can’t be changed, this is paternalism upholding white supremacy.

What would you add to this list of ways we can work towards racial equity beyond training?

Making training more effective

I’m realistic, you’re still going to spend time and resources on training. I will also continue to train, as it does allow me to get my foot in the door of many organizations that would otherwise never have these conversations. Before you jump on the training bandwagon, check out this past blog posts on how to make racial equity training more effective. Here is a hint, all or mostly white groups discussing racial equity is a recipe for fakequity. We need to stop treating racial equity trainings like 8-hour degree courses, and start viewing them as continuing education opportunities. Here are my commitments. What are yours?

  • I am committed to taking on more projects that help people change organizational practices and processes to address racialized power.
  • I am committed to supporting organizations to find ways to have training be one, but not the only, strategy to work toward racial equity.
  • I am committed to facilitating racial equity workshops among people of color, as we also have work to do and often this work doesn’t or can’t happen when whiteness is overwhelmingly present.

When you see me next, feel free to ask me how I am doing on my commitments.

Posted by Heidi Schillinger

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

Equitrend = Equity+Trendy

Today is Veteran’s Day. Thank you to our servicemembers and Veterans.

Earlier this week a colleague joined my organization’s advocacy and policy cohort to talk about her advocacy and community organizing journey. It was a rich hour-and-a-half conversation and we easily could have spent all day listening to her stories and wisdom. In my notes from the meeting I wrote: “know yourself, like really know yourself.” While this is easy to understand and theorize this line, it is harder to live and practice. Along with this premise, another friend suggested as a blog topic to talk about people who use equity as a way for self-promotion because it is trendy or they can be the expert in it. These two topics go together in a strange mashup.

Believing and understanding racial equity is a personal journey. It takes a lot of introspection, grappling with personal privileges — we all have some form of privilege, and understanding your personal why is part of the journey. Equity is the in-thing and conversations around race are at the forefront of many organization, the reasons for wanting to practice equity can’t be trendy or be used for self-advancement without understanding your personal reason for practicing equity.

Equitrend = Equity+Trendy

trendy panda

Trendy equity panda shirt

Equity is trendy. Organizations have equity teams, big organizations have departments on org charts charged with paying attention to equity, and people throw the word out at meetings all the time. Maybe the next phase of popularity will be Woke-departments.

If you have colleagues who want to jump on the equity trend but you are skeptical is ask them if they have a personal definition and a personal reason for wanting to engage in the work. This is a simple but loaded question since you’re asking about their value systems. I remember being at a luncheon with an ethnic business association and the presenter used the word equity. One of the audience members earnestly asked what does equity mean, because she came from the financial sector and thought of financial equity. The presenter couldn’t answer the question succinctly and stumbled his way through it. My colleague kept hitting my leg in disbelief during the answer, the presenters desire to be on the equity-bandwagon was falling apart as we ate our delicious dumpling soup.

Fail Specatarily with Others

We need to be willing to fail at race and equity conversations, maybe not as publicly as I just wrote about, but we need to be willing to fail and be willing to reflect on our failures. I’m borrowing a concept from Ray a friend who is an art teacher. He blogged about creating a culture of failing spectacularly. Very few people want to fail at race conversations and as a result, we have a culture that refuses to confront the impact race has on our country. Instead, we need to find people and create spaces where we can fail at the conversations and be honest and let go of conceptions about how to be ‘right’ at race conversations. I have multiple people who keep me in check and humble me when it comes to talking about race and other forms of identity that I can never authentically live. I ask them to invest in my learning and in return, I hope they know I am part of their squad-care too.

What to do

My friend asked for strategies for helping people understand that equity isn’t about them. There are times when I’m losing my patience and want to say “yo, you’ve been talking a lot and your equitrend analysis don’t make sense,” or what I really want to say is “you’re all spun up like a tighty whitey, let go of some of that white supremacy bullshit.” I can’t really say these things and expect to be effective instead, I try what a colleague calls “call in and call out” strategies to re-direct the conversation. I’ll also admit at times I just give up and sit back and watch to see how things play out.

A more positive strategy is to take people out of their normal environments and to tell them to shut up and listen to others. Take people to visit a school in a different neighborhood, take them with you on a site visit to a youth or senior program, take them to lunch with you with more woke people and tell them their job is to just listen. When you take them out point out the subtle differences they may not notice – such as at a youth program point out who is doing the talking in the classroom, talk about the history of the neighborhood and who currently lives there. When we confront the differences, we begin to see things differently.

If a site visit isn’t possible create spaces for deeper conversation. Talk about a TED-Talk related to something you’re working on and ask some probing questions about race. Ask what is the last book or article they read by an author of color and how it informed their thinking, if they can’t recall reading anything by an author of color explore why that is (hint talk about systemic racism and how whiteness is not normal).


Take time to engage and reflect. This will help you understand your personal why.

Posted by Erin Okuno

The Effects of Structural Racism are NOT Normal

That’s Not Normal, Stop Thinking it Is

Last night I had a dream-not-quite nightmare, I was in a work meeting with all-white people. I remember the feeling of anxiousness and being afraid of the group. I also dreamt I was holding a baby, but as it turns out I really was holding my not-baby-baby; she has sneaked into my bed and was trying to ‘snugga’ (snuggle). As I was holding the dream-baby I tried to make sense of this all-white people meeting and what they were talking about; I gave up and just held the baby awkwardly and in real life fought for more space on the pillow. In the dream, all the white-people were ok with being in an all-white people meeting.

The feeling of wondering why everyone else was ok to be at a meeting of all-white people is what Heidi (of the Fakequity team) describes as a byproduct of structural racism. We often don’t think twice about why whiteness pervades our society and we’re conditioned to accept and normalize it.

20171020_084046.jpgAs an example, last month I went to the Board Source Conference. They made a big deal about talking about diversity and race in the opening session, provided scholarships to cover the cost of attending to local leaders of color from organizations with budgets under $500,000 – our nametags publicly declared our charitable acceptance by saying “Scholarship,” and they featured sessions talking about race. Yet even with all of this, it was still a conference geared towards white people. The subtle signs and legacy of structural racism were prevalent. I sat through a plenary session with an all-white speaker panel. Many of the sessions were race-neutral or when the speaker introduced race it sounded like an unexplored afterthought. Few others at the conference seemed to notice these signs. Jondou (also of the fakequity team) calls it “knowing what you know what you don’t know.” Most people at the conference didn’t know the conference was catering to whiteness.

Another example is too often Native Americans are left out of data presentations and few stop to ask why. Because of structural racism towards Native American, they have become data-invisible. This effect of structural racism shouldn’t be normalized, instead, we should call out why we aren’t including Native Americans in the dataset, even if it is to report zero participation. By making a small shift to include the race category of Native American/ Indigenous and seeing n/a or zero reminds us we have a responsibility to change the results from zero to something more representative of the community.

Whiteness Isn’t Normal

We’ve been conditioned to believe whiteness is normal. In Melody Hobson’s TED Talk she says “…imagine if I walked you into a room and it was of a major corporation, like ExxonMobil, and every single person around the boardroom were black, you would think that were weird. But if I walked you into a Fortune 500 company, and everyone around the table is a white male, when will it be that we think that’s weird too?”

Whiteness isn’t normal, it is the offspring of structural racism. Part of this legacy of structural racism is a complacency and acceptance into thinking whiteness is normal. Heidi provided these examples of ways structural racism is normalized or excused: “There aren’t enough teacher of color,” segregated communities because of red-lining housing practices, board and leadership of organizations that aren’t diverse, elected bodies that aren’t representative of the people they serve, city and street names honoring white people versus using indigenous names for areas, etc.

Structural racism holds down people of color by normalizing whiteness. My wicked smart colleague Paola Maranan taught me: “Racism is always self-correcting, it works to preserve itself.” Structural racism plays out in our systems is in accepting the status quo, continuing business as usual, and not questioning why things are the way they are. We also tend to marginalize, silence, or label people who call out the need for change. The excuses sound like this: “we tried to find people of color but they aren’t qualified,” “it will take too long,” “that is too drastic a change, it is rocking the boat,” “we provided interpreters and went to their community but no one showed up.” When we let these excuses go it is allowing structural racism and a white-dominated system continue versus questioning what structures or activities were undertaken to get to different results. We have to train our brains to spot structural racism and we must be able to develop ways to call it out and correct the imbalance.

How to Do Better

Training ourselves to see the effects of structural racism isn’t hard, just start questioning everything. You may annoy your colleagues and even yourself, but after a while it works.

Ask Why – Somewhere in the vastness of the internet I read an article about asking why. The writer said to ask why three times. Why are those racialized results the way they are? Why do I feel funny about it? Why is that ok? It doesn’t have to be those three why questions but asking why several times forces us to dig deeper.

Train your brain to look for what is missing – Structural racism limits what we can see and what is presented to us. When we start looking for who is missing it is easier to see. Such as in my example above about missing Native Americans in data, start looking for who is missing and ask why don’t just accept the data as is.

Slow down — Slowing down is important in figuring out what doesn’t feel and sit right. In meetings and especially if you are facilitating, slow the meeting down to think. You can say “I’d like to check for understanding on ___,” or if I’m facilitating I may have people pause to think then write down or draw what they are thinking as a way to process and not just allow talking to happen.

Slow down and recognize people and land. In gatherings recognize the host of the meeting and say thank you for hosting the event, especially if being hosted by a community of color. Recognize we are on Native American land and say so.

Don’t be paralyzed, Take Action – Racism thrives on the status quo, inaction, and nuance or excuses. We have to actively work to correct what racism hands us, and we have to fix the systems that gave us those results. Sometimes these actions are making data corrections, being more inclusive and actively seeking new voices, or calling out what isn’t normal. Do something, don’t just allow things to stay the way they are.

Finally, keep learning and pushing your edge. We all have to keep learning about racism and how it shows up. For me I’m aware of some of my blindspots around things I don’t know. I know I don’t know a lot about poc disabilities and this isn’t natural it is because our society isn’t designed to be inclusive and we force people with disabilities to work harder to participate. My job is to learn more and not be ok with what dominant culture says is normal around disabilities. I have many other things I need to learn so stay tuned so you can learn with me too.

Posted by Erin Okuno, idea and examples from Heidi Schillinger. One day Heidi will have to write another post on this same topic from her perspective.

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

Power Hoarding BINGO

Halloween is next Tuesday. If you will be getting into costume and trick-o-treating or partying, please don’t wear a culturally appropriated, sexist, or inappropriate costume. Before you put together your costume watch this video from Teen Vogue about why Moana and other culturally appropriate costumes are a no-no. Check out this list of no-go costumes in 2017, some are repeats of year’s past and some are newer like don’t dress up as “The (Trump) Wall” or Día de los Muertos.

This week’s blog post was crowd-sourced. I was drawing a blank on what to write about so I asked for some help on Facebook and the idea of a new BINGO board emerged. Thanks to Lilliann Paine for the idea and many of the square ideas. Thank you to others who suggested other topics which I promise to consider, I also tried to incorporate a few of those themes into the BINGO board. Keep the ideas for posts coming.

Power hoarding is bad. Power hoarding is concentrating power into one or a few people. Our goal should always be to share power and for dominant/white culture to practice power deference to people and communities of color.

How to Play Power Hoarders BINGO

Print out a copy of the BINGO board and when you hear or see someone doing something to hoard power mark the box.  I highly recommend you don’t use people’s real names. The goal of the board isn’t to offend people, but to also begin to open up conversations around how power shows up in our daily lives and work.

Some other suggested uses:

  • Icebreaker at a meeting — print out BINGO boards and have people find others to talk a time they saw/participated/been involved with what is written.
  • Self-reflection — Have you done these things? No need to write your own name in a box, but do think about how  to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Confused on why it is on the board — start a conversation with others about it. I’ll give you one hint, box O2, everyone should stand for the national anthem is on the board because it is vocal people trying to use power over people of color. White concentrated power telling many African American/Black NFL players how to practice their trade and what to believe.Power Hoarding BINGO

PDF: Power Hoarding BINGO 

By Erin Okuno, with support from Lilliann Paine

Do Communities of Color REALLY Matter in Elections

Welcome to our new subscribers. Thank you to Vu, our friend and fakequity fighter colleague, at the blog Nonprofit AF for sharing Fakequity in his last blog post. If you aren’t reading Nonprofit AF start doing so. He blogs on Mondays, so start there and end your week here. 


Image from Amplifier’s new campaign on the 52nd Anniversary of the Voters Right Act. Read and take part in it: https://amplifier.org/campaigns/voting-rights/

It is election season again and with it comes a lot of rhetoric. I spent part of yesterday watching online recast of debates of school board candidates, mayoral candidates, and reading a lot of local news. The candidates, even the candidates of color, sounded the same after a while. “We want to partner… Closing the achievement gap is important… We can’t… We can… We believe… This great city has the money, we just need to…” My poor officemates had to listen to me yell at random moments, it was awkward since I had headphones on so they had no idea what I was yelling about.

This got me thinking do communities of color really matter in elections or are we the new version of props. Hold the baby and take a photo, now stand next to a poc and say you were at a community event. It has probably always been somewhat like this, but with social media, it is now even more important to demonstrate diversity in campaigning. As people of color become the majority, we need candidates to shift their attention to communities of color.

A colleague who works primarily with newly arrived immigrant and refugees said immigrants are often powerless in political and resource allocation conversations because they can’t vote, don’t have a lot of money, and often can’t even access the conversations because of language barriers. Because of this power differential, many of the immigrants he knows are more concerned with their daily survival than an election they can’t vote in.

There are other subtle signals that people of color don’t really matter in elections. I watched a mayoral candidate forum at my alma mater, a school that proclaims to have a social justice focus. All the people on stage were white – the candidates, the moderators, the host. Reaching for diversity is one of the easiest forms of moving towards saying people of color matter, couldn’t they have found one or two people of color to join them on stage as a moderator or host? Without pocs on the panel the questions were race-neutral, there was talk about income inequality but not racial equity, talk about Amazon’s HQ2 but not about job creation for people of color who are struggling to find jobs and stay in the city.

In this article in the South Seattle Emerald the writer talks about how South Seattle is often ignored when it comes to elections. As a simple exercise take light rail or ride a bus through the affluent parts of town than through a lower income part and look for campaign yard signs. What I noticed are fewer yard signs in the less affluent part, a small signal of where candidates put their attention. Perhaps if candidates and electeds spent more time listening and building relationships with communities of color and acting on our priorities more pocs would vote.

Stop Telling Us to Come to You, Go to the Community Instead

I attended the opening session of Board Sources Ignite conference this morning. The opening talk touched on why diversity matters and working towards racial equity. The speaker talked about listening to Sonia Campion, of the Campion Foundation, talk about how she was listening to elected officials talk about how important it is for nonprofits and board members to step into advocacy roles. The elected official was making the point that organizations, causes, and people who show up have their issues and causes heard. As I listened I thought “yeah, I get this. Glad they are talking about representation and advocacy,” and I thought “yep, totally catering to the same power dynamics.”

Preaching to communities of color that we should advocate is playing into the same power dynamics that have held communities of color down. Instead of saying we should accept the burden of advocating for our needs, why not flip the power dynamics and say elected officials should accept the burden of learning, understanding, and building relationships with communities of color. I get they are busy and elected officials have millions of decisions to make and many issues to understand. People of color have many decisions too and no or more less time than electeds.

If people of color really mattered in this election it would look and feel different. We would see a greater emphasis on talking about what pocs want to talk about. In listening to a mayoral debate the candidates talked about police reform but from a policy and government perspective not what it means for unarmed African American/Black and Brown people, I heard candidates talk about their policies but very rarely talking about race and why it matters, I heard talk about housing but not gentrification which comes up consistently for communities of color.

If communities of color really mattered we would hear talk about closing the achievement and opportunity gaps with concrete actions that shifts resources to students who need it the most rather than talking about charter schools, blaming everyone and no one, and other adult non-sense. We would hear talk about living wage jobs close to home with career ladder paths – this is also an environmental justice issue, less time traveling for work saves fuel. We would see candidates more than just when they swoop in for a candidate event hosted by communities of color. If communities of color mattered we’d also see immigrants and refugees reflected in the conversation even though many cannot vote because they aren’t citizens. Language diversity would also play a large part of changing the campaign narrative. The campaign fliers and online campaign media posts have all been in English. If elected and candidates value communities of color then they must also embrace language diversity and work harder to translate and reach out to non-English speaking communities.

Reaching out to communities of color isn’t hard, it is just different and the traditional political scripts can’t be used for this. Different is good since it will force us to think differently and think beyond ourselves and what we know.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

Amazon HQ2 – Prosperity or Pain for your communities of color?


Amazon Seattle Campus aerial photo

This week’s post is diverging from the normal talk about race, equity, and nonprofits. I’ve been loosely following Amazon’s request for bids as they decide where to build a second headquarters. HQ2, as it is called, will be “an equal” headquarters to their Seattle headquarters and have a projected 50,000 jobs, and generate a bleeping-lot of money. All of this sounds really enticing to many cities. Many news articles have picked apart the deal, I’m not smart enough to do that, so I want to explore what this means to Seattle from a race and community-level perspective.

As cities are wooing the company, I hope the communities of color in those cities understand what they are in for. I don’t have the answer on what it could mean but I can share what I’ve noticed over the past few years of living and working in Seattle. While I’m not a Seattle native, I’ve been here for close to twenty years. I’m also an Amazon consumer using the company to buy everything from a gigantic bucket of emergency food for the impending earthquake (did that two weeks ago while procrastinating over writing the fakequity blog post) to the book Roly Poly Pangolin. I’ve seen Seattle change over the past twenty years and have also watched Amazon’s and other tech generated growth changed the landscape.

The growth of tech companies in Seattle brought prosperity and generous wage jobs to people working in the region, but that prosperity isn’t shared. In this 2014 article on the diversity of Amazon, not surprisingly the majority of Amazon’s workforce is white males. It goes on to say Blacks and Latinos make up only 4% of manager positions (each), Asians make up 13% of the workforce and 18% of managers. Native Americans aren’t even mentioned. To be fair this is a tech industry-wide problem and Amazon isn’t alone in being a white-male dominated workforce.

I did some quick online research and found an average annual wage of an engineer or technical manager, rounded to about $110k, at Amazon can fund about half of my nonprofit for a year. That is a lot of money concentrated into an echo-chamber of white-tech workers. I don’t fault them for making the wages they do, but without an income tax (WA is one of the few states in the US without an income tax) there isn’t a mechanism to redistribute wealth and share prosperity. I also wonder if those at the bottom of their wage ladders receiving a fair, livable, and growth wage? A new study out of the University of Washington School of Social Work shows a family of four needs to make $76,000 to live a no-frills life in Seattle; this is far beyond the $15/hr. many in Seattle have been aiming for. Is Amazon investing in their bottom wage employees of color to ensure they can stay in Seattle and have career ladders jobs and can they reach a salary job that allows them to fund half of my nonprofit?

Is the Criticism of Amazon Fair?

A friend posted on her Facebook page this article: Amazon earned Seattle’s hostility, which details wage disparities caused by the growth of the tech sector in Seattle. The post opened an interesting conversation about what Amazon has done, both good and bad, to Seattle. Amazon absorbs an unnatural amount of blame for everything, a sample of things uttered and heard by me: too many Amazon lunch shuttles in Seattle’s International District blocking all the good parking, too much-wasted cardboard from their shipping boxes, gentrification and displacement, and the Instant Pot craze. Others asked if the criticism is fair.

Amazon has done a lot to help Seattle grow to where it is today. The South Lake Union neighborhood where many of their offices are looks drastically different because of their company presence. Back when the company was starting they worked out of Beacon Tower on Beacon Hill in an old VA hospital. They also made a generous gift to Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter, offering them permanent space in their new Seattle headquarters. All of this is great and I still can’t ignore what Amazon and other companies are not doing to support communities of color. It isn’t Amazon’s fault and at the same time, it is.

Seattle’s communities of color have been hit hard by the growth of Amazon. African American friends share stories about how they know once they sell the family home in the Central District (a historically Black/African American neighborhood) they know they will never return because they are priced out. One family event — a job loss, a death or illness, a house fire – sends families of color fleeing from the city because they can’t hold on and stay in the city due to rising rent caused by the influx of new workers who need places to live. Yet leaving means giving up a precious network of support from schools, organizations, and friends. Is this Amazon’s fault no, but yes. The wealth generated and concentrated in the hands of a few have caused displacement and gentrification and other hardships.

The philanthropic giving Amazon has done is has been on their terms to benefit their interest. The bold and generous gift to Mary’s Place is wonderful, and it is safe. As a city, we need more support for unhoused people and it will help people of color. But at the same time, I look at that gift and think “of course the donation went to Mary’s Place, a historically white led organization who looks and sounds like them,” it was a safe place to make a gift. Where is the support for an organization like Chief Seattle Club, a Native American organization supporting many Native Americans experiencing homelessness? Other news articles talk about how Amazon supports Code.org. Great, makes sense supporting the pipeline of getting kids interested in computer science. While Code.org is led by a poc, when I looked at their staff pictures I had to scroll a lot before seeing pocs – so again supporting good work, but on their terms and to organizations that look and sound like them. Another friend said their giving appears very transactional, not a great way to aim for systemic change.

Be a Good Neighbor and What the Next City Should Prepare for

If Amazon and their staff want to be good neighbors I hope they will open themselves up and understand how they are changing communities. The growth they have generated has been at the expense of communities of color. What will the company do differently to be a good neighbor and not just ask what is in it for them and their shareholders? A shared vision of growth must include what is good for communities of color and allowing communities of color to have self-determination.

Some might be asking what does Amazon have to do with self-determination of communities of color. This quote by Ijeoma Oluo helps to explain what I mean: “Look for where your privilege intersects with somebody’s oppression. That is the piece of the system that you have the power to help destroy.” The privilege of working at Amazon (and many other tech companies) comes at a cost to communities of color. The land Amazon sits on belonged to Native Americans, as we saw earlier Native American’s employment demographics weren’t even reported. The list of ills can go on and on. Communities of color need to have a say in how solutions to these problems can be found. Amazon has the power and responsibility to be part of the solution.

In a conversation with an Amazon employee, the person said government/policymaking has a responsibility to take care of housing and education and Amazon shouldn’t be blamed. I agree but I disagree, part of the solution finding has to be Amazon and their network to push policymakers and to generate the public will to change and to do it with communities of color.

Where is Amazon calling for tax-reform to share prosperity? Where are they on supporting organizations closest to communities of color? Their voice is absent from community level conversations. I could keep asking questions but I think I know the answers on where Amazon stands or doesn’t on social justice.

To the next city lucky enough to win the bid to host HQ2, good luck. To our sisters and brothers of color out there, stand strong and start organizing so Amazon doesn’t happen to you.

Posted by Erin Okuno

This blog post started as a reply to a Facebook post. Thank you to Annie for the original post.

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

No thank you, I don’t need your gifts

Late last Sunday before I headed to bed I checked Twitter and saw early reports of the violence and rampage in Las Vegas. It wasn’t until morning that I understood the carnage. The shooter, Stephen Paddock, armed with multiple assault rifles shot out of a 32-floor window into an open-air concert. He killed 59, and injured over 500. Puerto Rico is also trying to recover. Their disaster was a devastating hurricane. Please take a moment and remember the national and international context we exist in and how we are somehow all interconnected.

panda noWhite people, please stop giving. Every few weeks I’ll be in a meeting and someone will say “we want to give…” and I tune out. The act of giving can feel noble, but only if the gift is wanted and well received.

Communities of color often have what we need to solve our own problems. We don’t need programs from the outside, or outside experts to diagnose and tell us what is wrong and how to fix it without really understanding the community. We also don’t need access to programs that weren’t designed by our community.

I get it, people want to help. It is hard watching others suffer and people are compassionate. We see a problem and our instincts are to say “I’m smart I know how to solve this problem,” or “I know someone who knows how to fix this,” or “if they do this it will make things better.” Before you try to bring some program that will teach children how to meditate or some family engagement program that worked in some other community slow down and ask are you making the offer for you or for others.

This is the opposite of extraction, it is inserting yourself into a community and centering your solution. Like I just wrote, yes we want to solve problems. We can’t let things stay as they are. Problems like the achievement and opportunity gap need to end, economic instability, climate change impacting pocs, gun violence, infant mortality, and so on disproportionately impact people of color and we need to find solutions to the problems. What we don’t need though is for programs and projects to happen to us.

The problem with thinking we can import programs and projects and believing they will succeed is we need to really consider is it racial equity. Most likely it isn’t racial equity. Racial equity isn’t about giving a community access, or thinking we can give and gift our way to equity. True racial equity is about creating space for solutions to emerge from the community and resourcing people of color to test these solutions and allowing grace for people to learn from the successes and failures.

Turning Inward

One of the best lines I’ve heard recently about how to practice racial equity is “communities of color turning inward.” Often someone will want to come in and bring a project or program to a community and expect communities of color to want to embrace it. They may even be ready to face skepticism from communities of color and will be willing to tinker with the project design but overall the project or program is controlled and designed by others. If we are truly practicing racial equity communities of color embrace our own gifts and we create our own programs that center our needs first.

A few years ago, I heard professor john a. powell speak at a gathering of funders. I heard a line from him saying: “communities often have their own solutions, but they may not have the resources to solve the problem.” Interestingly the white people in the room heard the opposite, that communities don’t have the solutions or the resources. I operate under the basis that we have the solutions within our own communities and when we listen to each other solutions arise. Mainstream and dominant systems often want to import solutions and believe they will work. Bright and shiny objects and programs look appealing and easier than doing the harder work of listening to the community and working together to design from scratch a new solution to a problem.

We don’t need program plopped down on communities, we need to transform spaces that allow programs and projects to emerge – this is racial equity. Transformation doesn’t have to be some grandiose thing with fancy lighting and a soundtrack, it can be simply resourcing a community to have a conversation where they can share what is and isn’t working. Most likely at some point in the conversation the community will start to generate solutions. These solutions may look very differently than what others have in mind.

Turning inward also means decisionmakers must be ok with letting go of control. Our job is to hold the space, build trust within the community, and to offer the resources needed to make a community driven program happen. Sometimes this means suspending our desires and our predisposed solutions which can be really scary, especially if it means we’re staking our reputation on it as well.

How to create more racially equitable solutions

Center Communities of Color – Communities of color need to spend time talking and generating solutions. Help to make this happen by paying for the convening, donating space, offering to pickup refreshments, setting up and cleaning up the room, etc. When communities spend time talking and generating ideas solutions will emerge. Starting with conversation is an important way to make sure the solution is coming from the community that is most impacted.

Listen to what communities want – Often we know what we know and we want to share it. In Seattle Detective Cookie’s Chess Club is well known in S Seattle. Detective Cookie is a local police officer who provides a chess club to students. She said when she first started she asked the kids what sort of club they wanted she expected them to say basketball, hip hop, etc., nope they asked for a chess club. She helped the kids make it happen and today it is wildly popular. We need to do more of this where we suspend what we think a solution may be and be ok with pivoting to do what the community wants. It is hard to let go of our preconceived thoughts, but in the end the community generated solution will be right.

Gifts – I started this post by saying we don’t want your giving, that is only half true. We want your gifts and giving, but we want it without all of the strings and weird stuff that can come along with it. We don’t need cumbersome financial obligations, restrictions and requirements, etc. If you believe in the work then resource it and trust the community. If for some reason it doesn’t work out than consider it an investment in learning so we can make more informed decisions in the future.

Create conditions that build trust and allow the community to control the program and project – One of the ‘gifts’ you can give is starting with trust. Trust is necessary to building a good program and project. Trust is often earned through actions, so take some actions to check your power and use your privilege to center communities of color.


Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.


A very short look at racial anxiety

This week’s post will be short. My work team and coalition just wrapped up a third event in two weeks and one more to go on Saturday. All of the events are great and changing our civic landscape in positive ways, but it means I haven’t put a lot of thought into what to write about this week. Apologies too for this posting a little later than normal. I thought it posted early this morning, but it hadn’t. Here it is and have a great weekend. P.S. If you will be at the El Centro de la Raza gala on Saturday please say hi. And to our friends and colleagues observing Yom Kippur, G’mar Fatima Tova.


Tonight, my organization hosted a talk with professor john a. powell (he doesn’t capitalize his name). I’ve written about his work before and want to return to one of the themes. He speaks often about othering and belonging. During his talk tonight, he answered a question about being able to name our anxieties and how they show up.

I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t experience anxiety on some level. It is a part of living to experience anxiety. We can’t control everything and many times anxiety is produced because we have to rely on others to make our way through the world. Prof. powell shared a slide saying as diversity increases in our country, so does anxiety and racial resentment.

I hear this anxiety a lot when I am in meetings with people not accustomed to talking about race. During the start of the meeting when we do community agreements and I mention we need to add a community agreement about being clear with our language around race, equity, immigration status, etc. people start to shift in their seats. They nod and may say “that is a good one,” but I’ve broken the unsaid rule around talking about that thing that we don’t talk about. I named a fear and heightened their anxiety because talking about race is now elevated. This is also why people, whites and pocs, dread mandatory diversity training, cultural competency training, race and social meetings, etc. All of a sudden people are forced to talk about what they only want to talk about in private in hushed voices.

When we name our fears, we can begin to unpack them. If we let them simmer in the background we end up with a broken narrative that leads to what Prof. powell calls breaking behavior, meta-narratives around anger, fear, othering. Trump is very good at this narrative: Those Mexicans will take your jobs, they are bad very bad people, etc.

When I see people of color come to my coalition’s meeting I feel a different vibe. People begin to unwind because they know they can talk about race. As a colleague of color said, “I don’t have to defend my existence.” We create this space by centering people of color first and by inviting honesty and naming our fears and anxieties. I don’t always get it right in this space either and there are many times I trip over my own words and thinking, but there is more grace to do so because we’re used to talking about race. I do my best to create a space where we can be brave and talk about race and trip and pick ourselves up together. This is how we create a space of belonging and not othering.

Some quick ways to open up conversations about race to help people become comfortable naming their anxieties. The more we normalize constructive ways to talk about race the greater our change of naming fears and anxieties.

  • Use the Color Brave Space in meetings, create the expectation you’ll be talking about race
  • During introductions or icebreakers introduce prompts related to race
  • Model how to talk about race by talking about it
  • Create a space for talking about race, some non-threatening ways are start a group where you all read an article or book by an author of color, or watch a TED Talk or movie by a person of color. This will help to create a habit of acknowledging race.

There is a lot more to look at on this topic, but it’s been a long week and I still have a few more work events to go. If you have questions or thoughts about this topic please email me at fakequity@gmail.com.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.