September 25, 2021
Our Chief of Staff reflects on what it means to be a white woman in a position of power.
Culture

As the Chief of Staff, I’m sitting in a meeting with our leadership team as we debrief about a company policy that negatively impacted an employee who is a Person of Color. We start to go down the path to defend ourselves: We are a Certified B Corporation, a social impact agency, our mission is to improve lives. We start cherry-picking facts to support our arguments in an effort to show how our decisions are well-intentioned. After all, no organization is perfect, right? We are better than most companies, and look how far we’ve come. The excuses are endless.

As a white woman, I have the privilege to choose whether to defend the status quo, and myself, or validate this employee’s experience and admit that our best efforts hurt someone. My unearned trust and whiteness are all too powerful in this moment of conflict. My ability to sway this group in itself is a byproduct of racism.

White women have been a critical pillar of upholding white supremacy for centuries. Reckoning with this reality is a critical piece in understanding how we — white women — are experienced by Black, Indigenous, People of Color today. [There are plenty of resources that explain this history of white women and oppression way better than I can. I found the CodeSwitch Podcast: What’s a Karen? extremely informative.]

Acknowledging the harm I’ve caused has been a painful, necessary blow to my self-narrative. Coming from the South, I took pride in challenging “the oppressors” and devoting my career to social impact, but I learned that it’s not enough to not be racist. The real work is to actively become anti-racist.

I took Rachel Rickett’s Anti-Racism Workshop and for the first time asked myself “How have I perpetuated white supremacy?” This question became a powerful filter to understanding how white privilege and power dynamics shape how People of Color experience me — especially at work where I have power and influence.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Shift the Power Dynamics

I have to continually create systems to counteract the power dynamics that prevent team members who are Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color from thriving.

In my role, I am in a senior position advising our leadership team on company systems and policies. I’ve assumed:

  • Everyone has the ability to grow and navigate the organization the way I do.
  • The team trusts me to advocate for their needs and interests.

As a white woman, I’m given trust and the benefit of the doubt constantly, especially from white men. If I have a concern or have made a mistake, people automatically empathize with me and want to help me. I thought that everyone immediately experiences this level of trust in our team.

People of Color are often in the exact opposite position where they continually have to prove themselves, and have to advocate for why their feelings and perspectives are valid. Not only is this inequitable and racist, but it often means they opt not to share their needs because they’ve been ignored in the past.

I’m inherently inclined to center myself and my needs, and do what I think is best based on my biased, white perspective. I’m learning that my role is to instead shift power to team members who have been marginalized by this dynamic, and to co-design systems and solutions that center their needs and experiences.

Center Impact Over Intention

This requires me to recognize and focus on the harm my actions have caused another person rather than my intentions.

Most organizations try to create policies with their best intentions, but best intentions often hurt people. When systems that help govern organizations are designed by and for white people, we inevitably perpetuate racism and white supremacy. Even worse, instead of company leadership learning and making changes, shame flares up and white fragility takes over.

This year, I was confronted with a mistake, and my initial reaction was defensiveness for being misunderstood. It took me a couple days to let go of my shame, then empathize with how hard this experience must have been for the employee and advocate for their point of view. I’m ashamed that it wasn’t my immediate response.

My shame and fear seem less important compared to the violence and harm my teammates of color experience daily in our society. They do not get to opt in and out of confronting these experiences.

It doesn’t matter that I didn’t mean to, it matters that someone was harmed.

Being specific about exactly where I made a mistake, created the wrong policy, or messed up a meeting is crucial. Avoiding taking responsibility for mistakes and harm is the fastest way to erode a culture and lose trust.

Invest in Action

When I’m wrong, I aim to promptly admit it and take action to prevent it from happening again. What system can be put in place? What has been oppressive or exclusionary about the current systems? Whose voices aren’t being heard? What training do we need? What policy needs to change?

Here are some similar actions you can take:

  • Ask your team to call you “in,” and take action when they do.
  • Read and educate yourself continually. There are numerous anti-racist books, webinars, and other resources. The Repressive Politics of Emotional Intelligence helped me shift my perspective from a triggered shame spiral to empathy. I must understand that a Person of Color is not responsible for sharing their experience with me in a way that’s persuasive or easy to hear.
  • Advocate and prioritize having people who are Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color in leadership roles.
  • Hire third-party organizations (preferably owned by People of Color) to facilitate goal setting to surface the gaps between where your company is and your equity vision. Exygy worked with The Justice Collective to set an equity definition, vision, and measurable goals to reach our vision. Currently, we are working with madeBOS to evolve our compensation system to align with our equity vision.
  • Learn how to design solutions for marginalized experiences. Equity Meets Design offers powerful courses and team trainings.
  • Use anonymous surveys to gather uncensored information about people’s experiences and actions they want the team to take.

As white women in leadership, I and others have the choice to either perpetuate white supremacy with hubris and blindness or use our unearned trust and power to elevate the People of Color on our teams. I do not have everything figured out, and I and others are all going to continue making mistakes. But I welcome the tough questions and challenges so I can keep learning and doing less harm.

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Rachael Estess
Chief of Staff

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