What do you do if you are the low person in the pecking order with little influence and limited job security – and all the sudden your colleagues break out with one sexist comment after another in deciding who to interview for a job?  Or you’re watching client after client come through your nonprofit’s door, and no one else seems to notice that it’s weird that they are almost all white?

Let me say first – it’s okay for you to be worried about how speaking out might damage your reputation or cost you your job. We often twist ourselves into knots of guilt, feeling inadequate as feminist anti-racists when we pause to look out for our own interests. We feel like sell outs, that when the choices get tough we bail on our values in favor of our own self-interest. Our friends call out our inconsistent politics, and we feel ashamed.

But the reality is we are all too often in positions where as individuals we have very little power or influence in the situation. Maybe it’s our boss who is making these comments, or she’s overhearing them and not doing anything about it. The economy is tough, and we’re not sure how we’re going to feed our kids if we lose this job. Given our reality, the best option seems to be to put our head down and keep working toward more security.

Ugh. When did I become the person who is too scared to fight back against injustice?

Isn’t There Another Option?

When I’ve only got two crappy options to choose from, it’s time to find a third option.

What if we took this impulse to look out for our own self-interest as a simple but clear signal that we cannot take on this fight alone?

When you fight something alone, its easy for *you* to get labeled as the problem. If you went away, there would no longer be a problem. Solution found! But when a group of people come forward with a shared concern, its harder to label any one of you as the problem. The racism and sexism is more likely to get looked at as the problem, and you are more likely to find solutions to the real problem.

We are seeing remarkable examples of community organizing in Tunisia, Wisconsin, Egypt, Bahrain – people coming together to have power to change a situation when they have little power to do so individually. As we have seen especially painfully in Libya, people find power together to organize against extraordinarily violent repression, even as thousands have died in their cause.

Dismantling sexism in your academic department or covert race discrimination in your nonprofit organization looks small compared to these broad-based movements for freedom. And maybe you aren’t ready to stage a protest outside of the department chair’s door, and it doesn’t make sense to bring guns to your next staff meeting. What does community organizing look like on a smaller scale?

Find Your People

If this fight is too big to take on alone, you’ve got to find your people. The folks who get this issue 100%, who won’t quibble with you over whether the comments were sexist “enough” to make a big deal about, who won’t defend the comments and will be equally outraged with you.

It’s often helpful to first go to someone outside the particular organization you are in. Someone who totally has your back on issues of sexism and racism, and knows that your intention to fight sexism and racism is clear even if you aren’t feeling clear on what to do in this particular situation. Every situation is unique with nuances and challenges that don’t have clear rules about how to proceed. This person can help you process the anger you feel, and brainstorm potential allies in your organization or department.

Who Else has the Potential to be Your People?

You may not be sure where people in your organization exactly stand on this issue.You have to do some guesswork, based on what you know of people and how they responded (or might have responded) to the situation.

  • Who else might have been uncomfortable in the situation?
  • Who was actively participating in making inappropriate statements?
  • Who had power to stop the statements and didn’t exercise that power?
  • Who else in the room might have felt similarly powerless like you?

Place everyone on a continuum, with folks on one end who are “Total supporters of you” and folks who are “Total racist & sexist bigots who will fight to keep their bigotry” on the other end. You may end up with people in the middle who you just aren’t sure about because you just haven’t talked to them about these issues before.

Get excited about those folks who fall on the side of potential supporters – these are you allies who will help you sort out what to do and help you feel not quite so alone.

What if NO ONE sticks out as a Potential Ally?

Maybe you are the first woman of color hired at a nonprofit that has been run by white folks for years. Maybe you just started your job, and don’t even know who is friendly in the department, much less trustworthy.

If you are in a university department, is there a provost who cares about diversity or a division that focuses on inclusion and support for people on campus who are marginalized because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability? If you are in a nonprofit, is there a coalition member, a funder, an influential community member who you’ve heard speak out about the need for more inclusive and diverse ways of working? Are there people on the internet who might understand your cause? If you are feeling totally alone, feel free to email me for support and help brainstorming ideas of people who might be allies!

Start Talking with Your Potential People

Start talking with the people who are likely to agree with your concerns. Go in to the conversation with an open mind – what are they most concerned with? Do they see the problem the same way you do? How concerned are they with looking out for their own interests? How much does it pain them to not be fighting for justice?

Your goal here isn’t necessarily to get a posse of people who will stage a protest. (Though you could, if enough people are sufficiently angry about it to move forward to that step). Sexism and racism have been around for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. You probably aren’t going to solve them in the next month.

Your goal is to recognize that sexism and racism are alive and well in your working environment, and that you aren’t ever going to have enough power to address them on your own. If you start to build your team of allies now and build a sense of collective outrage against sexism or racism in your workplace, the next time it happens (and you know there will be a next time) you will have people to go to immediately to process and make a plan for how to respond.


More to come on:

  • How do I approach people who *might* be my ally, but I’m not positive?
  • I wanna do more than sit around and chat with my team of allies. How do we come up with a plan of action?
  • In the meantime, how do I not throttle my co-workers who made stupid comments?

If you’d like to hear about one of these sooner rather than later, or have a question about something else in this kind of situation – let’s chat about it in the comments!