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Can a chief executive ‘apologise’ for racism and stay?

‘Nonprofits that have “zero tolerance” of sexual misconduct seem much more ready to tolerate racism.’

Source image: WOCinTech Chat/Flickr

White supremacy culture is alive, in excellent shape, and is the prevailing stance in international aid and development. And it’s more resilient than the patriarchy. Here’s how you can tell.

After a very public outing of allegations of racism, the fomenting of a toxic work culture, and the mistreatment of Black women staff at Women Deliver hit Twitter, CEO Katja Iversen made what appeared to be a heartfelt apology: “I was and am shaken, heartbroken, and tremendously angry with myself. I am in charge of this organisation, and I apologise and take full responsibility for these experiences and for my role in it.”

Women Deliver is a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for gender equality and women’s health; its work “drives investment – political, programmatic and financial”, according to its website. Iversen “offered” to take a “leave of absence” until a third-party investigation commissioned by the NGO’s board was complete. She did not resign. The board has, however, accepted her leave offer, appointed an interim CEO, and announced other steps. Iversen has been accorded all the rights and privileges of someone “accused” but not really viewed as culpable – despite her mea culpa. (In case you were wondering, Iversen – the Danish-born CEO, who rose by way of media and communications work at several UN agencies – is not a Black woman.)

Nonprofits that have “zero tolerance” of sexual misconduct seem much more ready to tolerate racism.

How does a chief executive apologise for racism?

Doesn’t this organisation owe more to the Black and brown women whose courage was key to exposing this and other racist workplaces? Aren’t they owed more than an apology from the CEO? The collective trauma of Black women can be tended to much the same way that one strokes a pet – absent-mindedly and without forethought. 

So how does Iversen remain? She stays because she has the ultimate benefit of the doubt – linked to her whiteness and the white supremacy culture that underpins the development sector.

Women Deliver is one of a number of cases that have come to light in a sector ostensibly doing good while awash in racism and exclusion. The head of Planned Parenthood was recently ousted after Black women staff at the nonprofit women’s healthcare provider reported systemic racism. According to The New York Times, hundreds of former and current employees accused the CEO of berating and humiliating employees and presiding over a debilitating system that paid Black staff members unequally and held back their careers.

A reckoning in the nonprofit, aid, and development sector is long overdue. But it’s harder to root out in a world where good intentions, big fundraising “personalities”, and a commitment to the mission can give powerful protection to racist behaviour. The gap between rhetoric and reality is all the more infuriating. In this time of Black Lives Matter, Women Deliver sported their public support for Black people. That has now been exposed as phoney wokeness with no underlying commitment to acknowledge, yet alone understand, how white supremacy culture and white saviourism manifest themselves.

A reckoning in the nonprofit, aid, and development sector is long overdue. But it’s harder to root out in a world where good intentions, big fundraising “personalities”, and a commitment to the mission can give powerful protection to racist behaviour.

The Oxfam scandal exposed the ‘do-gooder’ sector’s hypocrisy, fraught with sexual harassment exploitation and abuse. But what #AidToo actually accomplished was the elevation of gender over race, placing white feminism and de facto white supremacy culture over the intersectional real lives of Black women. Black women’s pain, silencing, and tokenising are tacitly woven into the work culture.

Iversen is a beneficiary of the kind of privilege where she will be allowed to remain safely ensconced in her place in the world while Black women both in and out of the Women Deliver organisation are left to ponder why their pain has so little value.

Chelsea Williams-Diggs, a Black former employee who was one of the whistleblowers of Women Deliver, recently tweeted, “I’m frustrated with performative solidarity and institutional ‘investigations’ that are intentionally slow in hopes the outrage loses momentum.”

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“My time at Women Deliver was plagued by straight-up racist, white faux feminism,” Williams-Diggs added in separate written comments, saying she was left traumatised. Later, she told me she can’t even face following developments now, feels exhausted, and that it was all for nothing.

No Black woman chief executive would have survived allegations of racism, tokenisation of minorities, or creating a toxic work culture, especially in an organisation whose mission is the protection and safeguarding of women. No male CEO would have survived accusations of a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. Donors would have called for their heads, and the board would have raced to appease them.

While Black women have grown weary but accustomed to neglect and this lack of protection, there was a palpable sense that this time would be different.

We were mistaken – again.

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