The Link Between Race and Power: White Women in Non-Profit Leadership, a discussion with Michelle Gislason

TPA Voices Podcast Episode 3:

The Link Between Race and Power: White Women in Non-Profit Leadership

On this episode, Michelle Gislason, an expert leadership and development coach, shares her “smog of racism” story and advice on how to learn to recognize habits of racism and actively make choices to encourage growth in others.

Special Guest: Michelle Gislason


Diana Dollar: Hi, my name is Diana Dollar and I’m the Executive Director at The Prosperity Agenda. Today we’re talking to a special guest, Michelle Gislason about the link between race and power of white women in nonprofit leadership. Michelle’s a leadership and organizational development coach who specializes in nonprofit organizations. She’s also a co-author of the award winning book “Coaching Skills for Nonprofit Managers and Leaders.” Welcome Michelle.

Michelle Gislason: Hi Diana. It’s really lovely to be here.

Diana Dollar: We’re happy to have you.

Today, we’re talking about something that I know you’ve spent considerable time learning; the context of race and power of white women in leadership, specifically nonprofit leadership. To get us started, I wonder if you could explain a term that you’ve used in your work. The term is “smog of racism” and its connection to power and authority of whiteness. What does this term mean and how does that connect to your own story?

Michelle Gislason: Sure. Well, it’s definitely not my term. It’s Beverly Daniel Tatum who coined the term. So, I want to acknowledge that, first. Definitely, this term has impacted my own story. Last year, I traveled to Idaho for a national gathering of movement leaders. At the time, I don’t know if you remember, there were three sides of Washington state surrounded by wildfires. The fire has made the air really heavy with ash and pollution, which I could see as I was flying into Boise, Idaho. As I was driving to the hotel, I couldn’t help comment about the pollution levels that were really high, which was obviously interfering with people’s daily lives.

It also left me with a heavy feeling that is quite similar to the smog of racism. Beverly Daniel Tatum talks about where she equates smog to racism. Like in Charlottesville and other parts of the country where there’s this thick and really heavy smog that descends onto the community. Like with racism, with a capital “R” and white nationalism, with a capital “W” is everywhere. You just can’t avoid it. It’s so thick that you can actually see it in front of you. But, there’s also a different kind of smog. There’s lowercase smog that lingers, and is actually really insidious. Take my personal smog, for example. I was born into a predominantly white community, having teachers that were the same race as I was. As Robin d Angelo has said, I was taught by white people who were taught by white people who were taught by white people, with textbooks written by white people. Meaning, I grew up seeing only white in places like covers of magazines, and TV and film characters, and literature were predominately white. Even in my master’s program and English literature, it was “English” literature, who are mostly written by white guys. This is how my smog shows up, in all these small and big ways. Supervisors in my career were white, politicians that I see who have access to power are predominantly white. So when you put all these experiences together, there is this very insidious system that stretches way back to before the 1700’s when this country was founded. When, technically speaking, the country only counted white people as “people.” So what I’ve experienced may appear small that I was born into, what I’ve breathed in everyday has left me with a sense of racial superiority.  I think this is important to keep in mind because this kind of learned sense of racial superiority is really what white supremacy is about. I can say more, but I’ll stop there.

Diana Dollar: I definitely want to dive a little deeper into this idea, smog of racism, which shows up in the white dominant culture. In your work, you’ve talked about particular ways this smog of racism translates into particular habits. These habits affect how we function in our organization, like “perfectionism” “performance” the “right to comfort.” Which I find resonates within myself. Even though I see myself as being a very open minded individual, there was a time when I felt great discomfort in talking about racism, and didn’t want to go there. I would love for you to talk about these habits that are so important for us to understand, especially when it comes to addressing racial equity and white superiority in nonprofit organizations.

Michelle Gislason: Well, I want to acknowledge that I wasn’t the first to talk about these habits of white supremacy culture. I have taken this great work to create moments to talk about how these habits are done automatically without even thinking about it. Even if we think we have good intention to be racially sensitive, we cannot avoid white superiority if we’ve grown up in it, like I shared about my own story. These habits, which I’ll talk more about in a minute, have showed up for me in several ways. Most notably in my past leadership positions working for big nonprofit organizations where was managed multi-year, multi-million dollar initiatives, where there was super high pressure to perform.

In my work, I got a plenty of ego strokes from funders for our team bringing our “A” game, which that term is like getting a little gold star. In one instance, I hired a woman of color who I knew from the community. She was a total rock star. I really liked her, a lot. She came onto this project and right out of the gate started to miss deadlines or turned things around that had errors. This really made me nervous because this wasn’t working for my “A” game. So slowly I started to do things like doing her work for her. Then, I started not giving her work. And, I even started leaving her out of key conversations and meetings with the team. All this stuff that I was doing was a classic form of modern oppression. Like doing her work for her is dysfunctional, rescuing, blaming her, avoiding contact. These were my habits. I was really playing into the habit of perfectionism and performance. I was worried how I was going to be seen or how’s the team or the project going to be seen by the funder. I worked to avoid conflict. So, instead of me just talking to her and saying, hey, here’s what’s up, you know, how’s this for you? I avoided the conversation. I played into the habit of urgency or getting into power hoarding. Even when I got called out by a colleague who was pointing out what I was doing, I displayed more habits like defensiveness and the right to comfort. I didn’t want to be made to feel uncomfortable in this. I didn’t want to be forced to look at my own stuff that was coming up. I don’t want to have this wildly uncomfortable conversation that might have something to do with race or my own internalized racial superiority. And that’s just at the interpersonal level.

I think it’s also important to recognize that as somebody who is overseeing this project, I was a gatekeeper and as a gatekeeper I was granted the ability to make decisions about how to distribute resources or interpret on behalf of others, or a whole community. And, as a gatekeeper, I also not only bring these habits to bear in interpersonal situations, I can also do it at an institutional level, at a programmatic level, and that’s where harm really takes hold. So, yes, I think it’s important for all of us who have gatekeeping roles to be really mindful that gatekeeping is real.

Diana Dollar: This idea of gatekeeping is indeed so important, particularly given how much attention, especially today, is being paid in the nonprofit realm to racial equity and intentions to create a different future for the way nonprofits do their work. I would say that as a predominantly white organization, we need to know that addressing white superiority needs to go beyond such acts as hiring people of color, which is why we need to talk more about the habits of white superiority. And, particularly, with respect to white women in leadership roles, we need to understand what impact we have when it comes to addressing racial oppression. I think women present themselves differently than men, but wonder from your perspective why it’s important for us to call out white women in leadership. What habits do we bring into the workplace that perpetuates the white dominant culture in organizations. Can you unpack that a bit with respect to these habits in organizations and nonprofit organizations.

Michelle Gislason: Sure. Well, first I want to acknowledge that there’ a gender spectrum of fluidity. So naming women only might not resonate for everybody. And, at the same time, you’re right to say that in nonprofits there is a predominantly white female sector in the United States comprise over 80% of employees in nonprofits of all kinds. As opposed to 7% of CEOs are people of color, 5% of philanthropic organizations are led by people of color.

There’s a dominant narrative I think that we white women have in the nonprofit sector that’s really born out of the helping nature of the work. And my colleague, Fleur Larson, she and I do some work together. She’s got this great image she brings into the training of a woman from the Red Cross. It’s an old, historic image, where she asks people to name what they see. We hear things like “martyr” “Savior” “purity” “charity” “christianity.” All these things come from a very privileged, mythical story. But, when you put all that together, there’s this helping story, this charity kind of martyr savior, white savior story. And that’s really dangerous. Because if I already have internalized racial superiority because of all the smog and I believe that I’m helping others, I’m automatically putting them into an inferior place. Helping someone is then not a relationship between equals, it’s more like power over someone, and that’s a very paternalistic approach. So to your earlier point that we’re a white dominant organization and yes, we want to hire people of color. And we definitely take a very tokenized approach to this. We say, let’s hire more people of color. But, what’s happening when we do this is the white dominant organization where everybody’s been, you know, breathing the smog of racism, including people of Color, the racial inferiority is present.

Bazaar practices or habits form in organizations, and they play out in organizations. So yeah, I think the technical fix stuff like hiring people of color, or saying it’s enough to just hire for diversity, misses the overall need to focus on behavior change, which will definitely make people feel uncomfortable. It’s gonna require bringing up identity stuff where I think the habits and practices really, really come into play.

Diana Dollar: And going back to one of the habits about the right to comfort, you’ve used the term white supremacy in your work, which hasn’t always landed comfortably for white students and leaders that are participating in your workshops, yet you’re determined not to soften your language, which I think, as a white woman myself, to not gently walk around this depth of conversation about racism. I realize that in order for me, for example, to get past the tokenism aspect of addressing racism, I need to be able to talk about it as it is.

So you’ve made a determination not to soften the language and I’m wondering why you’ve decided to walked right into it? Why is that important?

Michelle Gislason: Yeah, I do. I have a lot of students, funders and colleagues that asking me to use another term? And my response is no, and here’s why.

Personally, I want to say that Robin d Angelo wrote a really great piece on this that was literally titled, “No, I won’t stop saying white supremacy.” So again, there’s lots of people out there having these conversations, but I use the term on purpose. I use it often. I often ask people to sit with the term for a moment and first consider what, if anything, feels helpful about this term. And, then what if anything is feeling uncomfortable or unhelpful about this term? It’s a really useful conversation because people can then unpack it some of the things that are about white supremacy. They can’t say they are not like “those people” who are defined as white supremacists. Those people are harm on purpose. Yet, when we take white supremacy to the place of smog of racism as I explained, this is white supremacy. All those habits, all that institutionalized racial superiority. It’s modern oppression. We need to talk about modern oppression so that we can get comfortable with the discomfort of white supremacy and just talk about it.

Diana Dollar: And you also spend time in your work, in your workshops, really getting to ways in which to address these habits of a white dominant culture. To heal fully in our country, we need to deal with these habits effectively, so what could we be thinking about that disrupts these habits, particularly as white women in leadership?

Michelle Gislason: Definitely. You mentioned perfectionism, which is such a big issue in the white dominant culture. One of the key antidotes is to start celebrating and talking about failure. We can all start creating a culture of appreciation, spending more time focusing on people’s strengths. There are so many other antidotes that can’t all be named here, so I call out people who are working on amazing stuff like Becky Masaki, Alaina Featherston, Marissa Terona, and Rachel Abraham. I also mentioned Beverly Daniel Tatum and Robin to Angela who are doing some really good with ways to overcome habits of a white dominant culture.

So, what I can say here is first educate yourself about the habits. Educate yourself about internalized racism and sexism and how it might be playing out in your work, your organization and in your relationships. Spend time reflecting on the “smog of racism” story for yourself, your organization. If you’re a leader, ask how you’ve benefited from that smog and how it’s caused harm. What habits do you need to interrupt, what might be the antidote. How has the right to comfort played out in your life? And, to step into that, as a leader, do you know your strengths, talents and purpose? What about your values? How do they show up in the workplace. What about your ancestors? How did your past influence your how your whiteness shows up in the workplace.

I would just end by saying it’s good to start learning more about the gatekeeping concept and how you can open these gates, not close them. Look up the work being done at the People’s Institute. I think there are an extremely helpful resource. I would say spend some time figuring out who are you accountable to and what are they asking for and what are they needing? I know women of color that I work with who say that white women can step back or to the side or away to allow women of color to amplify their voice. Completely support leadership of color. Don’t downplay race, don’t trivialize by supporting the “all lives matter” mentality. Acknowledge when mistakes have been made and myths that stay open. Keep learning. , Name racism and sexism when it happens. Interrupt those microaggressions. Like the story I shared earlier when I was managing a woman of color. Overall, be accountable to your piece and know you’re not doing it just for me, but actually doing it for the liberation of all of us, including yourself.

Diana Dollar: That’s a great way for us to end. Thank you so much Michelle. I think that if anything, just being able to name these habits and not shy away from understanding how we can go beyond the tokenism idea of racial equity in organizations is a great start. And given the fact that there are so many women in leadership within nonprofits, it’s seems to be an imperative for us to do that self reflection to understand our own role, what we’re doing to contribute to the harm toward individuals of color. It starts at the top. We can either perpetuate these racist habits or we can recognize that individuals of color are indeed whole people in our communities and that it take change on our part to make health communities real. So thank you for the work that you do. So thank you for being with us today.

Michelle Gislason: I’m happy to be here.

Diana Dollar: For those of you who are listening, you’ll be able to get this recording on TPA Voices podcasts on our website. Just go to the prosperity To learn more about Michelle and her work, just go to her Thank you all for listening.


The Prosperity Agenda works to end persistent poverty by changing the way organizations think about and create programs for, families under financial stress. Rejecting the dominant narrative that “the poor”, particularly people of color, are inferior and therefore deserve to live in poverty, TPA instead designs tools and methods that reflect the idea that all people are capable of making good decisions for themselves and their families.

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