Last week I wrote The Leechers, an article about a practice all too common in society, including our sector. It is the surreptitious extraction of value in a relationship of inequality. It is defined as “using too much of what is freely given without contributing a reasonable amount back to the community that provides it.” Specifically, I wrote about how prevalent it is in racial justice or DEI work, with white people seeking to lead in this area, often at the expense of people of color.
The responses I received from readers were telling. I share some of them here to demonstrate how widespread it is and some of the ways it shows up, in case you don’t notice these things.
One woman of color shared that the article had gone viral in her network of evaluators of color. It seems that white gatekeepers extract so much profit from the lived experiences of people of color, including on issues of equity and “equity in evaluation,” that they guard their position zealously all the while being “slyly polite.” Evaluators of color either play along or leave the field.
Another tweeted, “This happens all the time. All the time. ALL OF THE TIME. In climate spaces.”
A funder of color tweeted that she was sitting with how this happens in philanthropy, including in racial equity funding.
White people wrote me thanking me, hoping they are not doing it. One wrote that, as someone in the knowledge creation field, she knows she is guilty of this, including doing it to me. And that she recalls when I reflected this back. I didn’t recall. But it probably happened.
One reader wrote that she was particularly intrigued by the question I ask at the end: “How do you help someone see what they don’t want to see? Especially when they use justice language.” She went on that, though the article was “outstanding,” “something is lost is allyship is so narrowly defined that us white people cannot find a role that doesn’t have an objection attached to it.” Indeed, how does one help someone see what they don’t want to see?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps what matters is that the aforementioned evaluator of color experienced the article as “therapeutic.” Or the white people who hope they don’t do it. Or the funder who will take the percentage of racial equity funding that goes to white organizations and leaders as a relevant data point.
Perhaps it will move us to consider “value,” the way that Mariana Mazzucato talks about it in The Value of Everything.
In modern capitalism, value-extraction is rewarded more highly than value-creation… Once a central plank of economic thought, this concept of value—what it is, why it matters to us—is simply no longer discussed.
Value extraction is a core feature of capitalism. She calls this a “parasitic system,” “a problem hiding in plain sight,” and one that is “at the heart of today’s financial and economic crisis.” The social justice crisis too, one might add.
It’s time the nonprofit sector asks itself the questions Mazzucato offers: Who really creates wealth in our world? And how do we decide the value of what they do?
It’s at the core of creating the world we want to live in.