Wolves & Sheep: On Identity & Hollow Promises

As we reach peak campaign announcement season and the number of Democrats running rivals a cycle of America’s Next Top Model, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity and pandering.

For marginalized voters, the scheduled guilt trip starts now. We will be pushed to vote for the Democratic nominee no matter what and given that we have more options than Baskin-Robbins got flavors, there is an additional scwabble for which candidates are worth the nomination in the first place. The outcome of both who gets the nomination and who wins the presidency has the potential to be our fault for “not doing enough” or another case of black women to the rescue and voters of color heavily voting Democrat to help turn the tide or both.

Alongside demands that we vote will be declarations that we have to vote for the (insert identity group here) candidate because they represent X, Y and/or Z. (I’m supposed to be with Her even though she’s with reinforcing the prison industrial complex and destructive foreign policy — right, okay.) Our support is to be unyielding and unquestioning. Don’t worry about the policies, just shut up and vote. You don’t want the alternative do you?

That bar is too low. But stating that the bar is too low, that it’s not absurd for marginalized voters or black voters specifically to want candidates who aren’t just polished piles of detrimental policy, is heresy. Demanding more shouldn’t come at sharp a cost but it often does. We’re left having to choose between destruction or settling (with the potential for delayed destruction). To top it off, the second option comes with the added bonus of “well at least they are X” or “but this person cares about Y.” We are meant to completely buy in because of the well-meaning exterior. See how cool/hot/funny this politician is? They really get you!

While amplified in politics, this is a familiar set up throughout society. More businesses are shifting towards “embracing diversity” but still utilize sweatshop or prison labor. We’re duped into compassionate capitalism because the hand that is killing us at least is moisturized and tanned now. On the personal level, it’s been overwhelming to find how insidious this is, even in spaces where I thought it wouldn’t be.

Working in nonprofit, and especially in education focused nonprofit, has illuminated most jarringly the potential for a bait and switch. There are people who are driven to help undeserved communities because it sounds good, because it’s a message that can be sold easily. The goal becomes to package a community in need as a project worth investing in and their organization as the best way to invest. The actual work being done may be lackluster or even destructive and detrimental but the point, more importantly than the work, is to convince somebody to pour some money in regardless.

The well-packaged nonprofit isn’t meant to just captivate, and arguably trick, potential funders, but potential employees and clients as well. It attracts parents to charter schools plagued with racial inequality. It pulls recent grads to entry-level positions with insufficient training for nuanced work. It calls children to programs where they are used as feel good stories and photo opportunities. A shiny mission statement draws us all in.

When it doesn’t, those selling the fantasy are outraged that you wouldn’t believe their 99 cent Kanekalon was virgin Brazilian hair. They argue that the fault is with you, marginalized person, for not recognizing this great opportunity. How dare you point out the flaws that, you know, arguably, don’t even really exist or were potentially only a consequence of necessity.

For those of us who discover the wolf in sheep’s clothing after we’ve already bought into the mission, we also find that our genuine investment is used trap us, guilt us to stay. Institutions feed off of that stringing hope, feed off of you seeing yourself reflected in those you serve or in those who claim to serve you. You may not believe in the structure anymore but the vulnerable population still exists. Better you do this work than someone who truly doesn’t care, right?

There is no long term benefit in being one kind cog in a machine. I have been hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hood winked, lead astray into thinking otherwise but the wizard is a scam no matter who is behind the curtain. In nonprofit work, in politics, in living as a person of color in America, being aware of this lie feels like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. How can we condemn a system/organization/institution when we have no alternative? Why not be someone who is genuine even if everyone else, and the structure itself, is not? A former coworker once said she worries that “they’ll all be like this,” flawed agendas hidden behind hi-res images of multicolored faces and carefully curated rhetoric, and we will always end up supporting them, often unintentionally.

I don’t think we’re doomed to disappointment. The lesser of two evils is still evil and we should name that. Claiming that critique or genuine concerns are undermining the betterment of us all is a silencing tactic. That mindset perpetuates an idea that diversity initiatives/people of color/black voices and investment are only worthy when useful and “usefulness” is conditional. We aren’t stronger together if that strength is built on the backs of the most vulnerable, not matter what the end result claims to be. It’s a messy journey to search for support that isn’t rotten at the base but you don’t want the alternative, do you? If asking for integrity and honesty undermines an entire platform then it wasn’t meant to stand. The onus is on the wolves not us.

I am an expert on over-thinking & lukewarm takes.