Dear white folks in philanthropy: My “Miley, what’s good?” moment

Written by: Caitlin Duffy

Date: September 16, 2016

You may remember last year’s controversy between Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus. In response to being excluded from nominations for a Video Music Awards category, Minaj expressed public critique on Twitter about double-standards and racial bias in the industry.

As host of the 2015 VMAs, Cyrus took the opportunity to critique the artist in an interview: “What I read sounded very Nicki Minaj, which, if you know Nicki Minaj is not too kind. It’s not very polite. I think there’s a way you speak to people with openness and love.” The next day, while accepting an award on stage, Minaj turned to a surprised Cyrus and pointedly asked, “Miley, what’s good?”

Minaj later explained her response, stating, “If you want to enjoy [Black] culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us.”

Cyrus was clearly uncomfortable with Minaj’s rage. Whether the hip-hop artist was attempting to change the industry, shame specific people, vent her own frustration and anger or heighten awareness, her refusal to be polite was a necessary political statement.

I was reminded of this exchange when I read Rodney Foxworth’s recent post “The Need for Black Rage in Philanthropy.” Foxworth compels white philanthropists to embrace a sense of moral urgency, writing that philanthropy should “lean into the impatience and rage that simmers throughout Black America” in order to advance change.

Before we can lean into another’s righteous anger with urgency, it’s necessary to face our own discomfort. As a white person, I’ve struggled with discomfort in the face of anger from people of color. Robin DiAngelo writes that white people in North America are largely insulated from race-based stress, and that challenges to our racial worldviews and social norms can be very unsettling. But as Foxworth rightly asserts, Black rage is an appropriate response to the level of injustice our societies face, and white folks like me need to work through our fragility in the face of our colleagues’ anger. Lives depend on it.

My prior reactions to Black rage have been marked by defensiveness and frustration with what I perceived as over generalizations about white people. For example, two years ago I wrote a personal blog post titled, “To my fellow social justice activists and friends of color.” Among the sentiments I shared were:

“Your frustration and anger with an unfair and oppressive system are justified, and your experiences are valid. To defend yourself and amplify your voice, at times harsh words and even violent reactions are required. Yet to those in my network I ask … Please do not generalize and make sweeping statements about ‘whites’ in a disparaging manner when criticizing unjust societal structures and institutions, considering that there are many people who look like me and who stand in solidarity with you. I recognize that I cannot fully participate in your struggle, but I can’t help but feel that the energy that is expressed behind such attitudes smacks of stereotyping and exclusion, which is antithetical to the advancement of struggles for equality and justice.

Looking back, my post was laden with a discomfort with Black rage and my own white privilege in trying to control discourse. Minaj wasn’t there to call me out, but a white friend reached out to me. She wisely wrote, “Not being defensive, and internalizing what is or could be true about what people of color are saying that is different from my current perspective, is an important practice for me as a white ally. I really try not to seek affirmation of my rightness as an ally when I’ve recently been called out, especially affirmation by people of color.” Unfortunately I deflected her offer to meet and discuss it, though I’ve since thanked her and can only wish that I had been more open to hearing her advice at the time.

Especially as white people working in philanthropy, we might get racism caught in our teeth during a panel, or a presentation at a conference, or a conversation with a colleague. I sure had some white privilege caught in mine when I wrote my self-righteous post. It’s impossible to separate the personal from the professional when it comes to implicit bias.

White people in philanthropy, embrace discomfort and avoid defensiveness in your own “Miley, what’s good?” moments to truly listen and learn. I detailed why it’s important to do so in another NCRP blog post entitled “Philanthropy: Let’s Talk About Race, Baby.”

With growing dialogue in the sector around race and racial justice, I’m emboldened to share my cringe-worthy experience, and I do so with the hopes of challenging you to be more open about your own learning journey.

When have you experienced or observed white discomfort with Black rage in philanthropy?

Caitlin Duffy is senior associate for learning and engagement at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @DuffyInDC on Twitter.

Image by Philip Nelson, Live Streaming Expert, modified under Creative Commons license.