White supremacy in philanthropy

When I was ruminating over the anti-Black biases of my chosen spaces, of the Big Three – philosophy, conservation, and philanthropy — I had a hard time “figuring out” philanthropy. I do believe that everything in the US is touched by, and partially formed by, white supremacy, so I knew there is something problematic in philanthropy that needs to be addressed and changed. But I was having a hard time figuring out what that was and where the anti-Black and anti-BIPOC bias had taken root.

I think it was hard to figure out, in part, because philanthropy is not the province of any race or ethnic group. The word philanthropy comes from the Greek philanthropia which means “to love people.” At its core, then, philanthropy is a human drive or desire to promote and advance the well-being of other humans beings. I actually think philanthropy, or the philanthropic impulse, is one of our species’ core drives, something that helps “build up” to or that constitutes the human. I have yet to see evidence of a group of people who are not philanthropic in some way. While not all groups are equally inclusive regarding the question of whose well-being deserves to be promoted and advanced, all groups have ethical norms that are meant to prevent harm and advance well-being of at least its own members (or the most elite — or intimate — of its members). In the most general sense, the urge of philanthropia, to love others, is an incontrovertibly human aspect.

Philanthropy as we think of it today (promotion of well-being through big gifts) really became A THING in the late 19th century, after the Civil War. Prior to the Civil War, philanthropic activities were mostly almsgiving and efforts by religious groups to serve the poorest of the urban poor. By the dawn of the 20th century, philanthropy had been taken up by capitalism and become a significant part of our economic system, an industry in and of its own.

Today in the US, when we talk about philanthropy we generally mean large gifts made to nonprofit organizations. All gifts and donors should be considered philanthropic, but we tend to think of philanthropists as the uber rich who make the big transformative gifts to causes that promote human well-being. We think of philanthropists as those who devote a good portion of their day and their life to nonprofit causes. Bill Gates is an obvious example. The label is one we seem to reserve for a small, ever-shrinking group of people — and this group is constituted primarily by white men.

Philanthropy is, in part, a reaction against and an attempt to mitigate income inequality, a recognition that one’s well-being is dependent in part on the resources one has available to meet their needs and enhance their life. As such, one could say that the existence and business of elite philanthropy (and the accolades we give philanthropists) relies on and is indelibly tied to economic and income inequality. I wrote a paper about how Marx’s analysis in Capital illuminates the charade of modern elite philanthropy (gifts of $100m and more) as a supposed corrective to the inequalities and injustices in the capitalist system, and of our need now to revise our image of the “ethical” capitalist. IT’S ALL IN MARX, PEOPLE. It’s all in Winners Take All by Anand Giriharadas, too.

But I digress. Partly through research for that paper, partly through Giriharadas’ book, and partly through my involvement in philanthropy, I think the biggest problem, the biggest place where anti-Black bias comes in, is has an economic and a cultural side. And it revolves around value.

The biggest economic problem with philanthropy is that those with the most money make the decisions about what gets funded and, by extension, what doesn’t. Donors are the ultimate arbiters of what nonprofit work is “valuable” and what efforts are “important” to a community and a society — without donations, nonprofits shutter, work is halted, services terminated.

While percentage-of-wealth-wise, the lower and middle classes are FAR more generous than the 1%, the 1% are able to make the transformative gifts that truly guide and shape the work of enhancing well-being. Years of economic oppression of Black people have made the class of “elite philanthropists” (those capable of giving gifts of $1 million or more) to be primarily white (and male); therefore the system that determines who gets to decide what projects move forward — those who decide what changes are worthwhile, valuable, needed, and most likely to advance well-being — is one that is anti-Black in its foundation and white supremacist in its perpetuation.

The second horn of the problem is a cultural one, a question of whose values contemporary philanthropy itself promotes. The values of elite philanthropists, what they believe about what other people need or deserve, guide our general philanthropic approach to enhancing well-being, even guide the very definition of what “human well-being” is and what should be done to enhance it. Our country’s philanthropic situation ends up prioritizing the values of one small group of philanthropists. The narrower the demographic of our elite philanthropists, the narrower the values our country advances through its overall philanthropy.

It’s odd that we think, or that we prop up a system in which, those who make billions are by the fact of their wealth worthy of being the moral exemplars wise and ethical enough to determine the private, large-scale investments in human well-being. That by the fact of their wealth acquisition they have earned the right to decided what a community needs, what it should need, what it doesn’t need, or to decide the values that other humans should adopt. Apparently we are supposed to aspire to the values of the elite just because they have wealth. (Should I beat us back over the head with Marx? No??)

Different people, and different groups of people, have different values. Everyone defines their well-being differently. They need to have more say over what that means for themselves.

One curious value of philanthropy of particular interest to me is that the public conception of philanthropy still has a primarily anthropocentric telos, as being the act (“business”, ha) of benefiting humans. This is for the most part a wonderful thing, and those efforts are truly the most important work we can do while there is breath in our bodies. BUT so many BIPOC communities and cultures value non-human species in a way that the white world historically has not. I live in Hawaii and get to see the beauty of how the Native Hawaiians lived sustainably and compassionately and meaningfully towards and with the earth and its winged, four-legged, crawly, swimming creatures. The Native Hawaiians have a set of values for their land and waters that I, as a white haole, no matter how much I learn, do not and will not fully have. Their philanthropy extends to a wider array of living creatures than the Western world has tended to value. I find it inspiring and motivating. I find those values to be just as worthy of consideration as those of elite philanthropists.

Ok, so I’ve complained enough. How to fix philanthropy? That is a HUGE question that I am not even CLOSE to being equipped to answer well. However, there are a couple changes I’d like to see in philanthropy in the US.

First, let’s address the widening economic gap and income inequality in the US, yes? Through appropriate tax legislation and social policy, let’s create opportunities for BIPOC to be more economically secure and thus provide opportunities for them to be more philanthropic (in terms of total amount of giving, not percentage of income or depth of spirit). It’s a beautiful feeling to donate to a cause that is deeply and personally meaningful with one’s own money. That act of giving of our resources is part of the overall philanthropia that ties us to each other and creates a literal sense of investment in the long-time success of that organization and work and the people we can support.

I’d also love to see us go back to ancient Greece and consider the term philanthropist to include not just those who have given their money, but who have given something infinitely more precious: their life. Let’s see the people who literally and voluntarily give their lives to serving their communities with their time and energy — assisting the elderly, tending to communal spaces, providing child care to struggling working parents, protesting police brutality, preserving green spaces, providing legal services to underprivileged folks pro bono publico, bringing food to ill neighbors, WEARING MASKS (don’t get me started), etc. — as fellow philanthropists. Considering all these acts to be philanthropy, and their doers to be philanthropists, is a more fitting and honest and community-bettering understanding of philanthropy as acts of love for fellow humans (and all living beings).

There is probably no way to quantify this kind of philanthropy in a way that would benefit these philanthropists (I’m thinking primarily of the tax breaks the elite receive for their larger donations). But really, would we want to? I want to resist putting dollar signs on different expressions of love. Let’s avoid making money the ultimate arbiter of what counts as an act of love or as an act of philanthropy.

This reminds me of what a friend sent me, in response to my wonderings about the white supremacy embedded in philosophy. She had an incredible point that changed the way I see that field and the changes needed (and she gave me permission to share):

I’d argue that the underrepresentation of Black scholars in fields such as philosophy is both a consequence of the delegitimization of Black philosophers and the normalization of White western masculine conceptions of philosophy (via White-centered canon, enlightenment, etc.). Black philosophers often get lumped singularly into disciplines, such as cultural studies because they engage with philosophical ideas through examining the experiences and phenomena related to Black folx (also because many are interdisciplinary!). Folx like Sylvia Wynter, Angela Davis, and (Frantz) Fanon don’t get treated like ‘real’ philosophers though they absolutely are and their works should be elevated.

I’d like to see BIPOC guide more of the philanthropic dollars given by others, be in possession of more of this country’s wealth to be able to donate funds directly, and for us to widen what “counts” as philanthropy and a philanthropist. There is still space and beauty in elite philanthropy, if it is done right. But it needn’t be the only philanthropy, nor even considered the best philanthropy. (Certainly right now, it shouldn’t be considered the definition of exemplary capitalist ethics.) Untethering the public appreciation of philanthropy from its economic (thus, white supremacist) metric could help us actually become a more loving nation, as we will no longer be conditioned to think that money is the best measure of love or human expression of love.

This will also have the effect of dethroning some of capitalism’s moral exemplars. If we consider philanthropy to be the expression of love for human beings, how do we evaluate elite philanthropists? Jeff Bezos committed $100m to fight hunger in Seattle in the face of COVID; does that qualify him as being truly philanthropic in the expansive (original) version? To say yes or no, we’d have to look at the whole of his life and behaviors. How does he run his company? How does he treat the living beings in his life? Does his business ethic contribute to the well-being of or actively harm those under his employ? By expanding the definition of philanthropist we actually draw sharper boundaries around what counts as moral and praiseworthy. In doing so, I believe we will come to exclude many of those our white society has decided are truly Good.

Because I’m an INFJ/Enneagram 5/HSP I’m long on ideas and philosophy and short on practical steps to achieve my ideals. I am quite confident those who know more than I do about economics and social policy and the like are able to contribute far more to instituting these changes than I can. I mostly see my contribution as being my love for philanthropy. I love it deeply. I love it more now that I see better where it goes wrong, because now I can see where it can go even more right. Let’s tend to and correct our systems out of a sense of both justice and love. I think that’s where human well-being resides, and philanthropy is not quite there yet. But I believe it can be, because I believe in the good of my fellow humans.

2 thoughts on “White supremacy in philanthropy

  1. This is so good in so many ways, not the least of which is its place in time. We are at an inflection point on innumerable fronts; because of this, principled, nuanced thinking about the direction the curve should take is needed *now*. Without it, innumerable opportunities will be lost in our lifetime. Worse, as we see happening [gestures at *everything*], destructive ideas will rush to fill any vacuum of conscience, empathy, and responsibility for living things. At a time when one’s worth is held hostage by one’s ability to create value for corporatists, yours, captured here, is the kind of thinking that can break that connection and move hearts and minds. If you reach even one person with the message above, you’ve made a difference. [raises hand—so moved]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I so agree about the opportunities we will lose, and shortly, if we don’t grip this inflection point and do the hard work NOW. If we don’t do it, others will do the easy work of letting those destructive ideas fill the void. If only we could all agree better on what counts as “destructive”, life would be so much easier. but we don’t, so we have to fight hard for well-being. Thank you so much for your encouragement, and for being a partner in this general effort of nuanced thinking. Your thoughts always strike a chord in me, so hearing when mine do the same in you is the best kind of praise.


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