An Open Letter to White Males July 1991

Recently I had a brief phone conversation which exposed a stereotype about how the “old boys club” works. The background for understanding this experience clusters around a proposal which we at Community Change had submitted to a foundation, seeking funding for a specific project. The proposal had been submitted many weeks ago, and, since we had been told that it was unlikely to be funded, I had put it out of my everyday consciousness. Suddenly the phone rang, and on the other end was a man whose name identified him as a primary decision-maker for the foundation to which we had made application. So I dove for the file with a copy of our proposal, ready to answer questions about it. What happened then was the surprise!

The first question which came was, “What was your background before you came to Community Change?” I was so astounded, that at first I could hardly remember who I was! Somewhere my alter ego was screaming, “What the …. does that have to do with the proposal?” I was tempted to tell the inquisitor that his question was irrelevant and inappropriate, but I succumbed to the hope that maybe the “club” would give us some money, and I obediently answered the dumb question.

While I was still reeling from that question, came the next one: “When did I first meet you?” …. followed quickly by “Who were you with when we met?” At first I could not remember, so my questioner proceeded to assure me that he thought it was at the home of a man who was a well-known executive for a prestigious social service agency. Since I had never been in that home, I could not affirm his memory, but did finally share my recollection that we had first met years ago, in the funder’s office, in regard to yet another proposal.

Then there was the second part of that question, about who I was with when we first met. (Obviously my questioner wanted to connect me to the person in whose home he thought we had met!) The best I could do was to identify the person who accompanied me when we had talked about that other proposal.

Then came the question, “How long haw you been at Community Change?” The answer was quick. “Twenty-three years,” I said, waiting now for some questions about the proposal. Indeed there was one question about the sources of our income, an unnecessary question, since the financial statement submitted with the proposal already answered that one! At least he was getting “warm,” so I prepared to clarify any questions about why we wanted the money, and how it would be used.

Almost as abruptly as the phone had interrupted me, the interview was ended, with a casual, “We’ll see what the Board says            ” My receiver now back on its caddy, I sat in
semi-shock, wondering if what I had heard was a nightmare.

“What is your background?” …

“Where did I first meet you?” …

“Who were you with when we first met?”

Those three questions were the “guts” of this man’s inquiry about our proposal, and must have become at least a part of the basis on which he was to make a recommendation to his Board about whether or not to fund our request!

This is an almost perfect example of the stereotypical white male club in operation! There it is right out in plain view for all to see; nothing hidden about it. We can hope that kind of thinking does not prevail often, but unfortunately it probably does. While in this case the consequences could have affected only the outcome of a modest grant request, that style of making decisions, when projected into other places where major decisions are being made, is frightening.

It is frightening to imagine how the thinking illustrated in this instance might affect the patterns of decision-making in institutions Those patterns become a part of the way institutions function, and an institution governed by white males who think, act and decide as my caller did easily become racist, sexist, and classist. Project the style depicted in this experience into a situation where someone is hired or promoted on the basis of judgments about “background” and who knows who, when, under what circumstances, and the consequences become serious for those who do not “fit” the mold. Ultimately there is also the threat that institutions governed by these standards will become outmoded and obsolete, left behind in the changing tides of demographic shifts.

Even more frightening for me is to recognize that the man who called me probably has no sense that his inquiries were so irrational. When such behavior becomes simply “the way things are done,” without thought of the consequences or effects either for the persons involved or for the institutions, my uneasiness gives way to fear for the future. The patterns of the stereotypical, white, male club need changing if the future is going to look different from the past.

White males of the world, we can do lots better.

Let’s change the stereotype; we can do that by changing our ways of thinking, perceiving, deciding, and behaving.