ARTICLES “But wait, I’m woke!”: The trials of the white male manager

“But wait, I’m woke!”: The trials of the white male manager

A case for transforming organisations: you’re a right-on manager leading a diverse team of committed staff towards meaningful social change. You’ve got words like “intersectionality” and “power” in your vocabulary, and sometimes you use them. You interrogate our shoddy political system as you sip your after work pint with some pals you met at university. You scoff at other men’s sexism in your sector, knowing full well how not to fall into the trap of mansplaining – after all, you read the F Word. You work hard and you have the best of intentions for everybody. So why do you sense that heavy weight on your chest every time the phrase “white man” comes into conversation? It makes you nervous for a bit, but then you remember, you’re right on! You’re a progressive! Best you stick where you are so you can keep doing the good work. You’re making sacrifices, you’re taking one for the team, you have so many reasons to stay…

In this article, I’m going to reflect on the limitations and struggles of the “woke” manager, whom by holding positions of power in social justice organisations are keeping us back from achieving real change. This analysis is part of a wider conversation about the failures of civil society organisations, and one that to me is the most urgent and practicable. My reflections focus on white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender, middle class men because these dominant mix of privileges make up the majority of leadership in our sector and in part my personal experience as a middle class, able-bodied straight woman of colour. My use of “woke” is tongue in cheek – referring to the self-labelled identity that expresses a white liberal approach to social change. I may refer to “white men”, but of course these reflections stand true to more than just identity, they embody a mindset that is present in us all and exhibited through a set of unconscious behaviours. As I write I will be addressing you; a “woke” manager in a social justice organisation, hoping to do good but struggling to understand how to as people challenge your identity and background.

Social justice organisations are suffering from a leadership3 problem where mainly white men occupy positions of power easily, and the real leaders struggle to access roles with any real influence or responsibility. By passively accepting this status quo, we will continue to pump love, time and energy into our campaigns and we will continue to fail. Transforming the leadership of our organisations is more than just thinking about diversity; it will help open up the heart of our movements currently struggling to grow within a very suffocating NGO culture. Making space for real leadership to emerge will help us prepare for transformative social change4, where organisations can become the spaces to practice our social justice principles.

Are you a “woke” leader in a social justice organisation?

To help you, reader, to locate yourself, I have explored some justifications I hear often when challenging someone about their identity and background. They are written to support you in understanding the reality of your position in the organisation.

I just sort of, landed here, I didn’t ask for all this responsibility”

No white, cisgender, middle class man just “lands” in a senior position in an organisation. Assuming the universe was nice to you and you got lucky, dismisses a lot of necessary self-reflection:

  1. Society is structured in a way where your whiteness and maleness assures you’ll get a leg up to the top, maybe even a whole ladder.
  2. Someone who looks, speaks and jokes like you sits in another position of power that pulled you up to where you are now – a funder, director, board member or partner organisation.
  3. There will always be someone with power who has your back, even when you screw up.
  4. You’ll be forgiven unquestionably when you make mistakes. More likely the only people who will notice and speak up are those who have less power than you, but feel all the impact of your actions
  5. Through complete lack of trying, you’ll exhibit all the behaviours, language and interests that mainstream NGOs will look for in organisational leadership. You are a “safe” pair of hands under white supremacist-patriarchy.
  6. Failing to acknowledge or reflect on your privileges can leave you complicit in unconscious behaviours that will favour others that also look, act and sound like you. You’ll find it harder to build trust with those who should be supported in their leadership because they look, act and sound different to you

“I work super hard, sometimes I even work whole weekends!”

The fact you can give so hard to this movement without reflecting on the impact that has on those around you, and yourself, is testament to your privilege and self-absorbed actions.

  1. “Hard work” is both a symptom of capitalism and a behaviour that the meritocracy rewards. Over-working your 9-5 job ensures your privileges can play into this system for only your benefit. You’ll achieve over what is humanly expected of you (making it hard for anyone who values a work life balance to meet your standards).
  2. You build a culture of overworking that is damaging to those in your organisation that need the mental and physical space to switch off from their paid work to make space for healing, self-reflection and just being human in a society laden with violence and trauma.
  3. No one is expecting you to work this hard, you’re placing those expectations on yourself because you want to be seen to perform. This risks derailing your activities from the purpose of your organisation’s social justice values and becomes all about you; your achievements, how you are recognised, what you are known for. In short – check your ego.
  4. Neo-liberal capitalism will not fall to its knees overnight because you stayed up ‘til 3 AM writing funding proposals
  5. It’s bad for your overall health – making you emotionally and physically unavailable to those that need you in your team, or worse, preventing you from acting with understanding and empathy towards others

“I recently hired a person of colour (POC) into our team”

  1. Did you hire a person of colour into an equal or more senior position than yourself? No? ….. then read on
  2. If all the poc/women/lgbtq+ people in your team are your friends, or agree with you most the time then you’re still hiring on similarity and not difference. In today’s work culture we are expected be “happy at work”. Disagreement and conflict can actually make your employment precarious. We need to be creating work cultures in which people are encouraged to work through disagreement, not be scared of it.
  3. Attempting to justify your position through improving the “diversity” of your team is a poor excuse for being woke. Diversity as a concept is white liberalism, and white liberalism gets us nowhere close to what we need to achieve
  4. Did you hire them in at a junior level? Congratulations, you might have just performed a token hire. Unless you designed a career pathway that will ensure progression, development, mentoring and security for junior staff you are just contributing to the fragmented and precarious employment faced by junior staff.
  5. Are you treating all your staff the same? You could end up rewarding those you get on with more than those you disagree with, even if those staff hold the same identity. Make sure you have systems to keep you accountable to training, work and pay rise opportunities for everyone
  6. Not trusting people who are different to you at the top of your organisation suggests you are avoiding a likely critical eye entering into senior management, and is a sure sign that you are inadvertently hoarding power.
  7. We live in a system that disconnects us, and this is also true for those who may group-identify as poc/working class/LGBTQi+/disabled. Be aware of this, and don’t be responsible for making your staff turn against each other because they’re having to compete for opportunities and your affirmation.

“Have you seen my Facebook profile?”

Sharing a recent recording of Angela Davis at WOW or shading your profile picture with PRIDE rainbow colours doesn’t account for meaningful inner work.

  1. Our internet selves are often the expression of the people we want to be, rather than the people we actually are. It’s a good start wanting to be more right on, but this is a distraction from the emotional internal work you need to do as a white man
  2. Supporting and championing the work of marginalised grassroots groups, and sharing useful resources and interesting articles is worthwhile only if folks actually do something beyond clicking like
  3. Liking/sharing/retweeting is not an act of solidarity. For many the hard work of allyship goes far beyond social media. Often the work that needs to be done is time consuming and requires a commitment (e.g. stewarding an event,  working a street stall, door knocking, organising a fundraiser, etc.). So if you are going to “like”, follow up with something more to offer.
  4. When radical black / brown / queer / disabled / working class grassroots activists acknowledge your posts that does not give you a stamp of approval. It simply means they have acknowledged your post.

My partner is a well known anti-racism/feminist/disability rights/LGBTQi+ activist”

  1. People hold relationships and friendships for more reasons than their politics. If you’re with them because they have kudos with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and that helps you out, then it’s time to question the base of your relationship.
  2. Their work isn’t your work. Being closely linked to a rad feminist does not substitute the work you have to do for yourself and for the movement.
  3. Relationships transcend politics – at some point your partner might need to drop out of activism to be available for their friends, family or themselves. When that happens, you need to be there for them as their partner, not as the other part of the image you have as a power couple.
  4. If your partner’s feminism is white, forget it.
  5. Your relationship with them does not situate you outside patriarchy

Sometimes I do question my position, the thing is the organisation needs me right now”

  1. You realise that’s straight out of the book of Saviour Complex 101 ……. Right?
  2. Isn’t it funny that there is NO OTHER PERSON in your organisation with the experience to take over from you? Might that be because you have held onto the very opportunities that your staff need access to in order to demonstrate their own leadership? If you’re not coaching and mentoring staff so that these opportunities are fairly distributed you’re basically gatekeeping and neglecting how hard it is for others to display leadership.
  3. Who is affirming you in your position? If it’s your board member, funder or other white male management buddy then start questioning them and their assessment of where the organisation is at.
  4. All organisations go through crises and transitions, a dynamic one will have them regularly and that’s the nature of responding to our politics and social context. Do not make “seeing things through” a reason to keep you in a senior management position when you’re not ready to take on the transformative work.
  5. Most importantly, people who don’t look like you CAN DO YOUR JOB, they’ll just do it differently.

How does the real work happen?

This magical approach is often referred to as organisational transformation, and there are many routes it can take but for the sake of this conversation I’m going to concentrate on organisational leadership. If an organisation’s leadership has looked the same from its inception to now, it may be time to make way for new leadership that will guide it through its next phase. There are a ton of examples where this has happened, such as Centre for Story Based Strategy and Rockwood Leadership Institute. Founders syndrome is a curse and one that is ever prevalent in today’s NGO sector as founders hold on to the brand that has grown with them. Transforming an organisation can bring us one step closer towards our social justice goals by ensuring it is led by someone who has brought their lived experience of oppression into their political analysis and daily practice. When this happens, we will have the breadth of knowledge and depth of experiences needed to make ourselves relevant and give our work legitimacy.

As a “woke” manager, you will have utilised the privileges that society affords you to do something that very few individuals unlike you have the support to do;

  • You have been given unquestionable trust in your ability to succeed
  • You have gained access to spaces of influence
  • You can mobilise resources, and aren’t questioned about your existence in that space
  • You probably got promoted easily, and accumulated some useful experiences as a result
  • You receive affirmation, regularly, about your capabilities and skills
  • You feel comfortable and can be yourself in the company of people in power

This is nothing to crawl under a rock about. However, don’t dismiss this as unavoidable. Since you’re still here take it as an opportunity to grow inwards and review where you’re at right now. The last thing this article is trying to suggest is that you sack it all in and leave. Whilst I will admit that at times I have willed many many “woke” managers to get lost, even I understand there to be a more effective exit strategy available to us. Giving in to misunderstood criticism can lead to damaging and ultimately fatal decisions for organisations that could and should exist and thrive. Let’s utilise these very privileges you’ve used to build your empire and prepare it as home for someone else.

Here are a few starting points to get you going:

  1. If you’re thinking about setting something up, do it in partnership with someone who doesn’t look like you, and who you can pass on the leadership of that organisation to once it’s established. Be there to provide access to funding, legal advice and networks that would otherwise be held just for you and your solo project.
  2. If you’re already running a team, hire yourself an anti-oppression coach. If you don’t know what that is, get in touch I’ll guide you to someone. Working out whether you’re the person to lead this organisation may not be a question you are able to answer alone, and a good coach will be with you for a while to reflect on your attitudes, behaviours and purpose. Do not hire someone who is there to give you an ego boost, they should be asking you some really uncomfortable questions
  3. Challenge those above you. Don’t make the excuse for being middle-management in a large organisation a reason for inaction. Listen to your staff, take a risk on raising their concerns and open up the conversation about leadership with the (invariably) man above.
  4. Organise unconscious bias training for your team, and openly set goals for yourself to become better aware of these behaviours in yourself, inviting staff to call you out when they feel it crops up. Don’t assume that a one day training is enough
  5. Undertake a review of promotions and salary grades in your organisation. Investigate who has been promoted, how often and by how much. Give this work to someone who can view it objectively yet critically
  6. Do NOT assume HR to be merely about salaries and logging holidays. If you’re a small organisation, pool your resources with other orgs to provide a strong HR support for your team. HR is one way to keep you and your staff accountable to each other, and a good organisation will critically reflect on their processes regularly.
  7. Undertake a similar review for training opportunities; an area that often brings up biases on who gets access to development opportunities. Try to identify if bias exists.
  8. Be thoughtful about your 360 review during appraisals. Too often Directors or Senior Managers get away with poorly run annual reviews whilst everyone else is subject to rigid review practice. Hear what people have to say about you without fear of a backlash, and openly commit to what you understood your growing space to be by thanking your team for their input.
  9. Recognise that women/people of colour/LGBTQ+/disabled/working class people may not be ready to take on leadership roles, not because they don’t have the skills or knowledge, but because they are not supported to have the confidence in themselves to do so. Affirm them, their skills and their leadership
  10. Build in an alternative model of support for developing your staff – such as paid internships that have real progression routes / job sharing / mentoring / peer coaching and an anti-oppression leadership group facilitated by someone external so that staff have a space to deal with trauma and healing in the workplace.
  11. Set up a system to be managed upwards or be coached by someone junior to you who you may disagree with regularly. You’ll be surprised how this dynamic can shift that relationship for the better.
  12. Build anti-oppression principles into your organisation and the progression routes for staff – you could even think about having targets if that means you’ll stay committed to those goals. Don’t just write them, and then store in the Dropbox.
  13. Start learning to take criticism as a gift, someone cares enough to give you feedback, use, it to improve yourself / your organisation. If taking in criticism is difficult for you, make an effort to explore why
  14. Hire support for your staff during this process – someone who is more than a union rep, and who genuinely cares for your team’s wellbeing. Making such a big shift can be scary for people and there are people out there who know how to do this well.
  15. Set up and invest in an Employee Assistance Programme that allows your staff access to counselling, financial support, legal advice and other services.
  16. Seek as much guidance as possible from people who specifically approach organisational development through anti-oppression practices. Compensate for people’s time and expertise.
  17. Review your board – is it made up of your mates? Reconsider what the organisation needs so it’s less about who thinks like you and more about the future leadership of the organisation
  18. Don’t be afraid to tell people if you’re not planning to stick around, and mean it – write up an exit strategy with your team that lays out the reasons for you going and what kind of leadership you believe the organisation should have.
  19. Don’t let budgets be an excuse for not investing in your team’s culture and wellbeing. If you need to do a financial assessment, begin by assessing your senior salaries.
  20. Find yourself a role to do the work that can support the organisation but is purely back end. The most obvious and useful thing to do is sticking to unsexy work like operations, legal and financial work, AKA the work that often falls on women/poc/LGBTQ+/disabled people. Be there to champion the organisation to funders and those you continue to hold influential relationships with, being sure to step back as you transition out of your front end role.

Making it happen, now

First, let’s just stop for a second and appreciate that you’re still here reading the article. Whilst I’ve whipped out many scary and sometimes unsympathetic attacks on you, you’ve committed to the end and I sincerely think that is commendable. The next step of course is acting on what you’ve read.

As mentioned earlier, writing this article has been a struggle because in the absence of great leadership in our organisations my personal desire has been to see the backs of most white male managers, replaced by a leadership of anyone who will understand, work with, and fight for me. Invariably that would be someone who has a similar lived experience of oppression or who has done some real inner work to understand with my lived experience of oppression and why I have centered it in my politics. In part, writing this article has worked out to be a process of healing for me, as well as an awakening to some of my own blind spots as a middle class able bodied straight woman of colour. So, thanks again for sticking with me on this journey.

Finally, and maybe more importantly, it’s time for us to take the conversation of leadership in social justice organisations seriously. By doing so we could see a real awakening within our social movements because our leadership will carry with them a fuller, deeper and more personal kind of politics in their work. This will bring integrity and truth to our social justice organising, ensuring the movement is centering. If you agree with anything you have read, think twice before liking and sharing it on Facebook. Sit still and consider what the next best truthful step should be if you value what you have learnt.


    1. Ironically, “woke” is a term appropriated from black culture by white people who wanted a label they could use to identify themselves as being right on. You don’t decide you’re woke, someone else does as a reflection on you.
    2. This is a difficult piece to write because ultimately I believe white men should leave their senior positions, but I know that is both unlikely and also not a universal answer to a more complicated truth. There are indeed excellent white male managers out there who are leading teams doing some great work. Some of whom even contributed to this article.
    3. Whilst I do use the term leadership here to reflect seniority in an organisation, it is true that a social justice “leader” does not need an organisational title to be identified as one. For the purpose of this article, I equate leadership with seniority, influence and representation of a social justice organisation.
    4. Transformative social change does not mean we are just going to end fossil fuels or stop capitalism, it means that the systems our world is built on will be built on something other than systems of oppression. The history of our economic and political systems, the things that govern the way our society acts, have these prejudices readily built into them. Saying that, if you just want to end fossil fuels or overturn capitalism but you’re quite happy for society to be sexist and racist, then move along. This space isn’t for you.


  • I’d like to thank some wonderful people for their guidance and input into this article which is by no means a solo effort – NR, ACN, GL, RH, JH, NW, CKK.

The fee for this article was donated to Movement for Justice to support their action this Saturday (13th May 2017) which also happens to be my birthday. My only wish is that you head down to Yarlswood this weekend and continue to find ways to provide your time, energy and resources towards groups such as this, when you feel you are able to.