Posted on June 14, 2019

The Challenge of Negotiating Race in Cross-Sector Spaces

Tabitha Bentley, Stanford Social Innovation Review, June 11, 2019

{snip} I quickly learned that race and what I call racial negotiation — the leveraging of the power of race to achieve a goal — are at the crux of collective-action efforts aiming to address deep societal inequities.


Fortunately, my investigation into cross-sector initiatives also uncovered patterns that can help guide us toward this goal. The insight traces back to John Kania and Mark Kramer’s theory of collective impact, and Peter J. Robertson and Shui-Yan Tang’s conceptualization of how commitment can motivate individuals to cooperatively pursue shared ends. Inspired by their work, I theorized that the quality and success of a collective action is significantly interconnected with collective commitment, though neither always requires the other. And to really understand the concepts of action and commitment, I wanted to develop a deeply contextualized understanding of the relationships among a collaboration’s partners and the circumstances in which they work.


In every case, stakeholders negotiated race and power to garner individual and organizational commitments, and these negotiations played a critical role in how participants and leaders engaged in change-making work and the outcomes they experienced. Two patterns emerged, the second of which provided tactics that promoted more success when trying to address systemic social inequities.

  1. Emphasizing White Interest-Convergence

White interest-convergence describes a process of change in communities of color that aligns with the economic and sociopolitical interests of white elites. It can be used two ways: strategically to shape change-making efforts and analytically to evaluate those undertakings. {snip}

In all of the cases I studied, people attempted to bring about commitment, action, and social change by aligning the social-justice interests of communities of color with those of white people. This indicates that they saw white interest-convergence as an important means to achieve the goals of the collective group, a notion made even more compelling given that four of the five efforts were organized by people of color. It seems diverse leaders firmly believed white interest-convergence was essential for achieving their missions. {snip}


  1. Emphasizing Racism, Race, and Communities of Color

The more successful organizations embraced conversations and actions that centered racism and race. Their strategies privileged the voice, needs, desires, and values of communities of color. They made it impossible to divorce structural and institutional inequities from the minds, goals, and commitment of their partners and participants.


Allies Around the Globe, Listen Up

Considering race is a crucial approach to getting commitment to collective action and sustaining change-making efforts. It requires privileging marginalized voices in a consistent, respectful, and deliberate way.

For the allies of communities of color around the globe who want to fight the continued prevalence of racism in cross-sector collaboration, I recommend that they challenge white-interest agendas to ensure they’re truly aligned with the values and beliefs that support an equitable future. They must take on both conservative and liberal ideologies that normalize and disguise racism through, as the scholars Daniel Solórzano and Tara Yosso have written, “the rhetoric of shared ‘normative’ values and ‘neutral’ social scientific and educational principles.” They must figure out how communities of color understand and reconcile histories of oppression, and join in their aspirations for their future. Together, we can make a world that reflects the equity we all want to see.

Tabitha Bentley