An Invitation to Bureaucrats and Power-Holders in White-Dominant Institutions to Stop Passing the Buck and Start Throwing Wrenches

by Kelsen Caldwell

I want to name a phenomenon that I see in white-dominated liberal institutions called “Pass the buck.”

It’s as if there’s an instruction manual for employees (especially those with higher ranking positions) that instructs them to stop change from happening by acting like they are confused and have no power. It’s a mode whereby people with decision-making power passively maintain the power structure by passing the buck.

In practice, passing the buck looks like someone, most often the person with the least decision-making power, raising an issue. Then, there are about twenty meetings and email chains longer than the equator where everyone gives the same response:  “I don’t have the power to make this decision”. The instigator then spends so much energy spinning their wheels that they finally go away because they no longer have time or energy to keep engaging with such feckless decision makers. And, on the whole, nothing has changed.  

This reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s ideas around the banality of evil where people who end up complicit with the violent and oppressive machinery of society are often just bureaucrats doing their jobs rather than the epitome of the evil villain we’re socialized to look for in so many Hollywood productions.  

So, what I’m here to say is: if you are someone with some degree of decision making power in a white-dominated institution, stop passing the buck, stick your foot down and your neck out, and fight for something for once god dammit!!

In her book Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria (1997), Beverly Tatum talks about racism as a moving walkway—and suggests that even if you are just chilling on the moving walkway, you are still on the moving walkway. And, that moving walkway represents white supremacy. In short, and she’s especially talking to white people, if you aren’t doing things to actively move against the walkway, you’re complicit with that system even if you aren’t wearing a “Make America Great” hat every day. You may, in fact, have more power societally than the person you love to look down your nose at who wears a MAGA hat. Draping yourself and your office in signs that read “All are welcome here” and using the rhetoric of equity and social justice are not the same as moving against the walkway. Symbolic promises that aren’t backed up by actions will not be enough to change the material conditions and deeply rooted systems of violence and oppression that cause inequalities and injustices in today’s world. And sometimes this (often white) liberal performance serves as smoke and mirrors that obfuscate the fact that nothing is really changing.

For those of us who have institutional decision making power, I want us to use our powers for good, to stop being conflict avoidant, and to stop hiding behind the rhetoric of equity and social justice when our actions, on the whole, suggest that we’re not actually willing to put in the work necessary to make sensible policies that truly work toward a racially and economically just world. I’m looking at you, Dow Constantine—as one of the few people who truly can stop the building of the youth jail. I’m looking at you AnaMari Cauce, who is allowing white supremacists to take up too much space on the UW campus. I’m looking at you, department administrators and program managers for the county or city government, local non-profit organizations, and schools and colleges.

So, to all my potential buck passing equity and social justice rhetoric users, I have some questions for you to consider:

  • Are you performing equity and social justice or are you deeply practicing it? If you are performing it, what needs to shift for you to move to a deep practice? What can you do to act from deep and unwavering commitments to undoing racism and pursuing collective liberation? What resiliency practices and relationships do you need to build and fortify to make it more possible for you to use your power in ways that align with a politic of collective liberation focused on the redistribution of land, wealth, and power? How is aligning more deeply in practice with these values also part of a process of your own liberation?  
  • Do you find yourself passing the buck and abdicating your decision making power to avoid conflict? What do you need to change to be a decisive decision-maker who consistently advocates for what is right? What is your own relationship to conflict in your life, and how does this inform and shape the ways you show up? What work do you need to do to process your relationship to conflict, trauma, racism, and institutional power so you can start engaging in generative conflict and transformational change? What relationships do you need to build with others so pushing back isn’t just something you do in isolation? (As you can see, this is long haul work!)
  • Have you experienced blowback for some of the decisions you’ve made or the policies you’ve fought for? This isn’t a perfect litmus test, but my sense is that people in positions of power who haven’t experienced any blowback are usually playing it safe. I believe that when we choose comfort in our jobs as institutional power holders, we’re also choosing the path of least resistance which is connected to the real lack of safety of communities that are excluded from holding institutional power. So, in choosing comfort, we’re also choosing violence and oppression, even if it’s not right up in our face.  
  • What can you do to grapple with the fears that hold you back from throwing wrenches in the moving walkway that reproduces white supremacy in institutions? Is it fear of judgment or being disliked? Is it fear of disrupting cultural norms where you work? Is it fear of losing your job? What people can we call on (friends, co-workers, mentors, ancestors, movement elders) to resource us so we are prepared to confront and move through our fears?

Now, I’m not suggesting that you go indiscriminately light fires for every injustice you see (believe me, I’ve been there and that’s a quick road to burnout and also sometimes has implications for burning people who have less privilege than you). I do believe there is strategy in this work, and that it takes time to build skills and networks of deep relationships for being effective.

I also want to say that it’s totally normal to feel a sense of guilt and shame when you start to recognize yourself in the long line-up of buck passers. I’m not suggesting you suppress guilt and shame (I think we need to grapple with this, just in a conscious way that pays attention to who we process with and what space we’re taking up). You are where you are and you enter this work from where you enter it. Rather, I want you to acknowledge whatever comes up for you when you realize your own complicity, tend to the underlying emotions with compassion, and then see what kinds of openings come from reminding yourself what your commitments are with regard to fighting for a more just world. What is the world that you are fighting for?

Today is another opportunity to do something different, even if that’s a departure from the past you. Today is a day you can start to muddle through the muck that comes when you start throwing wrenches that gum up the operation of the moving walkway of white supremacy. Today is a good day for you to shift from the re-production of well-intentioned institutions that are still concentrated bastions of white, cis, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied wealthy people power toward a liberatory world where everyone gets to show up in full dignity and power.

Featured image is a cc licensed image attributed to Scott Maxwell

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