Folx find ‘not good enough’ view makes the climb harder

CONCORD, CA — “You just were not that good at it,” a former employer offered as we ran into each other at a conference after I moved into a leadership role with a national organization.

I had worked nearly a decade at this former organization and felt there was nowhere for me to grow further. I was never asked where I wanted to be, how I wanted to grow or what my aspirations were.

Messaging I received at organizations I have worked:

“You are so much younger; you wouldn’t know what I’m talking about.”

“That’s why you say you are a person of color, because you are 51 percent Asian.”

“You are so articulate.”

“We are putting you at the lowest end of the pay scale because you do not have a degree.”

“Don’t tell me you are a Christian. You are so kind to everyone. Wait, if you are, that’s OK. Organized religion makes me uncomfortable. Are you?”

“Hiring people of color is important because they are needed to teach us about culture. That’s part of their role.”

“You are taking advantage of your job. You should stay focused on what you need to do and not be trying to help others so much.”
“You sounded Black on the phone.”

Sometimes, it’s simply silence.

You may read some of these statements and think, “I don’t get it. There’s nothing wrong with these.”


All my life, people have assumed I am something other than I actually am and I’m valued for much less than what I am capable of due to my ethnic youthfulness, ambiguous racial makeup, certificated education level, trustworthiness and simply the ­origins of my first and last names.

I’ve been tokenized. A white supervisor and colleagues asked me to give feedback on whether marketing materials should be with or without a youth of color.

I’ve been messaged, “There are no excuses. If you work hard, you will deserve and reach your goals.”

This may be differently true for some, but I know the messaging along the way does matter for folx who do not represent the dominant ­culture.

As I proudly serve as an LGBTQI+ non-profit organization leader, I have stepped into a real and true level of the economic impact of racism. A recent study, by the consultancy Bridgespan and Echoing Green, found that “Organizations led by people of color win less grant money and are trusted less to make decisions about how to spend those funds than groups with white leaders.”

Differences remain

Even when nonprofits with leaders of color win grants, differences remain. Unrestricted assets of nonprofits with leaders of color are 76 percent smaller than those led by white individuals.

In nine months, I wrote and submitted 28 grant proposals – securing individual grants totaling $150,000 – and was told, “You just were not that good at it.”

Kiku Johnson is Rainbow Community Center’s executive director. As a man of color and trans experience, Kiku has invested his life engaging and elevating youth and adult voices of marginalized intersectional identities. Send ­questions and comments to