Is “Meeting People Where They Are” Just Thinly Veiled Racism/Sexism/Classism?

One of the frequently used phrases that irks me most in my work with ESOs and other economic development organizations and professionals who also support minority and female entrepreneurs is, “you have to meet people where they are.” It bothers me so much because I see it as a thinly veiled expression of racism, sexism, and/or classism. 

A very similar phrase that I take the same issue with is “we need to focus on the low-hanging fruit.”

Let me explain. The phrase “you have to meet people where they are,” is used when one person is trying to explain to another that his/her expectations are too high. For example, “we’d love to be a bit stricter about the quality of the financial projections but you have to meet people where they are,” or, “we don’t train our entrepreneurs to pursue contracts that don’t have set-asides because we need to stay focused on the low-hanging fruit where there are minority- or woman- owned business participation requirements.”

Thus, the phrase “you have to meet people where they are,” is really the polite way of saying, “I don’t believe that people in this group are capable of performing up to the industry standard, so I’m not even going to try to teach them to.” It’s paternalistic, insulting, and, since it’s typically used when we’re talking about entrepreneurs who are minority and/or female and/or from low-income neighborhoods, it’s thinly veiled racism, sexism, and/or classism.

It reminds me of an interaction, just like so many others, that I had when I was speaking at a workshop for a continuing education group for alums of one of the top universities in the nation. I spoke about some of the barriers faced by minority business owners and then we had some minority entrepreneurs speak to the class about their experiences building their businesses and the barriers they faced in doing so. At the end of the session, one of the white gentlemen in the class said, “Thank you for coming and speaking to us about this. All of the entrepreneurs were just so intelligent and run their businesses so well, it’s hard for us to imagine that they face barriers so it was fascinating to hear about it.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory). He genuinely thought he was giving the business owners a compliment and couldn’t see the racism in his statement: that he assumed what we were referring to as barriers to entrepreneurial success for minority business owners weren’t barriers at all but were actually just the result of minority business owners being unintelligent and/or not managing their businesses well and he was shocked to find out that intelligent, effective minority business leaders faced real challenges that white males do not.

Using the phrase, “you have to meet people where they are,” to explain why you’re setting expectations so low – lower than they would be set for a white male – is the same thing as the racist statement above. It’s a statement that you don’t believe in the capability of the people you’re serving to perform at the highest level and I don’t think anyone who doesn’t believe minorities or women or folks from low-income backgrounds can perform at the highest level should be in charge of running programs to help them succeed.

Another, less insidious but still annoying use of the phrase is something like, “it would be great if we could require a business to have paying customers to participate, but you have to meet people where they are.” In this case, whoever is organizing the program just isn’t being precise (or isn’t being honest) about who the program is designed to serve. If you’re creating a program you want those with paying customers to participate in, that’s a different business stage and a different program than one you want new entrepreneurs with no customers to participate in. So saying, “it would be great if we could require a business to have paying customers to participate, but you have to meet people where they are,” is just disingenuous; the person should be saying, “we don’t require the business owners to have customers yet because it’s tailored to brand new businesses and helps them launch and attract their first few customers while this other program we have focuses on established businesses.”

Now, of course, the phrase itself isn’t necessarily racist, sexist, or classist. One might use it appropriately to say something like, “most of the entrepreneurs we serve in this program have little to no background reading, creating, or analyzing financial statements so, in order to ensure that they create high quality financial projections, we spend additional time on this topic in our program.” That’s meeting people where they are in the way it should be used: never lowering standards or expectations but being aware of the backgrounds of those you serve and willing to get them the resources needed to excel. Unfortunately, it’s so much more often used negatively than positively that it’s become one of my least favorite phrases.

Grant givers – you should pay attention to these things before you write checks to entrepreneurship support organizations because the leaders of these programs have a huge ability to impact the entrepreneurs they serve through that programming and you want to work with those who both believe in the ability of the clients they serve to excel and who understand the differences inherent in serving entrepreneurs at different stages of business growth.

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