Feeling Our Impact: Getting Honest About White Privilege, The Workplace, And Life

It’s the smallest things that help those outside the norm feel included, respected, and valued, not just at work but also in everyday life.

For example, as a diversity and inclusion expert, I often explore both unconscious bias and the ramifications of privilege with my clients. When the role of privilege isn’t understood by leaders who’ve unwittingly benefited from it because of their ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic background, I find there is less understanding about—and compassion for—the particular difficulties some face in today’s organizations who are in the minority. When I hear such statements from leadership as “everyone has equal opportunity here”, it confirms that there is a gap to be addressed. A level playing field is a fallacy.

To illustrate this gap and build understanding and empathy, so that change can happen, we use an exercise called the “privilege walk.” Participants stand in a straight line in the middle of an empty room; I then read a series of statements—every one of which addresses some small privilege that is based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, or disability.

Each of these statements confirms or refutes a set of assumptions we might make about those around us. They include:

If your ancestors came to the United States by force, take one step back.
If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward.
If you ever felt unsafe because of your sexual orientation, take one step back.
If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward.

Over the course of the exercise, individuals move forward or backward as they answer each question, eventually finding themselves spread widely across the room.

Many are afraid to look around the room, while others feel shame about being in the very front, or at the very back. There are often tears and apologies, and the discussions that follow are heartfelt and vulnerable. Suddenly, participants can more clearly see the unique combination of advantages and disadvantages each one of us has—and the disparities which have the potential to divide us, rather than unite us in a sense of shared community.

REVERSING THE PRIVILEGE EQUATION

In the diversity and inclusion space, we use co-mentoring programs—also known as “reverse mentoring” programs—to develop underrepresented, up-and-coming talent by pairing them with more senior leaders of different backgrounds.

The cofounder of Fast Company, Alan Webber, describes reverse mentoring this way: “It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way the young twentysomething’s [are]. They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future.”

Companies such as Cisco and GE have turned to reverse-mentoring programs in recent years, and their success has shed light on the benefits. Executives who make time to build cross-identity relationships—across lines of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, generation—to solve a company problem help those outside the power structure navigate up the pipeline, while retooling their own skills in the process.

Creating pairs for mentoring programs might still look hierarchical—one senior person paired with one more junior person—but in today’s programs, leaders have an opportunity to see the workplace, and the world, through a different lens than their own. And that is invaluable.

When mentees share their challenges and struggles in a system that wasn’t built for or by them—a system that has been more hospitable to the people that don’t look like them, historically—there can be multiple “a-ha” moments. These “a-ha” moments can then be turned into real-time learning opportunities for others.

People are, well, just people.

They want the same opportunities, the same benefit of the doubt, and they want to be viewed and treated the same as anyone else, regardless of their differences.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Good diversity training isn’t about glorifying one group over another, nor is it about vilifying or humiliating the white men who have seemingly won the privilege lottery. Diversity conversations are a time for people to talk about what makes them whole, to explore both their shared and divergent experiences in order to more accurately understand who they are as a team and ensure that each person feels comfortable and energetic about contributing.

Author: Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker and diversity and inclusion expert. Informed by more than a decade consulting to Fortune 500 companies, her new book entitled Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change (Advantage Media Group, November 2016) creates a compelling case for leadership to embrace the opportunity that diversity represents, for their own growth and for the success of their organizations, while simultaneously empowering advocates at all levels to find their voice and be a driving force in creating more enlightened organizations that resonate in a fast-changing world.

Privilege

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