Having Privilege Does Not Make you a Bad Guy

Privilege is a chance to be an ally

The “P” word is polarizing.  Pair it with white privilege or male privilege and you might just offend someone.  

Why is the “P” word so hard for people to accept?

I define privilege as the advantages one has over others based on their associations with the majority group (i.e. white, straight, male, cisgender, able-bodied).  The majority group tends to hold the most power and wealth in the world today despite the increased diversity of people that live in the world.  The majority group is not the majority by population, but makes the majority of the decisions for the population.

When you think of privilege as an association with a group of people, it is not personal.  It does not  mean you have not earned what you have achieved.  It simply means that you were likely afforded additional opportunities because people that look like and behave like you are in positions of power.  Those people set the standard for what success looks like.  As humans, we all have bias.  We often assume that because the majority group makes the majority of decisions, someone that resembles the majority group is likely to be a leader, a decision maker, and therefore must be successful, even if we have no data or evidence to back that up.

I have made this biased mistake before.  In my Corporate America career, I was often in rooms of decision makers that were white men.  Therefore, when I was in rooms with women or people of color, I defaulted to the white males to make decisions more.  I listened to white men more, I took their opinions to be the truth, and I gave them an inherent advantage as a facilitator.  I played a role in the systems that support privilege.

I also have privilege.  As a white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied female, I know I have had advantages based on my associations with the majority group.  It does not mean I am a bad person.  I grew up with a single mother in the lower middle class and did not have a lot of advantages growing up.  I used to say that I was poor.  I now recognize that is not true.  I had everything I needed, not everything I wanted growing up.  I have now found my biggest source of privilege was my mother.  I was unconditionally loved and her belief in me was unwavering.  Not all children have this advantage in life.

Privilege comes from a variety of dimensions

Consider the Wheel of Power/Privilege from Sylvia Duckworth.  The further you are on the outside of the wheel the more marginalized you likely are in most cultures.  The more centered you are the more likely you are to have access to power.

This graphic, along with the Privilege Walk exercise can really open up a team or work group to the concept of privilege.  In my faciliations with clients on this topic, I often ask some of these questions:

  • When you read story books as a child, did the characters look like you?
  • Did you parent(s) or caregiver(s) go to college?
  • Did you feel comfortable bringing friends over to your home growing up?
  • Do you feel safe walking outside by yourself at night?
  • Do you work with people that look like you?
  • Do you feel you have equal opportunities for promotions at work?
  • Can you talk openly about your partner or personal relationships at work?
  • Do you feel safe around the police?
  • Does your leadership team at work look like you?
  • Do you see yourself reflected in your organization?

The more yes answers you have the more privilege you likely have.  When I lead this exercise with teams, on a given set of 10 questions, people of color and women tend to score mid-range anywhere from 4-7 or lower, and white men most often (with some exceptions) tend to score 7-10.  This is by no means always true, but it is very common.  

Some of these questions may feel personal.  They are.  Our unique experiences outside of work come into the workplace.  This was true even before a pandemic and the virtual work environment.  The underrepresented group has always had to cover aspects of their identity to fit in with the majority group.

Real allies take action

The more privilege you have, the more chances you have to be an ally for others that are different from you.  Wonder what to do to show you want to be an ally?  Here are some ideas:

  • Speak up.  When someone is not included, not invited to a meeting, talked over, or marginalized, say something.  Choosing not to say something is the same as letting it happen again.  Real allies are upstanders, not bystanders.
  • Advocate for others not like you.  Be proactive and seek out those that are different than you and amplify their voices.  Connect with them online, listen to their podcasts or read their books, and share what you have learned with others.  Positive peer pressure works.
  • Use your privilege for good.  Get comfortable with discomfort.  Know where you might have advantages and share those advantages with others.  Donate to causes, volunteer your time, ask people that you know to support those that are marginalized.

If you liked this post, check out my Next Pivot Point podcast.  We have over 100 interviews with diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders all over the world.  Be an ally and leave a review on iTunes – it helps other allies find it.