Having privilege is a chance to be an ally
When we leverage our privilege for good as allies, we help others around us. As a white person in the DEI space, I’m acutely aware of my white privilege. This means when I speak up about racism or issues that uniquely face people of color, it’s critical that I acknowledge the privilege to speak about these topics as a person with white skin. Still to this day, in my corporate training the word privilege can be polarizing for some and put some on the defensive. Just recently I had a training participant completely shut down and exit a virtual training about allyship when they perceived shame and blame being placed on them while discussed the term privilege. While many have come to better understand and acknowledge their privileges over the past few years, it’s clear to me that we still have a long way to go.
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, non-disabled). 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.
Allies speak openly about privilege.
As a white, cisgender, straight, non-disabled woman, 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.
Allies speak openly about privilege. They acknowledge that there are many dimensions of privilege. It’s not just about race and gender, privilege can come from your family structure, your socioeconomic background, your geography, your industry, and many more.
I do this exercise regularly with my clients. It’s also helpful for allies at home. Look at the different dimensions of power graphic – the more you associate with the dimensions at the top of the graphic, the more likely you are to have advantages associated with them. If you identify some of the markers of diversity at the bottom, the less likely you are to have privilege.
I’ve done this exercise hundreds of times and without fail, white straight males almost always identify with far more dimensions of power than women and people of color. Of the dozen dimensions listed here, which are by no means an exhaustive list, those in the majority group generally identify with at least 10 of them on average. I myself identify with 9 of them as a White woman. When people compare notes with others of color or diverse backgrounds, they find a very different situation. More often than not, women of color find themselves with the least amount of privileges.
Privilege is an asset
A friend of mine was not quite yet an ally when he did his first privilege walk. As a straight, cisgender, White male, he only had one dimension of difference. He wears hearing aids. He describes that moment as his White male epiphany. He had no idea the hardships that other people faced because of diversity before that moment. He was hesitant to support DEI before he understood how many advantages he had simply by being associated with the majority group. He now advocates for DEI openly on his podcast and in places where he speaks. That’s the power of understanding privilege. It can help bring people into the DEI conversation.
Aspiring 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’re an aspiring 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.
Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.