7 Steps To Understand & Talk About White Privilege At Work & Home

By Dr. Karyn

I am a White privileged individual who is fully committed to racial equity and passionate to learn how to be a strong White ally. I want to use my platform to challenge anti-Black racism and equip leaders at work & home with practical tools in this movement towards change.

Hello DK Leadership Community,

This month has seen an awakening for many on the topic of anti-Black racism.  Many of us (especially those who are White) feel uncomfortable to discuss racism, so we usually don’t. We might not understand the nuances of the topic if we haven’t personally experienced racism. Perhaps we don’t know what to say and/or we are afraid to say the wrong thing.  And yet, as I shared in my last article, if we (meaning all of us – White, Black, Indigenous, People of Color) want to develop great leadership in ourselves, our families, and our teams at work, it’s essential that we lean in to understand the complexity of racism, to listen to and learn from each other.

Black leaders and organizers have spoken this month, and many are asking all of us, including White and non-Black folks, to raise our voices. I appreciated the Globe & Mail quote by Masai Ujiri, president of the NBA Raptors, in which he said “Your voice matters, especially when you are a leader or influential figure, and especially if you are White. Leaders have to be bold enough to state the obvious and call out racism.”

If what I’m saying seems obvious to you, whether because you have already done this work for yourself, or because you have experienced the oppression of racism and been denied privilege, then please be patient with those of us who are learning, and know that my intention is to try and contribute to this needed conversation, and hopefully bring clarity and tools to those who want to learn more.

________________________________________________________

What is “White privilege?”

There are many layers to discussing racism, but today I want to start with the concept of “White privilege,” because as I spoke with many White and Black colleagues this week, I realized there is a lot of confusion about it.  Allow me to share my own story to help shed some light on this. Growing up, if you had asked me if I benefited from “White privilege,” I would have said “No.” Here’s why: I did not come from money or wealth and at the time this was my only measure for what privilege meant. Although my family life was filled with love and support, financially it seemed like we were barely getting by. My clothes were hand-me-downs until I could afford to buy my own, which I did by earning money at part-time jobs throughout high-school.  While I had to completely pay for my university and graduate studies on my own, my group of high school friends received cars for their birthday gifts and had their education fully paid for by parents.  To me, my friends were privileged, but I was not.

I had to work for everything I achieved, and while I am still proud of my hard-working background, I realize now that I was equating a lack of “class privilege” with having no privilege. Until recently I didn’t fully understand the term White privilege, and the benefits it endowed on me, and chances are there are people you know who also misunderstand it.

To really understand the difference between class privilege and White privilege, it’s helpful to read some definitions. Class privilege can be defined as “being born into a financially stable family” (Source: Duke University), while White privilege is an “unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are White” (Source: Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre).

Peggy McIntosh, who is an anti-racism activist, gives a great overview with this quote:


 “Having your White privilege mentioned doesn’t mean that you are being labelled as someone who is actively prejudiced toward non-White people. Instead, it is making the point that as a White person, you receive benefits from being the dominant ethnicity in society. 

Also, admitting that you have White privilege doesn’t conflict with your own acceptance of diversity.”

Peggy Macintosh, Ph.D
Ant-Racism Activist


The following statements are from Peggy McIntosh’s ground-breaking essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. There are dozens of questions she references in her work, but I recommend you start by asking yourself whether any of the following are true for you:

  • “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”
  • “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.”
  • “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.”
  • “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”
  • “When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”
  • “I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.”
  • “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.”

How many did you say yes to?

So what is the impact of this racial conditioning?
The outcomes of this scenario are predictable. Many White people unconsciously or consciously learn: I belong. I matter. My voice is important. I’m special. I’m safe. I’m deserving.

Meanwhile, many Black people unconsciously or consciously are told: I don’t belong. I don’t matter. My voice is not important. I’m not safe. I’m inferior.

If you are White – stop for a minute. Before you challenge this theory (I’ve already heard lots of White folks tell me “yeah but…”), I encourage you to STOP and think about this. If you are unsure about it, ask a Black friend / colleague whether they would be willing to share their thoughts about the above paragraphWas this true for them? Listen. Don’t defend!

Another outcome: the topic of Racism or Racial Inequality is usually avoided within White communities, which makes it extremely difficult to challenge, debate or discuss with White people.  This is not the case within Black communities, where it is often spoken of, just not generally with their White friends.

For those of you who are non-White, you may get this right away. For those of us who are White, we likely have never thought of racial conditioning before unless it was pointed out to us, which only confirms our White privilege. We take our status for granted, and either assume it is the same for others, or avoid asking ourselves the uncomfortable questions that follow this line of thinking.

So What Can We Do?
For our White and non-Black readers, below are 7 Steps for yourself, your family and colleagues at work to help move forward.
For our Black readers and readers who do not have access or proximity to White privilege, share this list with your family, friends and colleagues at work – and I welcome your feedback and suggestions. As I learn and write more about anti-racism – from my White racially-conditioned worldview – I am certain my unconscious bias will emerge, and I will make mistakes along the way. Let me know when you see this; I welcome the accountability.

Step #1:          If You Are White, Acknowledge Your Privilege
If you are White, you need to deal with this.  Own it, do not defend or deflect it. Start thinking about how being White has benefited you, and by extension has oppressed others.  Robin DiAngelo is the best-selling author of the book “White Fragility” and she goes one step further, suggesting that White people “remove this claim from your vocabulary: ‘I’m not racist.’ … It’s liberating to start from the premise that there’s no way you could have avoided internalizing a racist worldview… It opens up everything on this journey.”  Here is a great video from her to further understand:
https://youtu.be/kzLT54QjclA

Step #2:          Stop Saying “I Don’t See Color”
This comment is extremely hurtful for many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and disregards White privilege.  Psychology Today writer Sam Louie says many People of Color will internalize this as “You don’t see me.” Instead, the goal needs to be to recognize the color, listen to their concerns, experiences, and real-world issues of racism, and then confront how to deal with it.

Step #3:          Talk Openly About White Privilege & Racism
Silence perpetuates racism. We need to push through the discomfort of discussing race. At home, discuss anti-Black racism with your kids. Share your experiences, including your bias that you have learned.  Here’s a great video, created by Vera Ahiyya, a kindergarten teacher from New York, to teach children about race:
https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Living/kindergarten-teacher-makes-video-teach-kids-race/story?id=71179262

At work, the same rule applies. We need to lean into this uncomfortable topic. Forbes writer Janice Gassam said “White privilege is one of the most polarizing topics a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) professional can bring up and it is often met with resistance and defensiveness. There needs to be a deeper understanding of what White privilege is, how it impacts an individual’s life in and out of the workplace and what those with this privilege can do to deconstruct systems of oppression.”

This needs to be an ongoing dialogue in our sphere of influence and social circles, remembering that this is a movement towards change – not a trendy news story.

Step #4:          Surround Yourself With Diversity
We cannot learn about racism if we only surround ourselves with the voices of White people.  We need to make sure our social and professional worlds have diversity so we can hear different perspectives. Do a quick check-in with yourself:

* At Home: How many really close friends do you have from a different race? Look at your wedding photos? Look at your social media pictures?
* At Work: How much diversity do you have in your organization? What about in management or in your senior teams?

And it’s important to avoid an attitude of tokenism here; the goal is not to check off the box that “I have a Black friend” or “We have _% Black colleagues”– but rather that you are prioritizing diversity because you genuinely value their voices, and want them at your boardroom / family dinner table to spend time and learn from. By taking this step you acknowledge you are missing out by not having diversity in your home and work life.

Step #5:          Change The Racism Question
If you really want to discuss racial equity with your family and teams at work, don’t discuss racism from a binary yes or no –“Are you racist” lens (which often makes many White people defensive) and instead shift to “how.” For example: 

How are we allowing racism to function in our family life?
Ex. We only read books written by White authors.
Ex. We don’t talk about racism as a family – it’s awkward.

How are we allowing racism to function in our business? With our teams? With our clients?
Ex. Our senior team is 95% White.
Ex. Over 80% of our clients are White entrepreneurs.
Knowing these answers, you can brainstorm what positive changes you will make at work and at home.

Step #6:          Be Committed To Racial Equity
Author Ibram X. Kendi says that “the heartbeat of racism is denial,” so it’s critical that we see this as a lifelong journey and commit to ongoing learning. Here are a couple of great books I would recommend:

  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Dr. Robin DiAngelo
  • How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

You can watch a great interview by both of these scholars here:
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/White-privilege-racism-ibram-x-kendi-robin-diangelo/

Step #7:          Focus On White Responsibility, Not White Guilt
We cannot control the color of our skin, but we can control how we respond today. Shift your focus from guilt (which is usually driven by thoughts such as “I should…”) to responsibility. Ask yourself: “How can I use my White privilege to help, empower, lift, and create more opportunities for People of Color (at home, in my community, with my team, at my business) because I want to, not because I have to”.

We are just scratching the surface on this topic. But for those (like me) who are new to the conversation, I hope these 7 Steps have equipped you with more understanding, empathy and confidence to discuss White privilege with your families and teams at work.

Together we are developing GREAT leaders – while we FACE uncomfortable yet critically important topics!

Sincerely,
Your Leadership & Relationship Coach,
Dr. Karyn