In The #MeToo Era, Should White Men Be Called Privileged? Yes. And That’s OK.

Dawn Burke Current Affairs, Dawn Burke 19 Comments

I love white men.  I’m married to one. He treats me well and is a fair, righteous man.  So let’s get that straight.  Now, let’s get on with it….

In the #MeToo era, should white men default to accepting and acknowledging they have been unwitting benefactors of privilege.  That answer is a resounding yes. You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge; so, white men, it’s time to acknowledge you have benefited in some way or another due simply to good fortune.  You were born in an era where white + male has given you certain unalienable rights.  Rights to things such as higher pay, more opportunities to become CEOs, the right to control congress, the right to be President of the United States, the right to play all professional sports, and yes, even the right to use brute strength to command and control.  It is what it is. I don’t make the rules.

And to those white men who, throughout their lifetime, have treated all with respect, what I’m about to say next sucks.  But here are optics you must be aware of. Unfortunately, you are not out of the woods in the #MeToo era.  Women do not believe all white males prey on women, or take advantage of better job opportunities, or higher pay.  But the optics are, the ones who didn’t take advantage, didn’t do enough to stop the ones who did.

So, white male friends, are you still with me? I suggest if you are a righteous, good, white male reading this, exhale, and go with the flow on this post. I want to help.  Stick this out.

Why is this on my mind? Over the last month I’ve witnessed three interesting interactions. In these conversations—some heated, some not—the white male participants were called out publicly on the topic of privilege. And not all of the interactions involved HR or harassment, but mundane things. For instance, one was a heated debate about music and whether a white man can express opinions about artists (female) they don’t like without being called privileged.  

Friends, the call outs were rough and frankly a little tacky. In the worst case scenario, the men were accused of being the willing perpetrators of white privilege. In the best case scenario, they were framed as uneducated insensitive dolts, so used to privilege they don’t even recognize it.  Ouch!  I mean, come on. On the face of it, that stinks. Not because it may or may not be true, but because really important conversations about diversity got shut down or became so inflamed that defensiveness trumped listening.  “Privilege” was used as a weapon or as an uber defense mechanism, and, in these instances, was a very divisive word.

However, this does not mean the term should never be used. Let’s take the sting out of the word.  To really move the conversation forward, white men need to lean-in and acknowledge the fact they were benefactors of privilege. That should be a presumptive baseline.

Why does acknowledging this matter? Some white men believe they have not benefitted from their color or gender.  They believe they have worked hard for what they’ve earned, dealt with hard-knocks, and the cruelty of life like all others. And indeed, many of them have dealt with these hardships equal to all others. But you are not like all the others in one important way:  You’ve had more opportunities to battle the hardships than women and people of color. And, to the good white men reading this, as much as you think you can empathize with the plight of disenfranchised women, you can’t. Not possible.  

Let me give you an example. I don’t have kids. Whenever I would give a family member or friend some “kid advice” they gave me that accommodating “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you have no idea what you are talking about” stare. I was insulted by this. I’ve been around kids. I’m an aunt. I’ve babysat kids. Hell, I was a kid! I’m not a dummy, and I’ve got good ideas. Why are my thoughts treated with a grain of salt?

Because I’ve never had kids. I’ve never had to care for, discipline, feel the heartbreak, stay up at night worrying, nor have been sleep-deprived for 18 years. As much as I can sympathize, I cannot empathize. I cannot look a mom or dad in the eye and act like I know. My defense of “I am an aunt” doesn’t cut it. So I quit fighting it and leaned-into it. I reset the baseline and it was for the better.

White men, there is no way, no matter how loving or wonderful you are, that you can empathize with decades of silent repression women, et al, have endured.  You cannot empathize with the only job prospects afforded to women (for decades) were “secretary”, “nurse”, “seamstress” or “housewife”. You just cannot. You have been privileged.

So what to do?  Use some of the skills you’ve learned in HR for conflict resolution.

  • Before swords are drawn, begin with the end in mind. What is trying to be accomplished in the “privilege” conversation?
  • Men, take a tip from the “lean-in” movement, and begin to lean-into this term.  Even if you do not believe you have benefited from your white maleness, you have. If you lean-into the term with open ears, in the spirit of listening, you’ll feel less of a sting.  It’s wasn’t your fault you were born white and male, nor did you ask for privileged status. So, it’s OK to lean-in.  
  • Men, don’t be the first to throw the term “white-privilege” in a discussion.  In the cases I witnessed last month, sometimes the first person to bring up the term “white-privilege” was the white guy in the debate.  It didn’t help.
  • Ladies and non-white males, do not use the term “white-privilege” as a weapon.  The term is OK if it is used to bridge understanding.  The way I saw it used was not cool, fair or productive.
  • Ladies and non-white males, give our white male friends the benefit of the doubt they are not trying to hurt, offend, or do bad.  Don’t be so trigger happy to put someone in their place.  It makes you look bad and doesn’t help any causes.

Simply put, Chris Rock may have said it best:

“This is the first time in the history of the world, where white men have to watch their tongue. White guys, don’t worry about it.  That’s how life works.

Sometimes the people with the most s**t have to shut up and let the other people talk s**t about them.  That’s how life works. Sometimes people with the most s**t get to say the least s**t.”

Truth be told, I feel sorry for many of my good, caring, loving white male compadres that are feeling attacked.  Feeling attacked or being excluded or feeling unheard really sucks. Dare I say the tremendous irony of this is palpable! But, there is a pro to all of this.  Now, through this exclusion, for the first time in decades (centuries, millennia?), white men do have a fighting chance of empathizing with women, women of color, men of color, and gay and transgender individuals.  

Perhaps in the long run we will all move forward together from a place of common ground.

Dawn Burke
Dawn Burke, founder/advisor for Dawn Burke HR, is an HR leader, speaker and writer specializing in new HR practices, engagement and workplace culture. Her HR/leadership career has spanned the last 20 years, most recently serving as VP of People for Birmingham, AL’s award-winning technology company, Daxko (And yes, Kris Dunn and Dawn are making Bham the HR capital of the world! Who knew?). You can also check her out at and a variety of other interesting places. Google her, it’ll keep you posted on what she is up to.

Comments 19

    1. Denise! Hit us with your thoughts if you care to share!

      Yes folks, this is my sister! I paid her to compliment me —


      PS what are you eating in that pic! LOL —

  1. Is Denise eating popcorn in her picture? In a trucker hat?

    The irony of the post is that those with privilege really aren’t invited to comment, right?


    1. I have the same question for Denise! And I think the answer is yes. That’s how Hrdlica’s roll.

      Irony rebuked! You are invited to comment equally. Chris Rock comment implies to perhaps listen more. I suggest to start the conversation from a point of “I get it, I may have unknowingly been the benefactor of privilege. And if true, that sucks. Now let’s talk.”


  2. Great article.

    Quick question, so do you want white males to be more empathetic, or not even try? The way I understood empathy…it’s to really put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This, I always thought, was preached like the golden rule.

    I always thought it was that lack of empathy that has caused so many of the worlds problems.

    And from reading this article, it sounds like you’re telling white males to not even try empathy?

    Also, can you explain what the difference is between leaning in and empathizing? (at least with how you’re using it)

    I want to make sure I’m doing the right one 🙂

    1. Logan — these are great questions.

      I’ve understood sympathy was when you share same feelings; empathy as understanding someone else because you’ve actually been in their shoes. This is nuances a touch differently than your definition.

      Perhaps my definition be a little too restrictive. So, for the sake of my reply, let’s use your definition.

      I absolutely think you should try to empathize, aka put yourself in someone elses rule. You should treat people the way you want to be treated. Now some people would say you may go a step farther and practice the “platinum rule”. That is treat people the way THEY want to be treated. or in the very least, try to understand why they want to be treated a certain way. Doesn’t mean how they want to be treated is fair/right, but it may help with understanding. Who knows.

      My definition of “lean in” is not very different from your definition of empathize. But, when I say lean in, it’s more of a lean into (be more open to?) to the perception that white-males may have benefited from privilege instead of automatically retreating from it.

      Love the conversation — : )

      1. Dawn,

        So where do we start. What are your expectations of the individual white male?

        Lean in…got it. Then what?

  3. Thanks for writing the post, Dawn. While I don’t agree with everything written, I do with the overall theme. Further, I hope that this prompts people with privilege to step up and use it for good.

    1. Thanks Victorio —

      Me too.

      One of my friends responded by saying this:

      “Earned or not- Privilege should not be seen as a bad thing- rather as an opportunity to pay forward the benefits that we experience as part of that privilege.”

  4. DB- I hate to pick at your guidance but here part of the quote:

    Sometimes the people with the most s**t have to shut up and let the other people talk s**t about them.

    Right. That does sound like an invite to simply listen more.

  5. you may be right –

    My hope is that you’re open to the spirit of the entire post (for us to listen to each other more, to not weaponize words, etc, to try to gain understanding) more than feeling deflated by the Chris Rock line.

    : )

  6. I’ve been thinking about this post and my issues with it. So here it is; feel free to reflect on it.

    1. I don’t fully understand the connection you’re making between white male privilege and the #metoo movement. I recognize that there is an overlap (the “male” in “white male”) but if you could explain it further that would be great.

    2. In my opinion, your argument is weakened by presenting issues you’ve observed as the fault of both sides. If your focus is on white male privilege and how its a barrier to white men being better, than stay there.

    3. If your white male colleagues first instinct is to shut down or retreat when called out, that’s on them. They can’t pretend to be sympathetic to people voicing their concerns or opinions if they’re focused more on tone than on intent.

    4. It’s been fascinating to watch how different the comments (and those posting them) are between the post here, and the ones on your Facebook feed. The FB one is more diverse in opinions and participants. It’s also more honest in its anger and frustration around this topic.

    I hope you stick with this subject, Dawn. It’s an important one and I appreciate you for embracing it. Feel free to reach out to me if you want to discuss further.

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