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, VP of Talent Consulting at Kinetix and founder/advisor for Dawn Burke HR, is an HR leader, speaker, and writer specializing in new HR practices, engagement and workplace culture. Her HR/recruiting/leadership career has spanned the last 20 years, with past gigs including a foundational role 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 DawnHBurke.com and a variety of other interesting places. Google her, it’ll keep you posted on what she is up to.
Most importantly: She is addicted to TV, knows most of the lyrics to Hamilton and West Side Story, loves to cry at movies (check out Cinema Paradiso for a cry fest!), thinks wine, a wheel of Brie and Milk Duds make a well-balanced dinner, and sings in her car daily. Her husband and cat are the Yin to her Yang.