Blind Spots Persist in 2020: The Impact of Privilege on Equity and Opportunity
My original version of this article titled The Paradox of Diversity and Inclusion was published on 05July2009. I had just spent the morning with a group of HR and Diversity leaders in Boston where we discussed whether progress was being made in creating more equitable and equal opportunity organizations. We felt that a paradigm shift was happening. A movement from managing diversity towards creating inclusive work cultures with the focus shifting from ‘counting the mix’ to ‘engaging the mix.’ The intervening 10 years have shown that we were perhaps overly optimistic in the level of change we anticipated.
2020 Vision Still Has Blind Spots
While intellectually leaders and business owners realize that developing and retaining a diverse group of employees is a business imperative to serve a diverse and global customer base, the actualization hasn’t gone so well. And surprisingly, too often hasn’t happened at all. White privilege still clouds what people see …and don’t see…and therefore what they do.
In 2019, a Canada-wide company asked me to help them implement a formal mentoring program. When I asked why they wanted the program, I was told “to develop leaders in our company and our CEO had good mentors during his career so he wants a mentoring program.” His intentions were good. Mentors make a difference. The challenge however was that while the staff throughout the organization was quite diverse - up to managerial level - it then became very white higher up. The company did not have a diversity/inclusion program. From what I could see, senior leaders seemed to have a blind spot with respect to the lack of diversity at more senior levels.
Changing culture happens through relationships. Getting ahead in organizations depends on relationships. Mentoring is also about relationships. This means mentoring is an ideal opportunity to influence change. That is, of course, as long as the program is set up to be safe for participants and includes training to develop supportive, trustworthy mentoring relationships across difference such as race, gender, age and other aspects of identity. The topic of power dynamics is also essential because the power differentials need to be acknowledged, especially when partners differ in identity group memberships.
Why did I get hired by this company? I believe one reason is because my two primary contacts were women of colour who liked that diversity and inclusion practices were an explicit aspect of the mentoring program I offered and brought these topics into the company conversation. I'm happy to say that the program was launched throughout the company across Canada. (I do not have data at this time if the mix at the top has changed.)
This company is not an exception. Well meaning people are simply unaware of how privilege blinds them to the experiences and challenges of people without the same advantages.
In Order To Heal We Need To Feel
Tears rolled down my cheeks a couple weeks ago in August 2020, as I watched the March on Washington and listened to the families of the black people recently killed or severely injured. My partner Ian asked me why I was so upset. I looked up in surprise and asked, “Haven’t you ever experienced injustice? Can’t you connect to their pain resulting from injustice for no reason? Because of some aspect of your identity?” He said, “No I have not experienced injustice that I’m aware of.” My response was “Wow. That’s amazing. That’s your white, male, educated, prosperous career privilege speaking.” I admired his answer. “Yes, I guess it is,” he said.
Ian is not conversant in the topic of privilege but I raise it often enough that he’s starting to really appreciate the privilege he has and how it has helped him in his career and life. Probably most important, he’s realizing how it shapes his experience in the world. The fact that he’s open to hearing and owning his privilege is an important step. That’s where we start.
I’ve experienced injustice multiple times in my life based on gender.
- For climbing a tree and eating my lunch at school. “Girls don’t climb trees,” I was told. My resistance to getting down resulted in a trip to the principal’s office.
- For having menstrual mood swings as a teenager that resulted in my dad taking me to a police drug counsellor because he thought I must be a drug addict. (An unwarranted and painful experience still.)
- In my corporate days, not being given the same salary or job title as my male predecessor because “the job was different.”
While these experiences of injustice have had a lasting impact, I’m also aware of the even more significant way that white privilege has played out in my favour during my life.
- Getting stopped by the police late one evening in my early 20’s when I’d had way too much to drink. The policeman gave me a ‘sobriety’ test asking me to walk a straight line then told me to get home. That’s it. By the way, it was the crookedest straight line you can imagine.
- My first corporate job after university was a result of a connection through a neighbour of my aunt and uncle. All white of course. Influential sponsors have and continue to be a critical means of advancement and opportunity.
- I was able to speak up and challenge my bosses when I had a difference of opinion without worry of repercussion.
You can read more about how I learned about whiteness and my associated privilege here
The different experiences of injustice between Ian and I illustrates how privilege prevents us from seeing and feeling. “In order to heal we need to feel” says Baron Baptiste on my yoga dvd. The same is true for communities and cultures. We need to be able to feel each other’s pain and hopes and fears and dreams. We need to connect on deeper levels beneath surface difference. My experiences of injustice based on gender and the awareness of the opportunities of my privilege, enabled me to feel the pain of the Black Lives Matter protesters and speakers at the March. Feeling motivated me to update and publish this article with the hope of raising awareness among my white friends and colleagues.
Developing Trust to Create An Inclusive Culture
What exactly is an inclusive culture? How do we know when we have it or not? What does it look like? Feel like? Sound like?
Culture is about relationships. Certain behaviours translate into positive relationships that respect difference and other behaviours don’t. There is no need to do a fancy experiment or detailed research project to figure this out. We already know.
Try this 2 minute exercise:
- Take a moment right now to think of someone you trust completely. What is it about that person that allows you to trust her/him? Write down the trusting attributes, behaviours and attitudes of this person.
- Now, what is it about you that allows others to trust you? Write down these attributes, behaviours and attitudes.
- What do you notice? Did you find some similarities between your two lists?
Ah-ha!! WE DO KNOW what generates trust in a relationship. Trust is of course foundational. This short exercise demonstrates that we can be intentional in how we interact with others to create positive, respectful, inclusive and trusting relationships.
Most organizations these days have identified their values. In a similar fashion to the above exercise, what are the behaviours that define the values? If equity is a value, what does equity look like? What behaviours, attitudes and attributes create equity? Do the same exercise for your personal values too.
The Paradox Of 2009 Is Still True
Despite some progress and the best of intentions, the paradox we must still navigate is the need to continue to focus on ‘managing diversity’ because we know that what gets measured gets done and at the same time to continue the shift from reporting and structures to integrating inclusive positive relationship behaviours into how we work together everyday. Inclusion is about how we run our businesses and shaping the culture of the work environment.
Has your organization become more inclusive over the years? What are the behaviours, attitudes and attributes of the culture that illustrate inclusion?
How have you become more inclusive in your relationships? What were the elements of trust in your lists from the exercise above? How well do you honour these elements of trust?
Ask the above questions, not in judgement, but in curiosity about where opportunity for growth exists. Then be courageous with compassion as you take another step forward in your learning journey.