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  • September 14, 2023

Why Calling Out White Male Privilege is so Fraught – and How to do it without Burning Bridges

by Cathi Rittelmann
Senior Client Partner, Leadership Development; Diversity & Inclusion Practices at Korn/Ferry

My long-term client was uncharacteristically agitated and skipped the usual pleasantries on our call. As soon as his video started, he blurted out, “A colleague told me that I used my ‘white male privilege’ to influence talent calibration! What does that even mean?” 

This senior leader was particularly at a loss given that he considers himself to be a true champion of diversity. He speaks at employee resource group events, mentors underrepresented talent, and is always open to being coached about how he can be a more inclusive leader and change agent.

The accusation clearly stung. 

Nothing shuts down a conversation about inclusive leadership faster than the word “privilege.” Insert that word into a conversation with leaders and there will be a visceral reaction: Conversation dries up, arms get folded, gazes are averted.

Even when we see privilege displayed, our instincts are to shy away from a topic that engenders such polarity. Genuinely well-intentioned leaders avoid it like some NSFW cartoon, all the while wondering why there are headwinds for underrepresented talent in their organizations. They dig for reasons why sponsorship programs don’t resolve retention issues with certain affinity groups. Smart, savvy leaders who resolutely ensure that “inclusion” is in the core values of their organizations are unable to resolve a lack of diversity in their talent pipelines.

Bottom line: No matter how triggering this topic is, we need to enable leaders to talk about it without blame or accusations. Until we develop a more collective understanding of what privilege is, how we each “get” it and how to use it to support equity, we won’t make the leap toward true inclusion.

The most challenging aspect of this cycle is that those with privilege usually don’t realize they have it. It just … is. The indignation, hurt and anger attached to these discussions is real.

Privilege by definition: “Often a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”  At the heart of this conversation is the fallacy that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to privilege. Diversity encompasses all the dimensions that make up the human condition – socialization, race, cultural background, gender expression, neurodiversity, religion, socio-economic status, life experiences, beliefs, education, generation… it is an ever-evolving list of our wonderful, unique characteristics. 

The dimensions of diversity most critical to each of us define our distinctiveness and are at the core of our very identity. We carry our distinctiveness with us into any situation with others. Our privilege fluctuates based upon how that distinctiveness is viewed through the lens of the institutional and individual biases prevalent in that situation.

 A logical breakdown of how white male privilege evolves in an organization might begin to neutralize some of the emotion attached to the topic. White males are still the overrepresented demographic in leadership in North America. These same leaders are charged with developing the processes and requirements – the “fit” – that determine what success looks like in their organizations. Usually, leadership actions will reflect our own experiences and socializations, so the structures and processes they create will be uniquely suited to people who share a similar profile.

Over time, those who don’t fit that profile will experience headwinds and barriers because their distinctiveness doesn’t align with the established norms. This failure to thrive is often rationalized by these same leaders as proof that anyone who doesn’t “fit” won’t succeed in that organization. The structures and processes stand, the cycle continues and we move on.

The most challenging aspect of this cycle is that those with privilege usually don’t realize they have it. It just … is. The indignation, hurt and anger attached to these discussions is real. It feels offensive and unfair to be told that you’ve been given an unearned special right, advantage, or immunity without any knowledge of it. Since most of us have good intentions, the concept that we’ve been complicit in marginalizing others simply by being ourselves is unimaginable. A natural response is to defend and rationalize. Rather than tackle the underlying reason privilege exists, we move on.

Rationalization doesn’t change the fact that bias and discrimination cannot exist without privilege. When one person or group is marginalized, there’s someone else or some other group with privilege doing the marginalizing — consciously or subconsciously. 

Since the cycle is often silent and insidious, at least in workforce situations, how can we engage white males in an authentic, productive discourse? I encouraged my client to:

  • Build the skill of privilege awareness.  Understanding his own distinctiveness and how he “fits” in his organization will help him see how and when he may have privilege. Know it, define it, own it.
  • Learn, learn, learn. If he can shine light on the topic for himself, he’s more apt to be able to help others move past the emotions connected to privilege. Curiosity has the power to reduce defensiveness.
  • Lean in to address inequities. Self-awareness is just the first step. Finding courage to act is the second one. How will he use his privilege as a leader to break down barriers or address marginalization?
  • Build the marginalization map within his organization. Learn where the barriers to success for those not in the majority exist. Where does the velocity of growth slow down for certain groups? Challenge the processes and structures that cause those barriers.

In forty-five minutes, we were able to open the door slightly to a broader way of thinking about privilege. Resolution is a long way off, but with courage, compassion, and honesty we can make progress one conversation at a time.

This contribution to the deconstructed digital magazine VOICES comes from the Women’s ThinkTank at Korn Ferry.


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