Let’s get things straight from the beginning. I want you to be as clear as possible about where I’m coming from.
I am a white, cisgender, male; born in 1967 in southeastern Massachusetts; raised Roman Catholic in a working class family; attended Georgetown University thanks to scholarships and student loans; came out as a gay person after college; worked for 25 years in international nongovernmental organizations; lived in New York City for over 20 years; married to my partner of 26 years; no children.
I could add more, but this probably gives you plenty to form a picture of me. Whatever you’re thinking, you are probably not far off. Yet while for me all of these details contribute equally to my self-identity, I’ve come to appreciate — only recently — how the words “white cisgender male” have carried greater weight than I’ve realized in shaping my lived experience.
My waking up to my white cisgender male privilege happened months before the recent Supreme Court nomination controversy, but after the #MeToo movement. I can pinpoint the moment when the fog began lifting.
I was conducting a workshop for a client, speaking about leaders modeling “good citizenship” within their organization. I was explaining the written and unwritten rules of organizational culture, suggesting that while we look to encourage authenticity from every team member, each team member also shares an obligation to integrate effectively with the collective.
When I reflect back on what I was saying, my brain registers approval for the idea of leaders modeling good organizational citizenship. Several participants in the workshop, however, responded quite adversely to the word “citizenship” and the responsibility we each have to “integrate.” They forcefully pointed out, to my chagrin, how my words evoked white male privilege. With my ears and cheeks glowing bright red, I awkwardly attempted to clarify my meaning and quickly move on. The workshop wrapped up that day after an afternoon of polite, if not enthusiastic, participation.
During the following weeks I sought out validation from friends that the participants had been overly sensitive and misinterpreted my meaning. I reached out in a panic to my client’s CEO to be sure I wasn’t in any trouble. In other words, I shifted into a defensive mode. I expressed dismay. I whined about my innocence and feeling unfairly vilified. Yet, while I struggled for several weeks resenting my sense of guilt, at the same time the fog had begun to lift. I started to wake up to white cisgender male privilege — my own.
Based on my personal efforts over the past year to go from foggy to relatively clear, I can offer a few references for others who wish to work on facing and owning their privilege, too.
- A well-known piece by Peggy MacIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” published by Wellesley College in 1988.
- The video, “How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion” with Peggy MacIntosh.
- The video, “Deconstructing White Privilege,” with Robin DiAngelo along with her work generally.
- A fascinating article entitled, “These 25 Examples of Male Privilege from a Trans Guy’s Perspective Really Prove the Point,” by James St. James.
As you prepare to take these in, I can tell you that you can expect to have several adverse reactions. I call them the Innocent, the Denier and the Victim.
- The Innocent in you can’t accept your white cisgender male privilege because you’re a good person. In my case, I told myself that I’m politically progressive, that I’m well-traveled and open to differences, that I’ve volunteered and given donations to various causes supporting social and economic equality. So therefore, I reason, I am “innocent” of participating in discrimination or oppression.
- The Denier in you can’t accept your white cisgender male privilege because those are problems in other places. In my case, I told myself that while the world isn’t perfect, at least in the communities where I live and work discrimination and oppression aren’t really so bad any more. These are problems in the world, yes, but not in my proverbial back yard.
- The Victim in you can’t accept your white cisgender male privilege because you’ve had your own struggles in life. In my case, I told myself that because I’m a gay person and because I’m from a working class background I’ve been disadvantaged myself. I’ve been oppressed and discriminated against myself. I’ve watched others “have it easier.” I’ve suffered, too!
Sometimes I still hear the voices of the Innocent, the Denier and the Victim whispering in my ear. My answer to each of them is the same: this isn’t about me being a bad person, it’s systemic bias that none of us asked for but all of us experience as either an advantage or disadvantage.
So what do we see in our workplace where most of us spend so much of our time? What opportunities can we take as a white cisgender male to face and own our privilege and to be an ally working toward greater social justice in our everyday work setting? Here are some ideas I’ve gleaned from my reading and experiences:
- Do your own homework. You may be tempted to turn to colleagues whom you perceive as not white cisgender males to explain things to you. You sincerely wish to understand and to show empathy. Yet my experience has been that while well-meaning, we ought not to make it a colleague’s job to educate us. There’s a lot we can do to educate ourselves outside of the workplace.
- Listen to other people’s concerns and don’t dismiss them. If you’re in a management role especially, people will raise concerns about something they experienced or witnessed that you may be tempted to minimize. This is an example of our privilege in action. We need to listen closely when a colleague raises such concerns and signal that we take them seriously. When in doubt of whether or how to respond, we should seek guidance, not sweep it under the rug.
- Don’t talk over (and call out others who do). Whenever you participate in a discussion or a meeting, be mindful not to cut others off or take up more than your share of the time. This is one of the more common ways, in my experience, that we unwittingly draw upon white cisgender male privilege. A lot of this has to do with socialization from when we were small, so “holding the floor,” as I call it, is deeply engrained.
- Be attuned to, and call out, microaggressions. You may be thinking it isn’t your place to be the “thought police” or to presume to stand up for someone else. Personally, I maintain it’s a good rule of thumb to call out an indirect, subtle and unintentional discriminatory comment if we witness one. We can do it discreetly, sure, but let’s not silently let it pass unchallenged.
- Use your influence to work against systemic bias. You may believe that eliminating discrimination embedded in workplace systems is someone else’s job, like HR or the CEO. But, especially when we have some degree of managerial authority, we can participate in shaping policies or de facto practices in hiring, promotions, work assignments and other processes that guard against discrimination.
I am not an expert. I am just telling my story and sharing a bit of what I’m learning. I share this humbly, realizing that somewhere I may make a misstep. Perhaps I’ve used language or made a recommendation here that bears correction. This brings me to my closing point: as a white cisgender male trying to be awake and be an ally, I will make mistakes. Ironically, in my efforts to learn and do better, I expect I will offend and fall back on my privilege along the way. When I do so, I accept my error, apologize and commit to do better. I hope you’ll join me.
Dan Doucette is a teamwork and leadership coach, inclusivity champion, and workplace healer. He founded BraveShift after a 25-year career in international development, including 12 years as a CFO and COO. Doucette’s calling today is to create inclusive and productive 21st century workplaces where people bring out the most of themselves and encourage the most of each other. Through BraveShift’s workplace performance programs he applies the Strategy of Belonging model to grow trust, openness and shared ownership.