As a CIS-gendered, heterosexual, white male, my relationship to Black History Month might not immediately seem personal – and perhaps it wasn’t for many years. But over the past two decades, my work as an inclusionary leader and ally-in-training has made this month more important than I previously could have fathomed. I now find it paramount for me and those that identify similarly to me to combat racism in all its insidious forms. This month underscores my awareness of the white male privilege from which I have benefited and ergo the inherent responsibility I have as an ally-in-training to show up for my friends of color.
Currently, I am focused on accountability, which I consider to be an ally super power . I define accountability as taking responsibility for my words, choices and actions, as well as their consequences, intended or not. If on the individual level accountability is important, at an institutional level, it requires leaders to consider ownership-driven accountability which confers a responsibility to confront racist transgressions, including microaggressions – no matter how uncomfortable the necessary conversations might be.
There is another super-power that works alongside accountability and that is privilege. These two superpowers form what I call the Dynamic Duo of Allyship. Men and allies and leaders with these superpowers have the opportunity and responsibility to use them for the greater good. This requires real work. For white men, this is about stepping into your white male ability. For everyone else that considers themselves an ally-in-training, then this is about using whatever your privilege is to show up for those who don’t have the same privilege.
To the men reading this, consider this a “call-in” as opposed to a “call-out.” Shaming and blaming is neither necessary nor effective.
My intention is to grow a movement and given that inequality, injustice, sexism and racism still abound there is a need for as many men as possible to step into action as allies and leaders to combat racism.
I am consciously addressing men specifically because we as men have a responsibility simply by virtue of our privileges to be part of the solution to create diversity, inclusion and belonging, which includes doing our part to combat racism. We still currently hold the majority of leadership positions relative to others and should actively work to create opportunities for others to rise.
I want to share a story that had me confront my white male fragility and step into my white male ability.
I was invited to an interacial sisterhood event in Oakland, California before Covid hit. This event was attended by over 100 people, a mix of white women and women of color along with 6 men. Of the six men in attendance, I was the only white guy.
I was observing the moderator facilitating uncomfortable conversations between the white women and women of color and when she called on the last woman who sat in front of me, I listened. I will never forget what that woman, a woman of color, said. She shared that she was committed to speaking up, doing the work necessary to ensure equality and that she was willing to “take the hits” for as long as it took to accomplish that.
Hearing those words pierced my heart. I felt sadness, then shame, then fear, and finally anger. I knew I wanted to say something and the moderator must have been tracking me because before I finished raising my hand, she looked at me and said, “it looks like you have something to say, are you willing to share?”
I swallowed a gulp of fear and explained that in hearing the woman in front of me speak to her willingness to take the hits, I felt sad and angry. It was at that moment I realized that me and other men that identify as white need to be willing to take the hits. And quite frankly, the hits we take typically don’t put our lives or our well-being in jeopardy, so we really have no excuse not to take them.
Personally, I’ve made the decision to spend the rest of my days combatting sexism and racism.
White Male Ability
So what do I mean by my white male ability? I mean the combination of my privilege(s) and leveraging them for good..for the sake of my fellow human beings that have been – and still are – excluded simply by virtue of their gender (binary or non), sexual orientation, or color of their skin.
I realize that not using my privilege has an impact -and that is not the type of impact for which I want to be remembered. When I look in the mirror, I choose to see a man who wants to be a better man and I invite all of you to do the same.
As a man, and of equal importance, as a white man, I need to define what fragility is for me. I share this definition in the context of allyship and leadership and how these concepts interact with sexism and racism.
As a white man, fragility for me is when I center or make my own feelings of discomfort around confronting my own sexism and racism more important than the actual lived experiences of women and people of color. This fragility in action looks like silence; it manifests in a lack of action despite my privileges, or in defensiveness of my actions and intentions. The result is a disconnection from those who are different from me, hurting others, and feeling shame toward myself. This is not what our friends of color need; they need advocates and allies who own their stuff and are constantly seeking to improve themselves in service of others.
Whether we will step into our White and/or Male ability or stay on the sidelines in our silence and shame, allowing our white and/or male fragility to run the show, allowing injustices and microaggressions to occur is a choice. This is a choice afforded to us by virtue of our privilege.
In my work, I have often heard men – not just white men – speak to the fear of saying or doing something wrong with respect to women. I understand that fear, but this “fragility” keeps us on the sidelines and it doesn’t serve anyone. Tony Porter, founder of A Call to Men asked on our 2019 NYC Better Man Conference stage, “why is it that such a large group of men, the Majority, allow such a small group of men and their egregious infractions against women taint the rest of us?” The answer? It’s our silence and lack of collective responsibility which I contextualize as Accountability. This stuff happens on OUR watch and we need to individually and collectively show up! The same is true when it comes to racism. White men – and white people generally – staying silent, not speaking up, and not standing up has cost lives. While the landscape is currently changing there is still so much work needed.
As a CIS-gendered white guy, I have thought a lot about this and what might happen if I speak up, stand up, intervene, speak and act from my heart, all in the spirit of combatting sexism and racism. Even choosing to write about this topic now doesn’t come without a healthy dose of trepidation. But it’s not stopping me.
I consider myself forever an ally-in-training, so when it comes to doing my part as an ally, I have had to confront my own fears around saying or doing the wrong thing as a white man in relation to sexism and racism, both in my personal and work life. And If I really give it some thought, and I confront the fear and the story I make up about what could happen, I can interrupt the unconscious pattern to fight, flee or freeze and instead, breathe, recognize the fear but choose to face it and write a different story. I invite all of us to try this. We will make mistakes, but as responsible leaders and allies-in-training, we can hold ourselves accountable for the impact we create, clean things up and resolve to do better next time.
Being an ally is often unpopular and some men are unwilling to change – especially those of my generation. There is a fear of being excluded from the boys club, but is a club that denigrates and excludes really one that we want to be a part of? .
This means that I need to get past what others will think of me, or equally as important, what I will think of myself if I make a mistake. It’s easy as a guy to just go along with the crew and not challenge the majority for fear of exclusion or fear of what they might say. But I have come to learn that when negative commentary or verbal jousting occurs it is usually a reflection of the man saying it and it has little to do with me. So what is left for me to do? To truly show up as an ally. Will you join me?