Privilege Unpacked: Look what I found!

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Several  years ago, I decided to attend a leadership workshop addressing bias, privilege and intersectionality, on both a personal and organizational level. It was held in Oakland, California, and was co lead by a white man and a woman of color who identified as Lesbian. 

As I looked around the room, I was quietly pleased at how diverse the group was-- AND there were a lot of white guys (I’ll address this later)! Very quicklyI found out how much I didn’t know and how much there was to learn…about myself, especially when it comes to relating to people who are part of non-dominant groups.

While I was already somewhat familiar with different biases, the topic of privilege came up, with an emphasis on white male privilege. I remember thinking to myself, “both of those apply to me” and I noticed  a mixture of feelings arise. I felt defensive, thought there was something wrong with me, embarrassed momentarily that I was “one of the white guys in the room”, and then a familiar old friend arrived like a train on schedule, shame. Of course nobody but me knew what was going on inside. Then I felt some fear and heard my internal voice saying, "what if you share this with the people in the room who are different from you?,What will they think? Will they think less of me?”.

By this time I was feeling quite uncomfortable and the workshop had barely got started! We then proceeded to do an othering exercise, where everyone picks from a list of categories where you feel like you are the other. I looked over the list, and noticed that I was in the dominant group in every category! Now my shame turned up the heat at being one of the white guys in the room who couldn’t identify as other. It was my turn to feel like an outsider who just wanted to be included. I know, it sounds twisted, but it’s what I was feeling.

The facilitator called time and then invited each of us to share what we learned about ourselves. More fear. One thing I have going for me is my ability to speak my truth and to be vulnerable. It’s initially challenging but I went ahead and shared everything. What happened next I couldn’t have predicted. One of the participants who knew me said, “Ray, didn’t you just have an unpleasant experience in the hospital with respect to your hip operations?” I let the question and my answer surface and my recollection of being “not so able bodied”, the treatment I received and my experience of being whipsawed by the hospital that left me powerless and afraid brought up a bunch of sadness that I had repressed. In the moment, I let out some tears and empathized for my own experience and ultimately others. It helped me move out of the shame spiral I was sinking into.

At a recent keynote talk I delivered, a new context emerged for me right in front of the audience…appreciation...for all of my privileges that have been gifted to me as well as those I’ve earned. 

On my journey to examine my white male privilege (the word advantage works too) I have learned many things and felt many emotions. I would like to offer the following tips to support people in acknowledging, understanding, making peace with, making new choices, and even coming to a place of appreciation around privilege.

  1. Privilege does not mean that there is anything wrong with you.

  2. Having privilege is ok.

  3. To have privilege is to be human.

  4. Be curious about your privilege.

  5. Not using your privilege for good is wasteful.

  6. Using your privilege to support others is a reward in itself.

  7. Appreciation of your privileges is worthwhile (especially the ones you have earned).

  8. For us white guys, there is no shame in being white and being a man.

  9. Even white guys can end up on the other side of privilege.

  10. We all have some form of privilege and it’s up to each one of us what we do with it. 

Ray Arata