What do you do with your privilege?

January 28, 2016

 

“Diversity is the American superpower.” - Will Smith

 

What do we want from our work?  While money is important, studies show that money is not the ultimate motivator. 

 

People enjoy and are engaged in their work when their work is purposeful and impactful, and they are acknowledged for their contribution. 

 

When people experience gender and racial bias, they are not afforded the simple satisfaction of enjoying the fruits of their labor. In fact, bias and discrimination leaves them feeling frustrated, left out and underutilized. And, often they are underpaid.

 

But what if you’re a women or person of color and you’ve attained significant professional and financial success? Let’s say you’re not at the top of your industry, but you’re doing well enough to feel that you can’t complain. The people I work with are at or approaching senior levels in their industries. This leaves them in the complicated position of being expected to appreciate the success they’ve gained, while knowing bias limits their continued ascension and that of others following them.

 

I respect the recent statements by Jada Pinkett SmithWill Smith and Whoopi Goldberg. Not because they are right or wrong, but because they inspired people, besides Donald Trump, to talk publicly about race.

 

What these three stars said is significant because women and people of color don't always speak out. We often feel like we should be grateful that we’ve succeeded in spite of the challenges we face - and so many others don’t.

 

So we edit ourselves and hold back - afraid to make waves. If we speak out about racism and bias at all, we fear that we sound like whiners who don’t appreciate how good we have it. This jeopardizes our continued success. In the case of Will Smith, who is going to feel sorry for an ultra-rich superstar because he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award? Don’t we all wish we had those kinds of problems?  

 

Their statements are important, though, because they point to the systemic racism and gender bias that happens across industries regardless of how glamorous or lucrative they may be.  I see it happen to my clients.

 

If those who have acquired some level of privilege don't use it to advocate for diversity and inclusivity, they participate in blocking access to those who come behind them. 

 

Racism impacts every industry - Hollywood is just the most glittering example.

 

A New York Times article, Among N.F.L. Coaches, a Lack of Diversity Trickles Up, describes the “clear evidence of racial disparity in promotion prospects for N.F.L. assistant coaches that has persisted for over two decades despite a high-profile intervention designed to advance the candidacies of minority coaches.”

 

The authors note that members of minorities do occupy more positions of power percentage-wise across the 32 teams than in corporate America. Then again two-thirds of the players in the N.F.L. are members of minorities.

 

And what about corporate America? Innovative tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook do no better.  Tech companies have embarrassingly low levels of diversity on their campuses. In an August 2015 article entitled How do tech’s biggest companies compare on diversity? (check out the fascinating Show Me chart), The Vergehighlighted the tech industry’s diversity scorecard. It’s not encouraging.

 

Like Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, black engineer and former Twitter engineering manager, Leslie Miley, used his platform to highlight diversity issues at Twitter.  

 

A Washington Post Article article, Law is the least diverse profession in the nation. And lawyers aren’t doing enough to change that., indicates that the legal industry fairs even worse. This is alarming, because the law affords women and people of color protection, equal rights, and recourse from bias and discrimination.

 

Why does all of this matter to you and to our country?  Because diversity doesn’t just help those who are excluded from opportunity.  Diversity of thought and perspective makes our schools, our companies, our industries, and our country better.  It gives us the opportunity to utilize ideas, inspiration and influences that innovate and create excellence and yes, wealth.  

 

Without diversity of thought, we are lulled into repeating our mistakes because we never think about doing it another way.  As Stephen Covey says in the Forbes piece, Reaping The Benefits Of Diversity For Modern Business Innovation, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.”

 

Everyone who has privilege, not just women and people of color with relative privilege, has a responsibility to leverage their power to build diversity and inclusion, or they leave our country at risk of falling even farther behind on the global stage. 

 

So what can you do?

 

Those with privilege need to discuss race and their privilege without guilt. They should recognize that people of all racial backgrounds can push back on the power structures that uphold exclusion.  Last week, Stephen Colbert used his platform to do just this in conversation with DeRay McKesson about the effects of white privilege. As quoted from Upworthy, “In Colbert's case, this could mean using his show to promote causes that support social justice; it could mean making sure he had a diverse writing staff; it could mean having guests like McKesson or Killer Mike (as he recently did) on to have candid conversations on racial equality.”

 

If you have privilege use it to advocate for increased inclusivity as George Clooney and Mark Ruffalo have done. They are using their position and privilege to bring light to the marginalization of black people by the Academy so that they can be part of dismantling privilege.

 

Most importantly, if you are a woman or person of color who has experienced success, don’t feel you should simply be thankful for what you have.  When you are at the top of your game, evidence of bias and excellence becomes complex. Moving ahead becomes even trickier but our nature as humans is to grow, learn and expand. Keep pushing against imposed limits.

 

Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to listen, communicate and do what is necessary to minimize the division in this country.  We also have a responsibility to be inclusive because exclusion tends to dehumanize all of us and limits our ability to be as creative and successful as possible.

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