Every time I facilitate a culture session I begin by asking participants to introduce themselves by way of their name and their song of the day. As the participants conclude, I go into my expansive musical rolodex and do the same. In the (frequent) event that I choose a song from my favorite genre that is 90’s R&B, I get looks and comments that imply shock. Every now and then someone will tell me that I should not feel the need to pick an R&B song just because there are people of color in the room. Each time that this has occurred, the person making the comment has been a person of color.
Two weeks ago while my wife and I were vacationing, we went into a store. As she goes into the dressing room to try something on, the store clerk tells me that I should “feel free to sit down. I’m guessing this isn’t your thing.” Uh, based on what? For the record, I can outshop anyone I know and I have roughly 1,000 pieces of clothing to show for it. The clerk, by the way, was female.
As a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, male in the field of diversity and inclusion, I am sometimes challenged about my background, credentials, and intent. It is not until we have a conversation wherein my credentials and, more importantly, knowledge, passion, and sincerity come out that I am taken seriously. When this challenge is raised, it is always done by a woman or a person of color.
I was literally told at one point that I would not be selected for a diversity and inclusion fellowship because I was a white male and “it wouldn’t be fair to applicants who are in this field for more personal reasons.”
Simply put, I have been stereotyped, generalized, and discriminated against.
Last year, my (male) colleague and I were asked to be keynote speakers for an event focused on empowering women. As we entered the banquet room to find a place to sit, one of the attendees looked at us and literally asked, “what are you doing here?” this before introducing the more offensive question of “is this what you do, go to events like these to assert yourself or pick up women?” More astounded I could not be, this considering we were invited because of our past efforts and impacts on women empowerment. What’s more, the only words we uttered prior to this inappropriate exchange were “is anyone sitting here?”
These interactions were hurtful, annoying, and frustrating to say the least. What’s more, they fit the definition of sexism, racism, and discrimination based on society’s current application of these terms.
This is where the comparison’s must end because despite the unfair treatment, I:
- Am never lacking for opportunities to succeed and excel
- Make well above six figures and have since I was 30-years old
- Am not required to prove myself beyond my word to the powerful majority (other white, heterosexual, able-bodied, men)
- Am still in the majority
In other words, the discrimination, stereotypes, and generalizations have not negatively affected my livelihood or ability to be successful and thus my spirit is not ultimately diminished. This is how I walk the earth every day. It is not the same for women, people of color, less than able-bodied people, and members of the LGBTQIA community. I repeat, it is not the same. They face the poor treatment and the realities of inequality and lack of opportunity.
I once had a colleague question why women are so sensitive to the criticisms when he gets criticized all the time and can turn the other cheek. I asked him what awaits him on the other side of that turned cheek. Is it
- A large office with a staff of 140 people supporting him or six years of promotion rejections and a wink of the eye?
- A great parking spot or a parking spot in a location that conveniently rests between Hogwarts and Narnia?
- An annual bonus in the tens of thousands or a paycheck that barely covers living expenses?
- An appreciation for his intellect or an appreciation for his body parts?
This is not to take anything away from his accomplishments nor is it to defend the generalizations or stereotypes that he likely faces. Instead, it is to apply the degree of perspective necessary to stop making apples to apples comparisons when the impacts and outcomes are worldly different.
I too get frustrated when I see generalized headlines that read “Why are white men angry”. Still, the effects of those headlines are not as dangerous as generalizations about the intent of a Black man in a hoody walking into a convenience store.
I too get frustrated when I hear the phrase “men are pigs” though the impacts of this stereotype pale in comparison to the stereotypical belief that “women don’t truly want to work, they do so out of necessity.” When someone believes the latter, it affects how they perceive women as it applies to treatment, opportunity, and reward.
And yes, white men are discriminated against too. This includes not being taken seriously for work or not considered for opportunities specifically due to their skin color and gender. And yet, they are still at the top of the corporate food chain in nearly every (if not all) career fields.
I had the following dialogue with someone on the eve of my selection as the Diversity Executive of a large organization. As a matter of background, I was struggling with the advantages of being white and the opportunities it granted me, particularly given my age (36) at the time.
Them: “You’re not giving yourself enough credit. You grew up on welfare and were arrested 14 times in High School. Now look where you are.”
Me: “I am fully aware of what I have overcome and achieved. I’m also aware that people of color get in trouble with the law and are brandished criminals that people cross the street to avoid. I was brandished a troubled child that people wanted to help.”
Them: “So everything goes back to them being discriminated against and you being white?”
Me: “No. Everything goes back to generalization and discrimination going all ways and yet white people still coming out better on the other side.”
This is the crux. Generalizations, stereotypes, and discrimination are rampant and they do affect people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, and physical capabilities. The impacts and outcomes however do not disfavor white, heterosexual, able-bodied, males to the same degree they disfavor others. To be clear, we’re not talking about small differences in impact as any measurable diversity and inclusion statistic across the majority of workplaces around the world prove out.
Final thought: Three weeks ago, I was co-facilitating a discussion focused on improving opportunities for women of color. In the crowd was a 14-year old black female who had written a letter to her school principal about her experience being discriminated against. At the end of the discussion, I ceded my time to allow her to read the letter to the group. Everyone teared up over the horror of her experiences and, more so, the authenticity and courage of her voice. If I had translated all of my negative personal experiences with discrimination, generalization, and stereotypes into a letter and read it to a group, it would not yield the same response. Why? Because when she reads the letter, it is widely accepted that her experiences have led to hardships that I have not and will never face.