Take Your Corners - the Fight Over Privilege

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Despite the stereotype of mindfulness as meditators alone on literal or imagined mountains, the practices contribute to a common connectivity that reduces barriers rather than building them. For D&I, mindfulness can contribute to the ultimate affinity group - people. Building on our discussion of mindfulness strategy, awareness, attention, and D&I, we explore a particular and often difficult concept - privilege.

Non Judgment, Compassion, and Privilege - at Work

Candid discussions of discrimination, unconscious bias, profiling, and entitlement often create tension, if not anger, withdrawal, or resistance in the course of D&I training or discussions (or anywhere else, for that matter). However, there's plenty enough data and increasing examples and awareness of these facts that paying attention to them - and discussing them - becomes easier to do. The never-cooling-potato, however, is the concept of "privilege" and the difficulty it has and continues to have in the workplace.

Up front - while we can't separate the workplace from society, I'm focusing on the use of the concept in workplace training. That said, a little mindfulness might go a long way in the public discussion. I could say privilege is hotly debated, but it is more accurate to say it is passionately defended or intensely rejected in monologues and opinion articles. I haven't found anyone actually debating it because there's little willingness to talk to each other - but that's another article.

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For this article, I've interviewed a diverse group of people with widely ranging views on privilege. Even the most ardent advocates, some white, some male, acknowledge that acceptance by those with privilege is hard-won and getting harder to win. Some of the most ardent opponents, not all white or male, think it could be real but it could also be a PC-conspiracy that threatens equal opportunity or disparages women or minorities. (Note: no AntiFa or NeoNazis were interviewed for this article). And some felt it very personally. One told me about her stunningly difficult conversation with her husband about privilege - he simply didn't buy it and seemed annoyed that she did. In my discussions, some suggested I avoid the topic because I'm a white male, while others encouraged me to write for the same reason. So here we go...

Privilege - Simple Terms

"Privilege" means possessing rights, benefits and advantages that are enjoyed by people with certain characteristics beyond the advantages of other individuals without those characteristics. While it's often discussed in the context of "white privilege," it's also discussed in contexts of any one or combination of able-bodied, heterosexual, male, Christian, owning, middle-aged, and English-speakers. And it's cumulative - making me as one of the most privileged people I know.

What's Not Working, Why

While intended (in D&I training) to create and expand awareness, the use of privilege as a vehicle to open discussions and increase understanding has had, at best, mixed results. It has not translated into business language and doesn't seem to be changing the hearts or minds of the target audience. Perhaps it's due to the perceived or real social or political positions or intentions associated with its use. Perhaps in part to the chilling or aggressive way it has been sometimes used. "Check your privilege!" may be intended to stimulate another's self-reflection, but, ironically, without context it can be heard as belittling whatever the privileged person was saying because of who they are, not what they said. The irony, of course, is that this behavior and reaction are simply the power roles reversed - and hard to retort or debate.

 

Another reason many are challenged by privilege is that people with it are generally borne to it and can't "do anything" about it. Privileges, by definition, are unearned and are granted them whether the person wants them or not. When asked in one session I attended years ago what we were to "do" with our hard-won awareness of our unearned privileges, the instructor replied, "Just be aware of it." Unfortunately, once someone is aware of their privilege, without a meaningful context of positive action, the result tends toward guilt and resentment, which often translates into denial and avoidance. If we add to this the concept that anyone with privilege is an agent of institutional oppression, as is taught in some university courses, we exponentially ramp up their denial and avoidance, because, frankly, who comes to work to be told that? And what in their normal workday could they do about it?

Unconscious...

Another, perhaps larger, reason privilege isn't working as a concept is that holding privileges is, for most, as unconscious as holding biases. As we wrote in Awareness, people typically accept what they recognize from their own experience - which is why many reject the idea of unearned benefits. In general, people underestimate the positive effect of "tailwinds" (unearned benefits) that speed them along, if they acknowledge them at all - and that's before the references to poor, rural white people come up as a counter-argument. Before privilege can be accepted, it first must be brought to awareness - and as we wrote mindfulness can help with that. But whether it's actual unconsciousness, repressed consciousness, or denial of recognizing and dealing with one's privilege, awareness and attention alone are insufficient to manage the reality. Two other fundamental aspects of mindfulness are required: non-judgment and compassion.

Non Judgment

In mindfulness, non judgment is the ability to suspend reaction to reduce the emotional, fight/flight/freeze response that comes from a stressful perception. Developed through different meditations and practices, with non judgment, I can hear and listen without needing to counter or rationalize. In the case of privilege, non judgment is the ability to realize that, without intention, I have benefits simply by being an able-bodied white, hetero, extraverted (yes - that's a privilege), if not tall (that is too) male.

non judgment is the ability to realize that, without intention, I have benefits simply by being an able-bodied white, hetero, extraverted (yes - that's a privilege), if not tall (that is too) male.

These benefits are too numerous to cite, but they include permission or the expectation to speak first and up and that, until I prove otherwise, what I say carries weight. Rather than rationalize that I have earned the opportunities I have had and still get, non-judgment allows me to see myself for who I am, what that means, and not react with anger or resentment to face my fact of possessing unearned benefits. It makes space for compassion, for myself and for others.

Another interesting aspect of non judgment is in the dynamic between those with many or some privileges and those with few or none. One D&I professional shared an experience where he was criticized by a social worker peer for working for a corporation rather than volunteering full-time for a cause. While keenly aware of his privileges, as a man of color and passionate advocate in and away from work, he still needed to ground himself in who he is rather than defend why he is not someone else. It can't surprise us that someone with little or no privilege might resent and even criticize someone with more privilege - regardless of what else they may have in common and even if just in the moment. Non judgment isn't just for those with privilege - it benefits all as we naturally tend to judge each other and ourselves.

Another interesting aspect of non judgment is in the dynamic between those with many or some privileges and those with few or none

Compassion

Self-compassion, not to be confused with self-esteem or worth, is kindness, connection, and balanced awareness that allows us to accept rather than deny what is real and positions us to positively act. For privilege, compassion allows us to acknowledge and accept our unearned benefits, which is the only way we can choose not to leverage or abuse them or choose to make the benefits available to those without them. Compassion is where the realizations of privilege can translate to the positive action to share or not abuse - which is all one can do since they can't be given back. Compassion, or empathy with an intent to act, not only allows people to move beyond their own limitations but helps them engage with others. Compassion, rather than sympathy, is a powerful attribute of allies and advocates.

Compassion, or empathy with an intent to act, not only allows people to move beyond their own limitations but helps them engage with others.

Like non-judgment, compassion (self- and other) is also not just for the most privileged (extra-ironic if it were). A black businessman I spoke with shared his internal battles, wondering who thought he was successful by virtue of Affirmative Action rather than his skill, or how to respond when asked for his views "as a minority," or how to recognize his own privilege as a man in the company of women. One woman of color asked me if I felt privileged - when I said I do, she expressed genuine empathy and asked how I managed it. I was deeply touched and educated by her compassion. A gay man chuckled when we were talking about how those with privilege think those without it actually have it. "Oh yes, they think we (LGBT, minorities, women) are just raking in the government contracts and promotions and new jobs. But (he reflected), I guess some of them are just afraid of what they'll lose or already lost - and need someone to blame."

But I guess some of them are just afraid of what they'll lose or already lost - and need someone to blame."

Compassion in action can be as simple as waiting to speak until someone else does. Amping that up would be inviting someone else's input before sharing yours - and listening intently. Want to take it even higher? Mindful lawyer Jeena Cho shared an example of a fellow who declined a speaking panel opportunity because the panel was all white men. Frances E. (Francie) Kendall provides a very tangible set of examples of how allies can behave. Every suggestion isn't for every person or every situation, but a key point here is that the greatest sacrifice to be made by one with privilege is sacrificing the comfort of its ignorance.

A key point here is that the greatest sacrifice to be made by one with privilege is sacrificing the comfort of its ignorance.

Compassion is what differentiates paternalistic sympathy from conscientious empathy - and drives results. Like non-judgment, compassion is also not just for those with privilege. Compassion allows anyone to empathize and act on that empathy - and action is the goal. For the most part, people are about "doing" something - which is why "just being aware" of privilege has failed to move the needle of diversity and inclusion and, perhaps, has contributed to the backlash we're seeing today.

Mindfully Privileged? Unprivileged?

"Privilege" may or may not be salvageable as a concept in D&I training if the intention is to sing to anyone but the choir. But increasing awareness of the benefits it confers with the intention to educate about how to share or not abuse them, unearned as well as earned, may be a more effective strategy. It may also be that the language and skills of non-judgment and compassion create more inclusion, engagement, and opportunity to educate than the language and tone of oppression, subjugation, and privilege.

It may also be that the language and skills of non-judgment and compassion create more inclusion, engagement, and opportunity to educate than the language and tone of oppression, subjugation, and privilege.

There are and forever will be people who believe everyone has an equal chance to succeed in life and they have examples as proof. The goal of mindfulness for these people is to increase their awareness of others beyond their own experience and manage the complexities that such realizations inevitably bring. And, to be clear, there are people with privilege benefits who know it, deny it, but will fight to keep them and keep others from them. Mindfulness practices may help these people realize their own narcissism, but the mindful response to injustice and intolerance for everyone else is to call it out and combat it without rest. Mindfulness is not a path for avengers, door-mats, or victims - but it can help people stay off those paths.

Join Marjorie Derven and me on Thursday, October 26, 2017 2:00pm - 3:00pm EDT, ATD webinar "Can Mindfulness Reboot D&I?

Image credits: Shutterstock/10752928 and Shutterstock/Phovoir