Diversity for White People

Girls with Heads Together HuggingI've been witness to a couple of interesting conversations about diversity within the association community in the last week. First, in an online community, one member shared a Huffington Post article about "angry white men," for discussion, and there were a few white men in the community who took offense. What is ordinarily a quiet, "hey does anyone have a policy for ," discussion group got a few days of passion and emotion and some "discomfort" in the conversation.

(By the way, if you're interested in that topic from the online community management point of view, Ben Martin and I are doing a quick webinar on the topic this Friday at noon. Join us!)

The second conversation was at last week's ACE symposium where diversity was discussed as a key element of leadership. One of Jeff's questions was "How does a group of white men [which describes many association boards] have a conversation about diversity without it being a "check the box" conversation?"

Both of these conversations remind me of something that I feel very strongly about when it comes to diversity in this country:

I wish white people would talk more with each other about what it means to be white.

Diversity does not mean "people of color." Diversity means difference. And for me to be different from you, I have to "be" something in the first place. For people of color to be different, they have to be different from us. From white people.

But as a white person, I NEVER have the opportunity to talk about my whiteness. I'm 46 years old, and only because I stumbled into a career that brought me into the diversity field has this ever been offered to me as something to even think about, let alone discuss openly with other white people. Why is this? How can there be this huge group of people in this country who lack ethnic identity?

Now you may suggest that while there is no "white" identity by itself, there are strong ethnic identities among white people--being Irish, or Italian, or Polish, etc. That's true, and that's all good. There are multiple identities at play here. Some people may identify with their European origins, though many (like me) do not. But either way, we're all still white in this country, and (here's the kicker) being white makes a difference.

Having white skin matters. Yes, even today. I know it's not the 1960s. I know we've come a long way, and a lot has changed. But I think having white skin matters. I think the privileges that Peggy McIntosh wrote about in her famous "invisible knapsack" essay (that is now 25 years old!) are still relevant today (if you haven't read that one, I strongly recommend it). And even if the privileges are not as strong (though I'm not convinced that's accurate), they were strong just a few years ago. If being white mattered just a few years ago, then being white matters, period. And I wish white people would talk about it.

And I'm not talking about gathering in talking circles and flogging each other for being white. I don't want to wallow in white guilt. Yes it's important to acknowledge and talk about the systems of oppression and control that were a part of galvanizing the white identity and experience in this country. Every identify group should acknowledge and own its dark side (we all have one). But there's also room to celebrate our accomplishments and our heroes. Yes, our white heroes.

Sounds almost "racist" doesn't it? White heroes? Personally, I think getting in touch with our whiteness and talking about our white heroes would actually help dismantle racism in America. Because racism is not an attitude. It's not a feeling that an individual has that whites are superior. Racism is a system that oppresses some and gives privileges to others based on their skin color. It's a system of oppression, and one that still exists, even if it isn't as harsh at was 50 or 150 years ago. Taking steps to end this system (which has been an ongoing process for decades obviously) would be sped up if white people could see that they are white and talk about it. We can't fix something that we cannot see.

So let's have conversations about "angry white men." If we happen to be an all-white board of directors, then let's talk a little bit about being white and what it would mean to have non-white people on the board. Let's learn how to have these conversations well. There aren't easy answers to these conversations, and I expect there to be a wide variety of experiences and approaches within the white community to these issues. We should welcome and include these differences. But if we relegate these conversations to the realm of "inappropriate" conversations, then we are only dragging out the inevitable dismantling of the system, and that serves none of us.

Let's Talk About Workplace Culture


  1. […] I've been witness to a couple of interesting conversations about diversity within the association community in the last week. First, in an online community, one member shared a Huffington Post arti…  […]

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