People think I’m crazy when I tell them my profession.
Similar to the life I live, my professional life is a bit of a paradox. You see, I believe in self-acceptance. For me, it’s embracing the fact that I come from a culture that rewards rugged individualism, linear thinking, and action-based outcomes. However, I also believe that certain aspects of my culture, which Bill Proudman labels “white-male-dominant-culture” has kept some of us back from forming diverse and enriching relationships.
So, my profession is this: I’m a diversity and inclusion consultant who focuses on behavioral intervention. I do this on the individual, community, and corporate level.
I focus on behavior for two reasons: I believe that beliefs and behaviors are intertwined. I have seen changes in people’s behaviors profoundly affect their beliefs - which often cause the behaviors in the first place. I also focus on behavior because, in my experience, most groups who experience oppression are less concerned with our beliefs as they are with our behaviors.
I’m fortunate in that I love my work! The complete social transformation that comes from diverse partnerships is one of the miracles in life that I absolutely live for. Of course, this doesn’t always happen, sometimes differences do prevail. However, when the transformation does occur, it’s nothing less than magic.
Professionally, a great deal of my focus centers on bringing different people together to reach common goals. In doing this, I find the topic of “racism,” in some form or fashion, almost impossible to escape. Historically, this has been a taboo and touchy subject amongst my white peers as it inevitably brings up defensiveness.
However, I think another element that is experienced in the equity work, related to the defensive posturing when racism is brought up, is “white guilt.” This is a conversation we must continue to have.
You see, like most middle class men, I’ve been socially conditioned to see myself as a good individual. After all, from the time I was a kid, everything in my environment has reinforced this premise. The awareness of my advantages at the disadvantage of others challenges me at my core.
I believe it is the dissolution of this false reality that causes so many of us so much pain. The question becomes, if racism exists and my privileges are given to me at a disadvantage of others then how am I “a good person”? After all, who wants to feel personally responsible for society’s oppressions?
I have found some people approach these questions and retreat into denial or become immobilized by guilt. Others come to the realization that when one of us suffers we all suffer. And, perhaps this is all a part of the process.
The truth is that racism is a systemic issue, one that we have inherited. It’s akin to the issue of global warming: no one is personally to blame, but everyone is responsible. White people are responsible to cultivate awareness of the privileges bestowed upon them from a system of racism, and to use that awareness to find authentic ways to partner and be accountable to non-white communities.
While I’m philosophically aware of how guilt doesn’t really work as a sustainable and motivating factor to create individual and social change, I’m far from removed from its insidious trappings.
In my personal and professional endeavors, I learned the hard ways the many entrapments of guilt.
The issue of guilt showed up in my friendships (with other white men, and especially with people of color and women), and in my intimate relationships with women. If I felt that I “reinforced the oppressive hierarchy” I would in turn become consumed with a physiological sense that I was a “bad person.” It often became an immobilizing burden causing me to seek the other person’s forgiveness and assurance that I am a “good person.” Instead of change, my focus was on needing their appeasement, putting the person who is the target of that oppression (real or imagined) not only in a position of having their trauma triggered, but also responsible for my emotions, as I needed them to assuage my defensive posture.
My own guilt has challenged my professional life as well at times.
In light of the reality of the ways in which institutional racism operates, I found it difficult to critique and address the performance of colleagues of color. As a result, I would let things slide and operate in a passive aggressive manor, never really addressing their performance, my perspective, or the underlying systemic oppressions in place.
The point I’m trying to make is this: in the blundering world of human interactions and structural oppression, unintentional micro-slights are sure to happen. As a practice, I choose, daily, to embrace and struggle to partner with others in undoing systemic oppressions. However, I know the road is circular, placing me in and out of competence all the time.
The same principles of leadership that guide us as white men to move through our guilt around race and be authentic partners for equity and inclusion, can be applied to gender as well. Whether providing feedback to employees, or mentoring women for leadership positions within a company, many men may hold back from being transparent because they may gender stereotype a woman co-worker as “too soft” to handle it. Additionally males may hold back from close (and professional) relationships with female co-workers because they don’t want to be perceived as sexually harassing. I have at times talked over female co-workers and dominated conversations in work meetings. When called on the behavior I initially felt defensive and guilty because I thought my ideas were for the betterment of all. I had to give myself permission to not be “right” or the leader at all times and share power in an equitable way with women. Conversely when we hear other male colleagues making inappropriate remarks about women in the work place, we may feel guilty because we know it is wrong, but scared to call it out for fear of being socially ostracized by male colleagues. We learn and grow when we constantly seek out diverse perspectives. We listen, reflect, and refine our actions in light of new information. If we don’t make mistakes with grace and self-acceptance, we will never learn.