Privilege & Why It is Hard to Talk About

Privilege is a chance to be an ally

Privilege, or as I like to call it, the “P” word is often hard to discuss.  Privilege is having access to resources or support that gives you an advantage over someone else.  It is hard to admit that you have it.  Yet, it does not have to be.  I argue that everyone has some level of privilege, some more than others.  Rather than looking at it as a zero-sum contest, look at an opportunity for allyship.

Having privilege is a chance to be an ally.

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Privilege does not come with a membership card

The more power and access to resources and support you have, the more you can give to others.  It feels good to give.  In fact, Adam Grant’s research on giving found that givers are often far more successful than takers and those that give to get (matchers).  If someone has less than you, this is a clear opportunity to help.  The psychological benefits of giving are real and often the positive karma it creates bodes benefits to both parties.  In fact, inclusive leaders that lead like allies often benefit more greatly than those they support (mentor, sponsor, coach, advocate, etc.).

Being an ally is not about putting on your rescue cape and being a white savior or man champion, but providing genuine support that comes from a place of positive intent.  Where you have privilege is an opportunity to help someone else with less privilege.  Where your privilege is limited, there is an opportunity for you to engage an ally to help.

Being an ally means knowing the diversity dictionary of key terms

I like to draw from my diversity dictionary to help better understand privilege.  As an ally, it is important to know some key terms.  Primarily, the myth of meritocracy is the belief that people just need to work hard to achieve success (financial, career, etc.).  While effort is correlated to success, there are often other factors at play.  Because the overwhelming majority and of power and wealth belongs to the majority group (white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, male, etc.), decisions are made that generally align with the interests of that group.

In general, the underrepresented group (non-white, LGBTQ+, disabled, non-male, etc.) tends to have less power and therefore does not have access to the same resources as the majority group (education, wealth, relationships).  The more intersectional dimensions of diversity a person experiences (non-male and LGBTQ+, non-white and disabled) the less privilege and power someone carries.

For a full list of diversity terms, access our diversity dictionary here.

Try the privilege walk

To lead like an ally, I recommend teams have an open discussion about privilege.  This works when there is strong trust and the leader is transparent and has a clear why articulated for the exercise.  To facilitate a robust discussion about privilege, ask your team to mark “yes” or “no” to the following prompts.

  • Story books had characters that looked like you as a child
  • Your caregiver(s) went to college
  • You did not feel embarrassed bringing friends over to your child hood home
  • You took vacations growing up
  • You feel safe talking about your family and personal relationships at work
  • You work with others that look like you
  • You feel your voice is heard at meetings
  • You feel you belong at your workplace
  • You see yourself reflected in movie and film characters
  • You identify as the gender you were assigned at birth (cisgender)

It is important to remain silent as people think about their responses.  Psychological safety is key to the success of this exercise.  Ask people to tally their “yes’” and “no’s.”  Those that generally have five or more “yes’’ have higher levels of privilege than those with less.  Alternatively, you can have team members stand up and move forward or backward based on “yes” or “no” responses as well.  It is much more about the discussion after and how we can help and support one another than the outcomes themselves.

Like this content?  Learn how to be an inclusive leader and lead like an ally at Lead Like An Ally. There, I have complimentary workbooks, a podcast series, and a video series to lead more inclusively with your team.