Fair warning: this is a difficult read. Many thanks to Janos Baombe, Liz Crowe and Cathy Wield for your wisdom and support in making this post a little less uncomfortable.
Before you start
This is not a white (male) privilege bashing post (or at least it is not intended to be). It is a post about social bias. Social bias is when we knowingly or unknowingly give preference to certain individuals, groups, races, sexes, etc.
Although the corona virus currently hogs much of the limelight, social bias has not gone away. It has simply adjusted to a new world order – with the same constant at the top.
It might be useful at this point to state that I am both white and male; and that this is not a bid to speak at the next FIX conference. I am sharing this post in the hope that it can help others like me.
Not even the struggle is real
I readily admit #MeToo, #TimesUp and #Woke tweets make me feel uncomfortable. I dislike being treated as a faceless part of a group I don’t really associate with. But my attempts to contribute meaningfully to this conversation keep feeling clumsy and insincere.
The #WhiteMaleRage movement suggests that many others struggle with this too; or are gobsmacked to learn that there are spaces that don’t readily embrace us. Here, no-one seems interested in our voice, our perspective or our experience. We’re no longer at the top. This is a surprisingly new and uncomfortable experience.
But the truth is simply that our social perspectives of each other’s lived realities are incomplete. I have a partial perspective of the lived reality of being non-white or non-male, and vice versa.
Or phrased more bluntly, as a white male I am familiar with my perspective of privilege, but not with the non-white/ non-male perspective. And vice versa. This places each of us at a disadvantage when we try to interpret and navigate each other’s lived realities.
A shortish primer in privilege and related topics
Privilege is the special advantage granted to a particular group of people. In order to maintain privilege, inclusion to the group must be selective. Sometimes highly selective: the advantage of belonging to a select group reduces as inclusion becomes less selective when membership increases.
Middle England went into a collective meltdown just before Christmas on learning that pesto from Waitrose and Aldi is produced in the same factory. Waitrose pesto is no longer a privilege enjoyed by a select group of shoppers, who shop at upmarket Waitrose – you can get the same pesto at Aldi for half the price.
But sometimes privilege is difficult to identify (usually one-sided as it is nearly always obvious to the underprivileged). Many Waitrose shoppers would not consider buying their pesto at a low-cost store. It would simply be assumed that low cost means low quality; the fact that it is the exact same product is lost. We call this unconscious bias.
Sometimes we are aware of the bias but pretend not to be. Despite the pesto palaver, many shoppers who used to buy their pesto from Waitrose are likely to continue buying their pesto from Waitrose; even after the Christmas revelation. At double the price. We call this type of collective denial, wilful blindness.
Another entity that goes hand in hand with wilful blindness is polite racism/ bigotry. Ever thought of your non-white/ gay friend as being just like your normal friends? Or of a female speaker as particularly articulate? Or felt disbelief when a major political leader describes the Corona virus as the Chinese virus?1,2
I know what you’re thinking: rubbish! I’m liberal-minded. That’s the point: polite racism/ bigotry is an insidious blindness. It pits ignorance as equivalent to innocence. But it is just as harmful as wilful blindness, and really hard to spot unless you’re aware the phenomenon exists.
On being a bad person
One of the most challenging things to learn from a third party is that you are considered a bad person. Even when you really thought, and felt, you succeeded at being a good person. It just feels unfair.
As a young, white South African lad, I firmly believed that it was hard work that got me a place in medical school. Then, once I reached the clinical years, I noted that black nurses addressed me as doctor and white nurses as mister.
After I graduated, I was often mistaken for my way more senior female, black or other non-white colleagues; they were often mistaken for being nurses, porters or allied healthcare professionals.
I also witnessed how staff spoke down to black patients and up to white patients (irrespective of social class). It felt more acute in the private sector, which I guess reflected the demographics of an unequal society.
Those difficult conversations
I felt largely excluded from the deeper social conversations between my black or non-white colleagues. On the occasion I was present (usually by pure accident), I felt really uncomfortable.
I did not share the narratives that went with the lack of privilege, and therefore had none of my own perspectives to add. Although I never framed myself as a bigot, I clearly recognised that my privilege afforded me a leg up on my female, black or other non-white colleagues. And did nothing.
The internal struggle I experienced over this was shameful. I simply went from closet racist, to polite racist. For a long time I chose to remain ignorant of these experiences, pretended I cared when cornered, and prayed no-one noticed.
I wanted to find a narrative that would allow me to hang on to my white, male privilege, but at the same time appear not to. I became wilfully blind to my own privilege – something I never asked for I told myself – and the lack of privilege afforded to those outside my select group.
A small step forward
One day, I read that impostor syndrome, although common in all groups, was more frequently observed in women, black persons and other minorities3. A penny started dropping in slow motion…
Privilege is inherently unfair for those outside the select group. And to those inside the group it feels unfair to have to share it; largely as this removes the advantage of belonging to the select, privileged group. It became apparent to me that the concepts of fairness and privilege simply don’t coexist.
I suddenly recognised impostor syndrome all around me. I felt physically ill from shame for weeks. It was a disturbing but powerful image of entrenched inequality that clung to me – the first of many.
I finally saw that the real problem was not the lack of competent female, black or other non-white persons, but rather the lack of obstacles to progress for white men. And I accepted that I was both consciously and unconsciously contributing to an unequal society.
A giant leap back
I accepted that I was complicit in maintaining social bias. I deliberately decided to take a big step back; way, way back from any kind of spotlight. I sought a relationship that did not involve any reference to my unearned status in society, unless it could improve others’.
Slowly two opposite narratives emerged: I had a very powerful perspective of the advantages white male privilege offered; and my female, black or other non-white colleagues on the other hand, had a very powerful perspective of the unfair disadvantages of not benefiting from privilege.4 I knew very little of the latter narrative.
Actively seeking out the perspective I was missing from my narrative helped me to become better as a person. This was not me fixing the problem, but rather offering to find out whether I can help, and if so how. It was a deliberate decision to empower those who have been disempowered for whatever reason.
I have to admit that this is still a work in progress. I learn something new almost every day. But I am slowly walking it back, and feeling less ashamed about myself in the process.
The Southern African concept of Ubuntu applies perfectly: We are truly strong only when everyone is strong together. Recognising our powerful but partial narrative, and connecting this with the powerful but partial narrative of any socially disenfranchised group, is the more productive route to equality. Corona virus, or no corona virus.
Joining the conversation
The truth, I think, is that the #MeToo, #TimesUp and #Woke movements do not wish to exclude me, or any other white man from their equality narrative. We exclude ourselves – often through wilful blindness – paving the path to inequality.
If you’ve ever felt a tad uncomfortable with comments about the #MeToo, #TimesUp and #Woke movements, or white men in general, may I recommend you start reaching out to someone who is neither white, nor male, and then actively seek to complete your partial understanding.
The lyrics of This is me comes to mind (without me on stage of course):
- Martin Luther King and the ‘polite’ racism of white liberals <https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/01/17/martin-luther-king-polite-racism-white-liberals/>
- 5 Phrases Your Black Friend Wishes You’d Stop Saying <https://zora.medium.com/5-phrases-your-black-friend-wishes-you-would-stop-using-c857cd415c5>
- The trouble with imposters <https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/the-trouble-with-imposters>
- How to show white men that diversity and inclusion efforts need them < https://hbr.org/2019/10/how-to-get-more-white-men-to-support-diversity-and-inclusion-efforts>