We here at Linkage talk about privilege—the rights, exemptions, and benefits we receive just because of our life experiences—in our Inclusive Leadership practice, a lot. We talk about it because leaders need to understand the privileges each of us has in order to create an inclusive environment.
For example, have you ever heard someone effectively say, “Your opinion is wrong or doesn’t count because you’re not: a woman, a person of color, a child of an alcoholic, suffering from pain, a CEO, etc.? That’s privilege. They’ve discounted you because they have experienced something you haven’t. And privilege itself isn’t the issue. Even the most marginalized have privilege. The problem is when privilege is used to close off conversation versus opening it. But it’s only through open dialogue, curiosity, and learning that inclusive cultures are created. Therefore, whether its race, sexual orientation, country of origin, education, or life experiences we have had, each of us has some sort of privilege over those who are different. Now that the Supreme Court ruling has made gay marriage constitutional, I am acutely aware of my privilege around LGBT rights.
I was raised in San Francisco where the LGBT community was part of my everyday life. My first experiences with gay people were positive, nurturing, and safe. As a result, I’m an ally for my LGBT family, friends, and community. I don’t have to reconcile internally my beliefs about homosexuality. I don’t have to worry about how I will explain gay marriage to my kids when we’ve raised them to believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I don’t struggle with the ruling at all. I celebrate it. That is privilege because my feelings and experiences are not true for everyone.
What we do with our privilege is what’s so important. When privilege is used to open conversations it can be powerful. Unfortunately, we tend to close conversations with our privilege more often than we open them.
An example of this occurred at our recent Intensive on Leading Inclusively in Atlanta. During an exercise a group worked on a case that was similar to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, last spring. During the conversation, one of the participants, who lived in St. Louis and therefore experienced Ferguson, recognized that he “shut down” another participant because of the privilege he felt from living through the experience. When a participant in his group shared his experiences of the event from his perspective he said, “What are you talking about? You weren’t there.” Even though the tone he used was kind, the conversation stopped there.
Because of our earlier conversations about privilege, he quickly recognized what he had done and that the group would have missed the opportunity for open dialogue. By sharing this with the entire audience, he hoped that others would learn from his experience. In the end, the group had a rich and honest discussion where all members felt included.
I’m conscious that we unintentionally use our privilege to shut down conversations all the time. So when I speak about gay marriage or LGBT rights I am mindful of what I say. I take time to ensure that I use my positive experiences, privilege, to open conversations, not close them.
In our research, the best leaders are often the most inclusive ones. They recognize their privilege, mitigate the negative impacts of it, and use it to pull people into open dialogue whenever possible.
Want to learn more about yourself? Watch this short video. It does a fantastic job of illustrating what privilege is and how pervasive it is.
Then ask yourself: What privileges do I have? And how can I put them to good use? Please share your thoughts and insight with us below.