Notes on White Privilege for White Women


In graduate school I took a class we called Understanding White Privilege. That wasn’t the name listed on the syllabus but it was the name of the main text, "Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships" by Frances Kendall. The students were mostly white women like myself, most of us over 30. We all thought we were open-minded and progressive, but the book and the class presented uncomfortable challenges. I had to face some things about my whiteness that made my emotional skin crawl.

Recently an African American friend who works in inclusion and diversity posted a question in the comments section of an article I wrote. He asked how to bridge the gap between White feminists and Black Women. I posted a reply and another woman who works in the same field asked me to expand upon it.  

I can’t answer the question broadly enough to do it justice, but I can tell you how I try to understand my white privilege in my work and ways I have attempted to become an ally for people of color and work for greater diversity in my field, advertising, which is dominated by white men. This is question I think about often, but rarely write about because I have learned from experience that when I talk to white people about white privilege I run into resistance; denial, anger, protest. I get it. Absorbing the fact that people that look like me have systematically oppressed people who don’t look like me, acknowledging how I have participated in that oppression, is painful. White privilege is not racism. It is a system, a set of assumptions that whites don’t see until we look, and even then we can only see it dimly. I’m no expert. I’m just someone who has been in the work world for a long time and tried and failed and tried again to understand and be mindful of my white privilege and use that understanding to be a better ally.

It’s not the same.

The process starts with white women understanding their white privilege and stopping the false equivalency that somehow our experience as white women is similar to the experiences of women of color. In her book, Kendall, a white woman, says that the most difficult population for her to teach about white privilege is liberal white women. Too often we think that our experiences as women oppressed in myriad ways is the same as the experiences of women of color. It is not. It is the difference between looking at a razor blade and being cut by one. Systematic misogyny in advertising and technology is real, and painful, and I have felt its heavy hand throughout my career. But everywhere I go my path is smoothed by my white privilege. I cannot understand what it’s like to be a woman of color. Professionally and personally I am white first, female second.

How to educate yourself

So how do you learn? Read, don’t ask. It is not the job of people of color to tell us white people what their lives are like. We can open any newspaper, read many books and get that information. Asking a person of color to be a representative voice and explain to us the challenges they face is not appropriate, unless that person offers, or is teaching a course or leading a training.

When you get the information and start to do your own work around your privilege, feel free to share it with your white friends, but don’t expect some social or professional gold star for becoming aware of what people of color already know. “Whitesplaining” is destructive and presumptuous. Being open to the varied experiences of others is very different than telling them what their experiences are.

Watch your mouth

Language is important. Even the phrase “women of color” is limiting, because the challenges faced by African American women are different than those faced by Latinas, Indigenous women, or Asian women. Be mindful of borrowing language or ideas that are not your own. Cultural appropriation of the work and ideas of people of color is rampant. Don’t participate. I don’t use the word “woke” to refer to myself or any other white person. I won’t call an African American woman “girl” in conversation. I was asked to present a training on negotiation skills for women at a conference encouraging inclusion and diversity in technology. I partnered with an African American woman to build and present the materials, because I have no idea what it is like to be a woman of color. We presented together. I asked her feedback on what we were presenting. If there is parity and a partnership, it is permissible to ask about race, to make sure something you are saying isn’t offensive or off-putting. The key element is partnership. I could ask my colleague doing the presentation with me about the appropriateness of my language because we were partners, intentionally building something meant to be helpful to people of color. But I’ve also seen a creative director ask the one person of color, a junior creative in a room full of white people, if a racially insensitive ad was indeed racially insensitive. Not appropriate. But if a person of color does say that something is offensive, you must listen, and act, even if you don’t agree. Because you don’t know, and you should always yield to the perspective of the person impacted and make space for their world view and experience which is different than your own.

How to be a better ally

You can also be intentional about being an ally. After my presentation at the diversity conference, a number of young African American men and women came up to me and asked how to break into advertising. One man said that a friend of his, an African American, had just gotten a degree in marketing. Because he was a student athlete, he had not been able to take on an internship. Internships, often unpaid or poorly paid, are not an option for students who have to work in the summer to support themselves or their family. That’s not a racial issue – I had to work in the summers when I was in college and couldn’t afford to do an internship. This put me at disadvantage compared to my rich friends who lived off their fathers’ credit cards while at coveted internships in media in New York. With one LinkedIn message I was able to connect this man’s friend with a white, former professional athlete who had made the move to marketing, a man who readily agreed to meet with the new graduate. It took me five minutes. Always say yes to any informational interview or request for networking help from a person of color. Seek it out. “Hey, you should meet Jane, she’s the head of X at Y company and would be a good person for you to connect with, let me introduce you.” Again, don’t look for a gold star, don’t mention race, just connect people.

Reject all-white panels

Conferences and panel discussions about advertising and technology are dominated by white men. If you are organizing an event, look hard for a diverse set of presenters. Pay people of color a competitive rate, pay for their travel. Don’t ask them to work for free because they will get “exposure.” You may have to look outside of your city. There are few leaders of color in advertising in Seattle, and the same people are asked time and again to participate in conferences. Ask and include, but realize that not everyone wants to be the one African American person on a panel talking to a room full of white people. Any event with an all white panel or line up of speakers needs to make a space for the anger and frustration that will come from people of color in the audience who are, once again, listening to a group of white people present their limited point of view. The 3% conference, which was started to get more women in creative leadership in advertising has expanded its mission to increase opportunities for people of color in creative leadership. Kat Gordon, the CEO of 3%, has a line up of speakers (full disclosure, I am one of them) for this fall’s conference that is half people of color. Every conference should be that way. There’s no excuse for an all white or all male panel any longer. If you’re considering an event with this kind of line up vote with your feet and don’t attend.

You don’t get to say you are safe, you have to show it

We work and live in a culture that is actively hostile to people of color. I never had to have a conversation with my son about how not to get shot by the police. Every African American parent I know has to have that conversation. We have to prove, as white people, that we are safe. We don’t get to say we are safe. Once I was at a social event where I was the only white woman in a room full of African American women. As the friend who had invited me introduced me to the other women she kept saying, “She’s ok.” What she was saying was that I was safe. I couldn’t have said it, she had to say it. This was a number of years ago and I was surprised that it needed to be said, surprised that my presence was seen as a potential impediment to open sharing and conversation, just because I was white. I’ve been the only women in a room full of men many times, but only twice the sole white person. Now I’m not surprised at the swift assessment, the assumption that because I am white I am unaware of my privilege or even potentially dangerous. That is a sensible reaction. Being the only anything in a room is uncomfortable, but people of color face that every day in my industry. Saying you’re not a racist, or voted for Obama, or mentioning your African American friends does not make you safe. Standing up for and supporting people of color without expecting accolades for your fabulousness may eventually convince people of color you are safe. I once had conversation about increasing diversity at an agency where I worked with a white man from Texas. He was fighting with me, and I watched a young man of color who worked for me carefully looking to see what I said. I had to prove that I walked my talk, I had to fight back in the moment against the thinly veiled racist undertones that the white man was putting out there. Nothing you say matters as much as what you do.

Be brave and resolute in advocating for change

Regardless of where you are in an organization, you can support people of color in your workplace. Be aware of subtle racism. Call it out. If something is racially offensive, say something about it yourself, don’t be that person who gives a sidelong glance to the one person of color in the room and waits for him or her to say something. When I do presentation trainings at agencies, I ask people to write a short presentation on any topic. Twice I have had a white women get up and present content that was racially loaded and offensive. Everyone looked at the only African American person in the room. I was the one, as the trainer, who said that’s not appropriate content and here’s why. I wasn’t the only one who saw it, I was just the only one who said anything. It is my job, but I wish just one of the other white people in the room had called it out.

White people in power need to fiercely advocate to hire people of color. I had two equally qualified candidates apply for a job and I told another white women leader at the company that I would prefer the African American woman.  “But shouldn't you hire the most qualified candidate?” she said. They were equally qualified and I told her I got to preference diversity. There is a pernicious canard that a candidate of color can't be as qualified as a white one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that there aren’t talented people of color in the pipeline for advertising positions. That is simply not true. Tell your recruiter that you are specifically looking to fill a position with a person of color, or an African American. If all you get are resumes from white people, get another recruiter.

Do you live in a white bubble?

Most white people I know live in a bubble of whiteness. If you are white, answer these questions honestly. How many people of color live on my street? Go to my church? Shop at my local grocery store? Attend my children’s school? When was the last time I had an African American friend to my house for dinner? How many of my “favorites” on my phone are not white? These questions are not meant to shame you. If you live in a white bubble that doesn’t make you a racist. It just makes you more likely to be ignorant of the extent of your white privilege. And more likely to be uncomfortable around people of color, to have that unconscious physical reaction I saw once when an agency CEO met a freelancer I had hired who was African American. The CEO called all white men “dude,” but when he met this freelancer he immediately squirmed and called him “man” and affected a cringe inducing bonhomie he never used with the white employees.

Understanding your white privilege and the extent to which you are removed from the experience of the people of color with whom you work is very uncomfortable. Be uncomfortable. Get over yourself. That is the first step to becoming an ally, and to actually making a change in the workplace. Talking about race is fraught, but if white leaders do not say out loud that we need more people of color in the workplace, it won’t happen. When I have said to other white leaders, mostly men, that I want a more diverse workplace, the discomfort soars. Never underestimate the backlash coming your way when you call out a lack of diversity in the workplace to a roomful of rich white liberals. “We hire the best people regardless of race” says every white CEO of every agency filled with white people. Set quotas. Hold yourself accountable. People naturally hire others that look like them. You have to work against that with insistence and perseverance to change the ratio. If the last three people your company hired are white men, you’re doing something wrong.

Diversity is good for business

Increasing diversity is not only right, it is good for business. In advertising, we try to harness and influence popular culture. Culture is not led by the middle aged white men who run agencies. Many agencies and white leaders of agencies have foundered when a racist or sexist ad or policy comes to light. If there were more women and people of color at these agencies who were given a seat at the table and the right to speak and were actually listened to, some of these career ending debacles could have been avoided.

Understanding my white privilege has been a painful and on-going process. I’m not done. Trying to fight for greater diversity in the places that I work has caused conflict and enmity. Challenging white people who haven’t done the work on their own white privilege can tap into a level of resistance, shame and defensiveness that can be overwhelming for them and anyone around them. But it’s our job, as white women who want change, to face that resistance and make a difference. But we can only make that difference if we first understand the extent of our white privilege and let go of the illusion that our challenges are the same as those confronting women of color. Fight for the rights of women, but don’t forget women of color. It is ultimately a shallow victory if we get white women into positions of power and ignore the women of color who are left behind, shut out, not invited to the table, because we haven’t done our own work on white privilege.

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