Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.

—Justice Felix Frankfurter

I read this quote recently and it struck a nerve. Over the last few months my eyes have been opened to what it means to be a white man in America. Having been a white man in America for decades now, this seems like an odd realization. I am a natural navel-gazer, and I’ve spent a lot of time mining the depths of my own mind and psyche. I haven’t spent a lot of time understanding where I fit in society. I read widely, so I certainly had heard of “white privilege” prior to doing the deep work with diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Like many white guys, the first time I heard the phrase I mentally recoiled. Who was telling me I had privilege? How dare they paint me with such a broad brush! What did they know about my life, my troubles, my struggles? And besides, how could someone be anti-racist while racializing something like privilege? Wasn’t that hypocrisy? WTF!

Over time I learned the true meaning of white privilege, but it remained an abstract intellectual concept. It wasn’t until I was able to see and internalize the ways in which society blocks progress for people of color, and for black men in particular, that I began to understand what it means to be a white man in America.

I suppose once white people begin to have a recognition of their privilege, they have some choices about what to do with that knowledge: engage with it and try to reshape spheres of influence; shove it way down deep and pretend you still don’t know any better; embrace the privilege and the inherent racism that accompanies it. And it is important to note here that only white people get these choices—another privilege. 

Back to the original quote because I don’t want to make this post too long. DEI wisdom is arriving late for me, and I do not reject it.

Why we start with race

Our organization has been engaged with training around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for several months. As C.O.O., I’m the person who got the ball rolling, though this goal was present on our 5 year plan prior to my arrival at the organization.

Though I have always had an interest in equality and inclusion, I had not had much education or training around it. These past few months have been nothing short of transformational for me. I believe the work we are doing will also be transformational for our organization, though that will take more time.

One of the fundamental ideas that I’ve learned is that DEI (or EDI if you prefer) begins with race. We begin with race because that work can be leveraged to impact other marginalized identities, commonly referred to as “intersectionality”.

Speaking from my own experience, beginning with race helped me see the world around me with fresh eyes. This education has made me feel embarrassed by my own previous assumptions, and humbled to learn a new way of viewing society in general, and my own privilege in particular.

I am convinced that a deep understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a non-negotiable leadership competency. Leaders must be educated in this work, and must maintain that education. Whatever a leader’s speciality—finance, m&a, HR, IT, whatever—their work must not only acknowledge the importance of DEI, but must center on it.

Centering our work on DEI does not necessarily mean we become trainers, though that role may make sense for some. It means that we are able to articulate organizational strategy in ways that expose, interrupt, and sidestep the currents of white supremacy in our organizations, and in the culture at large.

I feel strongly that leaders who understand DEI are obligated to work only with organizations that also demonstrate an understanding of the importance of interrupting inequitable cultures. Do not join organizations, as employees, board members, or volunteers, if the organizations do not clearly demonstrate a commitment to racial equity.

Racialize it

Instead of saying, “There was a guy in front of me in line.”, say, “There was a white guy in front of me in line.” Instead of saying, “The seminar was almost all women.”, say, “The seminar was almost all women of color, with just a couple of white women.” You get the idea.

Why should you racialize it? I can only speak from my own experience as a middle aged white guy, but racializing what I see around me helps me get better at decoding the white supremacy that is the foundation of American culture.

I don’t usually say this stuff out loud, but I’m getting better at explicitly thinking it in my head. I want to get better at this because I have been able to recognize the way American culture has been set up to give me, and other white people, some extra benefits. Nobody screens out my resume because of my name. Nobody assumes I’m a shoplifter and follows me around the store. Nobody discounts my intelligence because of my accent. The list can go on and on.

If you believe diversity, equity, and inclusion are important then you need to get better at racializing it.