Q. What shall I do about employees who deny their own privilege and refuse to accept they are treated better than others?
A. Privilege can be an inconvenient truth for many. Denying one’s own privilege can stem from a lack of awareness, naïveté, ignorance or even apathy. Denial can also serve as a form of self-protection, sometimes due to feelings of shame or guilt around having privilege. Privilege is hugely nuanced, complex and contextual.
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While many interpret privilege to be an ‘unearned advantage’, there’s more to it. It would be wrong to say people with privilege don’t work hard, but it’s to acknowledge they face fewer barriers and difficulties to progress and thrive. One can be born with privilege or acquire it over time.
Privilege is a special advantage, immunity, permission, right or benefit that provides additional opportunity. Denial of privilege is dangerous as it can lead to microaggressions, biased behaviour and marginalisation. Yet, discussions around privilege may be deflected, as some people shy away from those conversations, wanting to minimise or dismiss the role that it has played in their success.
Some may even be dishonest or disingenuous about one’s privilege or lack thereof. To truly pursue equity and equitable treatment, a good starting point is to recognise and accept there is an uneven playing field for many as they navigate life and careers.
Here are some suggestions on what an organisation can do around this:
- Start having the conversation about privilege in a safe and non-triggering manner. Put it on the agenda and change the narrative around it. Prioritise this as part of your diversity and inclusion efforts. Introduce your purpose to start talking about privilege, announce this at town halls, leadership presentations, team meetings, and generate discussion through training, and action-led development plans.
- Build awareness, share and educate. Create a positive space for employees to talk openly about privilege. Host group meetings to educate and encourage dialogue. Ask employees to identify three things where they feel they had an advantage or disadvantage compared with others and share that. Authentic storytelling about privilege will build empathy. And finally, deconstruct the potential of privilege to be used for good.
- Bring it to life with a questionnaire listing statements of privilege (some examples are shared below). Utilise survey findings as a great discussion point in smaller breakout groups.
• Some people make negative assumptions about my personality traits based on my race and/or ethnicity
• I don’t feel pressured to hide my mental health status from others in fear of discrimination or stigma
• People of my sexual orientation are not subjected to negative attitudes, derogatory remarks, or harassment
- Align your company values to personal values such as empathy, integrity, honesty, courage and a speak up culture. Denialism erodes value. Consider making it one of your key statements, i.e. we use our privilege for good, where we have a platform and voice, we will use it for the benefit of others, we will share the stage, we will pass the mic, we will use our privilege to create opportunities for others and speak up when there is an imbalance.
- Make this a measurable performance objective. Line managers should lead by example. Managers should be accountable to have these vital conversations with their teams as well as provide enough space and time for valuable reflection.
In summary, use this as an opportunity to take some small steps and create a listen and learn approach around privilege. Help unlock the ability for people to talk about privilege and neither deny it nor feel attacked for it. Having these conversations requires a safe and brave space. They shouldn’t feel subjected to criticism, rather, this can be eye-opening for many.
Huma Qazi is a diversity and leadership consultant and founder of The Privilege Project
This column is a space for HR professionals to air challenging D&I questions anonymously tackling a different question each issue. Submit your D&I questions here.
This piece appears in the May/June 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.