How often do any of us receive insights that make us question our beliefs, open our minds, and change how we think? I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s not often, but it happened last week. Last week I participated in a workshop facilitated by Julie Kratz and Ericka Young, titled “Unpacking Privilege: How Are You Using Yours to Lift Us ALL Up?” I had been introduced to Julie through a mutual friend and hoped to collaborate with her. I had few expectations of actionable takeaways from the presentation. Little did I know that I was going to learn the truth about privilege.
The group discussed microaggressions, single stories, and implicit bias. We talked about the luxury of obliviousness and the difference between equal and equitable. Ericka shared a slide on the history of non-inclusiveness in America beginning in 1619 when the first slaves were kidnapped from Africa and brought to America. There was so much great content that I’m still digesting it several days later. For example, single stories. In a review of “Novelist Chimamanda Adichie Ted Talk New York Times columnist David Brooks explains single stories, “It’s what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative: when Africans, for example, are treated solely as pitiable poor, starving victims with flies on their faces.” — The New York Times — The Danger of a Single Story
My Eyes Opened to the Truth about Privilege
When I heard the idea of single stories, my first thought was, I don’t have any single stories. I mean, I’ve conducted sensitivity seminars warning about the dangers of categorizing people by race, sex, age and more. However, as I listened, I realized I did have my own set of single stories. I’ve identified three that I’m working on. I opened my eyes.
Near the end of the workshop, we were asked to stand next to one of 10 post-it notes stuck to the wall. Julie and Ericka asked a series of questions that if it applied to us, we were to raise our post-it note up the distance of the note and if it didn’t apply to move it down. After 20 or more questions, my post-it note was the highest in the room. I had the most privileged life. I have never considered myself especially privileged. You see, I come from a middle-class suburban background, so how is that privileged? It was because unlike other people in the room I never worried about being fed, I always had a roof over my head, I had two parents, the opportunity to attend college, and much more.
One of the few times my post-it notes went down was when asked about college. I didn’t finish. It wasn’t until later that the realization that as a college dropout there’s very little chance I would’ve achieved the level of success I have if I were black or brown.
They Didn’t Share my Privilege
In 1984 I was the marketing manager for the Indianapolis branch of the Pacesetter Corporation. The company is defunct, but in 1984 they had 71 offices in 41 states with net receipts of more than ¼ of a billion dollars. I was the first person to hire a black telemarketer in the Indy office; I’m not saying this to toot my horn, quite the opposite. We were not allowed to hire blacks because of how they would sound to our customers. To hire her, I had to convince upper management that she sounded white. And that’s what I did. I didn’t stand up and say the policy was wrong. She did not share my privilege.
I also hired the first black in-home salesperson, same story; I had to convince management that he could overcome objections to his race, not that we should hire him for who he was. He told me during the interview he would work both day and night and go anywhere he was asked as long as the city didn’t end with ville, burg, or town. He didn’t share my privilege.
During the employment interview of the second black salesperson I hired, I asked him how he would deal with prejudice from customers. I didn’t question the incorrectness of asking this – I asked. He shared this story with me. He was working as a salesperson for a large national insurance company. One time he had an appointment in small-town Indiana. When he arrived, he was met at the door by a person who told him they don’t talk to N-word around here. I asked what he did, and he told me he smiled politely, said he understood, and would call the office to send an associate of the prospect’s own kind out. He didn’t share my privilege.
The outbound call center I managed mapped red line areas by phone exchanges. There were areas we were not allowed to call. Even if someone called in for an estimate, we were not to send a salesperson. Banks wouldn’t finance them because it was “that” part of town. I didn’t question this policy. They didn’t share my privilege.
I wish I could say I fought against these blatant acts of racism, but I didn’t. I accepted them as just the way things were. You see, I was privileged. I was learning the truth about privilege.
The Truth about Privilege
I didn’t realize the extent of my privilege. I have never thought I was especially privileged. However, the truth is … I was. So, I’m doing something about it. To begin with, I’m working on changing my personal single stories. So, do you know how privileged you are? Would you be where you are today without your privilege? Is it time to change your thinking? It was for me.
If you’d like to learn more about Julie Kratz, and what she does, check out her website, Next Pivot Point
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