I am a senior VP in a global energy company and recently had an opportunity to give a webinar presentation to the entire company. I got a lot of great feedback, which was nice, but one person wrote in the chat that my “privilege was showing.”
What the heck? My family is from Pakistan. I was born there but we moved to the UK when I was a baby. I am definitely BIPOC, but had a talent for maths and ended up getting lucky with substantial scholarships to get advanced degrees in maths and engineering.
To be fair, I have been very focused on work and not much on current affairs—but seriously, what am I supposed to do with that feedback?
Am I Privileged?
Dear Am I Privileged?,
Yes. You are. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think you do with that feedback the same thing you would do with any kind of feedback:
- Pay attention to it
- Consider it carefully
- Ask yourself: “What if this were true? What would that mean?”
- Ask yourself: “Is there anything I can learn from this? Is there something I might do differently that will help me be more effective at achieving my goals?”
Feedback says more about the person giving it than it does about the person getting it. So what was said about you and your privilege is simply data that you are perceived by some people in your organization as a person who has privilege. The questions are: So what? What is important about that? Why is it important? Is it important enough for you to do something about it?
In the end, it all depends on your point of view about leadership and your goals. If you want to continue to develop as a leader in your company, you’ll want to be someone whom others choose to follow, so there might be some value in understanding the current thinking about privilege. It just so happens that I have been doing a lot of reading, listening, and thinking on the topic myself, so I can share some of what I have learned that might be useful.
Given your background, you may be extremely aware of the disadvantages you have overcome and obstacles you have faced. But because of your gifts, there are some you haven’t had to deal with. The current thinking about privilege holds that lacking privilege in one area doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from having privilege in others. The concept of privilege is not limited to race; it extends to all aspects of being a human trying to compete on what is anything but a level playing field.
Any way you might, by sheer accident of fate, be part of a majority is a form of privilege. Consider the following:
- Are you a citizen of the country you live in?
- Do you speak fluently the predominant language of the country you live or work in?
- Are you male in an area of expertise that is predominately male?
- Are you male in an industry that is predominately male?
- Are you heterosexual?
- Are you married in a society that values traditional relationships?
- Is your spiritual practice or religious affiliation understood and/or relatively accepted as a norm in your community?
- Do you have reasonably well-rounded intelligence; are you able to navigate human communication without exceptional effort?
- Do you have ample, affordable access to technology/internet?
- Can you see and hear without needing extraordinary help?
- Are you able bodied?
- Are you reasonably attractive?
- Are you taller than most people or at least of average height?
- Do you own a car, have a walkable/bikeable commute, or have access to speedy, affordable, efficient transportation?
- Are you neither exceptionally young nor old for your station in life and position at work?
Further, any special gifts you may have are a form of privilege:
- Do you have above average intelligence?
- Do you enjoy mental and emotional stability?
- Are you endowed with natural goal orientation, drive to achieve, or ambition?
- Do you hold an advanced degree and have access to ongoing education?
- Can you avail yourself of relationships with powerful, influential people in your organization or community?
- Do you have access to mentors and advocates in your organization or community?
- Are you exceptionally gifted with language or math?
- Are you artistic or able to express yourself with unusual creativity?
When you look at it through the lens of these questions, you may see your own privilege the way some others do.
At this point in how we seem to be evolving as humans, I think the key is simply awareness. You clearly understand that you have been lucky—but that doesn’t mean you haven’t worked hard to get where you are.
It takes some thought to balance showing up as your real, authentic self while being sensitive to the realities that others struggle with. Maybe you don’t need to do anything. Maybe you can pinpoint what it is you said or did that struck a nerve and make a choice to not say or do it again. Maybe not. You can’t please everyone, all of the time.
In the meantime, by all means, enjoy your privilege. Don’t waste your time feeling guilty about it—that won’t help anyone. But neither will pretending you don’t have any. Just be grateful for your luck and your gifts, and work hard to use them to make the world around you a better place for everyone.
About the Author
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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