Privilege In a Woman’s World [Part II]

October 29th, 2010

I ended Part I of this blog with the observation from my experience teaching in the new Darden Executive Education Program, *“Women Emerging in Leadership,”: When I worked with the extraordinary group of women in the program, I began to understand even better both frustration of their experience and, more importantly, the power of their resolve not to be taken down by it, whether here in the U.S. or abroad.  That was very cool.

Less cool was the fact that my experience and expertise in diversity did not spare me from the ongoing sense of feeling awkward and defensive at times when I was with the group.   I was not spared the sense of feeling ignorant when I heard of women’s negative experiences about which I was largely clueless.  Nor was I immune to the most disturbing feeling that, at some level, I was just superior to most of these women.  I noticed myself thinking about how I did not have to deal with the setbacks they dealt with, and that even though I was a man, that was less important than the fact that I had been more adept at managing my education, my career, and my state of mind.  Seriously, I felt like I was just better than they were.

I was experiencing what my colleague and co-author Heather Wishik and I have described as a dilemma that members of groups with higher societal standing face when confronted with the reality that their lower societal standing counterparts experience.  As a man, I underwent a predictable set of thoughts and feelings that are not so much about my own shortcomings (and believe me, I have many) but are more about what happens when a person sits in a position of privilege.  The position helps make the person think and behave with arrogance, defensiveness, shame and obliviousness.  I realized that in these moments of bizarre imaginings, I was a victim of this set of thoughts and feelings.  I was in the grip of my privilege.

Now, I will add that this is even more disconcerting because I am black.  When I see the racial part of myself, I’m on the other side of the tracks, worrying less about privilege and much more about fairness, struggle, and resilience.   But part of what I realized in my time with these women was that the more I could set aside the comfort and familiarity of seeing myself racially, the more I could actually hear and understand what my women participants—and colleagues—were telling me about their lives.  I guess it boiled down to being less absorbed in my own experiences and instead being more open to understanding their experiences, even if doing so made me constantly uncomfortable.  This is part of what it means to engage constructively with one’s privilege.

The benefit, when all was said and done, was what I hope was a week of helpful, restorative, and flat out fun learning for the group.  I know that’s what happened for me.  The real privilege was just being there.

*The program will be offered again in the Spring and Fall of 2011.  Please visit for more details.

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