Within the recent conversations around diversity and equity as it pertains to historically underrepresented groups, people are getting more comfortable being uncomfortable. However, among the courage we’re seeing in individuals and organizations navigating these dialogues, there is one concept that still leaves people a bit squeamish–privilege. Privilege is a complex topic because people often associate it with one race or one gender or with affluence, and it is sometimes interpreted as conveying an accusation or a condemnation.

However, in order to move beyond the resistance regularly associated with the notion of privilege and subsequently leverage its benefits, we have to first broaden the scope. Privilege is reflected in many situations, many lifestyles, and among many demographics. We all see the world through our own limited frame of experience. The more we are able to levelset the concept of privilege–and to be clear, not the experience of privilege but the concept, the more people are open to recognizing it and discussing it. For example, we often hear the term ‘white privilege’ but are we considering privileges granted us by having a safe, supportive, financially secure home? What about the privilege of mobility? These privileges can be experienced by or unfamiliar to anyone.

Having conducted virtual privilege walks for almost a thousand people in 2020, I sometimes get pushback from people who made their own way in the world and have worked hard for their successes. And while these successes should be celebrated it’s important to remember that privilege isn’t necessarily a reflection of you as much as it is the perception and assumption to others about who you are and what you’re capable of. Do you feel safe, valued and welcome in every situation in your day-to-day? It’s important to recognize that not everyone has that equal privilege. Privilege isn’t a mechanism by which to say you did not work hard for your successes, privilege simply means there weren’t additional barriers in place due to the color of your skin, your gender identity, or any other part of your individuality.

When more people can lean in on the acknowledgement of privilege and use it to inform conversations, be empathetic leaders, and strengthen organizational culture, they’ll be able to leverage that privilege for good. There are two primary ways to pay privileges forward: time and resources. Invest time by mentoring and accepting more of those 20 minute (virtual) cups of coffee to give aspiring professionals those two to three pieces of actionable advice. Diversify your outlay of resources by supporting culturally diverse businesses, offering internships, and investing in startups headed by underrepresented founders. Pour into others, especially those who have not been afforded your privileges.

Understanding and leveraging privilege empowers people to use their advantages to advocate for equity and inclusion across their organizations and communities. These voices, whether having experienced significant privilege or significant obstacles, are so important to allyship. This understanding encourages cross-cultural and cross-experience empathy and provides opportunities to see beyond the professional persona to connect with people on a more personal level.

About the Author

Jackie Ferguson is a certified diversity executive, co-founder of The Diversity Movement, and an expert virtual privilege walk facilitator. She is a Cary Magazine columnist and member of the National Diversity Council.

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