May 16, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS

How White Right Can Fight Wrong: The Plight of White Male Privilege

by Marcus Sandifer
Privilege for one person, by its very nature, comes at somebody else’s disadvantage, otherwise, it’s not a privilege.

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When it comes to tackling the most critical diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues facing the legal profession, law firms and legal departments across the United States have enlisted some of the best-known and well-respected D&I consultants in the world. Unsurprisingly, these mandatory “check-the-box” trainings are frequently met with boilerplate hypotheticals, outdated language that describes certain minority groups, and participants who, quite frankly, would rather be working than forced to attend a presentation. Furthermore, sometimes the remedies offered to solve diversity challenges come with recommendations so carefully bubble-wrapped that the effort to address the problem is outweighed by the need to not offend the least vulnerable group in the workplace: the white male. 

Remarkably, as the equity and inclusion movement is taking shape and form in a variety of professional settings, the legal profession is taking great pains to delicately dance around the very real existence of an equally impactful movement, commonly referred to as white male privilege. Countless studies and research on gender have occurred over the years that examine the advantages men gain over women, but it wasn’t until recent years that an increased focus on white male privilege commanded serious discussion.

Is White Male Privilege Really a Thing?

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a female attorney who identifies as a person of color, who recalled a recent conversation she had with three white male colleagues at various law firms. She mentioned to them her long-term ambitions and the extraordinary steps she was taking to position herself for partnership. The conversation took a steep turn when the white male colleagues remarked that they just assumed they would automatically attain partnership, if that’s what they desired. She was astonished and bewildered by their display of confidence and entitlement due to the fact none of them had embarked on any business development activities or were staffed on any significant matters that set them apart from the other lawyers in their firm. One of the men even boasted about hanging out on the weekend at a partner’s home and yet another about a weekend trip to Miami with one of the partners. 

While it would be truly praiseworthy if the female attorney could’ve pulled a comparable anecdote from her experiences at her firm, the harsh reality is that the opportunity for her to benefit from the same or similar experiences will rarely, if ever, happen. The harsh reality is that these extracurricular opportunities outside of the workplace, without any effort on the part of the junior lawyer, have the opportunity to position white males light-years ahead of their peers, without question.

Sign at Women’s March 2018 in Seneca Falls, New York (January 20, 2018)

Sign at Women’s March 2018 in Seneca Falls, New York (January 20, 2018)

Why Is This Happening?

This scenario should come as a surprise to no one, but it does because it forces people to confront their own successes and accept that, yes, maybe I have been given opportunities that have not been equally presented to my peers, and, maybe . . . it’s white privilege. Stony Brook University Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, Michael S. Kimmel, has stated that, “privilege is invisible to those who have it.” He has argued that privilege manifests itself in many ways, from race and gender to wealth and educational attainment. It is true that sometimes people with privilege are often blindsided by those inherited advantages, but those groups of people who identify as anything other than white male are constantly reminded of the fact that their experiences are different. 

In the book White-Washing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society, the authors make the argument that white Americans cannot see how society produces advantages for them because the benefits seem so natural that they are taken for granted and experienced as wholly legitimate. Simply put, “the last thing a fish notices is the water.” Just as fish take the water they swim in for granted, white males sometimes take their normal opportunities for coaching, development, mentorship, and advancement for granted. 

What Can We Do to Effectively Address This?

Many people feel as though calling out white male privilege is the solution to reducing it or eventually ending it in the legal environment. But what happens when calling out what is perceived as white privilege in the workplace crosses the line into launching personal attacks against coworkers and employers? 

In 2018, Tim Chevalier, a former Google employee who identified as transgender, queer, and disabled, was terminated when Google discovered he was posting controversial memes on the company’s intranet considered to be discriminatory against white men. The employee filed a wrongful termination lawsuit alleging he was released for calling out racism on Google’s internal forums. This lawsuit is just one of several against Google, and there are similar lawsuits alleging discrimination against white men being filed all over the country. 

Maybe the correct route isn’t to vilify white privilege, but to start a dialogue about the various systems of oppression and how they impact nondominant groups. This level of discussion can be invaluable to law firms and legal departments, but only when there is a solid foundation examining why white privilege exists and how detrimental the blanket use of the term “white privilege” can translate into “you’re a racist” or “you’re homophobic” and the avoidance of white males who may be interested in being allies. 

It is easy to focus the discussion on the assumptions that all white men have exceptionally benefited from power systems that work against building understanding, alliances, and support from white males. However, it would be really beneficial if companies, law firms, and legal departments could look into investing authentic and real diversity conversations where participants of all races are able to have an open dialogue regarding white male privilege, along with providing tips and techniques that white males could use to become allies for diverse attorneys. 

Diversity thought leader Paula Edgar of New York-based Inclusion Strategy Solutions, LLC has worked with countless firms and corporations to train and educate them on “getting uncomfortable” by understanding that, while many diversity issues exist, especially in regard to privilege, we are all better when organizations are intentional about confronting and investing in resources that face the issue head-on. 

Why is it that the individuals asked to empower the vulnerable and promote the identity of the oppressed are the ones who, in some cases through unconscious bias, are seen as the oppressors? The ones who teach the topics tend to be the ones who contribute to the disparities or are unaware that the disparities exist, or are unwilling to join in on the conversation. White males have to be more than a “silent partner,” meaning they need to be active allies, as in most cases their voices tend to carry more weight or produce faster results than their minority counterparts. They also need to be willing to have the uncomfortable conversations to foster change.

The opinions expressed are solely my own and do not represent or reflect the views or opinions of my employer.

Marcus Sandifer is a litigation associate with Alston & Bird LLP and an experienced human resources consultant specializing in leveraging human capital to build innovative and progressive solutions for highly complex organizations. He is based in New York and has lectured globally on the topics of diversity and inclusion.