I vividly remember the first time I became conscious of my “white privilege.” I was home from college for the summer spending time with my best friend, who was in the area training for the NFL.
He was a speedy black cornerback from central Florida, and I was a slightly less quick white lacrosse player from an affluent neighborhood outside Washington.
In college, we connected through a campus fellowship for athletes, and we became fast friends. After our senior year, I was fortunate to watch him get the call that he had been invited to the New York Jets training camp. So, after lunch downtown on a sunny afternoon, we decided to check out the Mercedes-Benz dealership because he was interested in upgrading his car. I’ll never forget that experience, walking into the dealership and being approached by one of the salesmen, who immediately tried to warm up to me as if I were the one interested in buying a car.
I quickly protested that I wasn’t the one looking; my friend was. But the look of surprise mixed with disdain on the salesman’s face, and his awkward transition to helping my friend, hit me like a ton of bricks. My conscience screamed, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be!”
I share that story because it was a pivotal moment in my early adult life that awoke something inside me. I’d glimpsed a different world through the eyes of a friend, and I realized I had a choice to make.
Would I take responsibility for what I observed, or let this be something that bothered me but seemed too significant to do anything about? I chose to respond, and that sent me on a trajectory of pursuing social justice and equity. As a young professional, I was determined to have a diverse practice, working with minorities and traditionally underserved groups.
Moving The Diversity And Inclusion Needle
If you’re a kindred spirit looking to become an ally in the fight for change, I’d like to suggest some concrete actions you can take to move the needle in your own life and the lives of those around you.
» Examine your own biases. Before I could become an empathetic change agent, I needed to examine my own heart. What stereotypes and prejudices had I developed?
Did I have stereotypes, which are exaggerated beliefs or distorted truths about a person or group? Did I have any prejudices, which are opinions, prejudgments, or attitudes about a person or group? Both can stymie our ability to grow.
If you need some help here, Harvard University has developed an excellent resource to test yourself for hidden biases at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. We all have biases; some may be conscious, although many are unconscious. But none of them need to hold us back.
» Seek out marginalized voices and perspectives. How many marginalized people do you follow on Twitter or Instagram? How many minority authors do you read? If you’re like me, it may not be many. To grow my capacity as an advocate and ally, I had to deepen my understanding of the plights of minorities.
The best way to break free of your preconceptions is to seek out voices you aren’t hearing from. Once you start paying attention to people different from you — people of color, LGBT, Muslims, people with disabilities, etc. — you’ll develop an appreciation for those voices and find beautiful synergies with your own values.
» Become intolerant of intolerance. Next, plant the flag that racism, discrimination and intolerance won’t be tolerated anymore. Make this declaration in your heart, and decide to engage in your spheres of influence when you have the opportunity to do so. Speak up and speak out. This may mean confronting others when you witness discriminatory behaviors, or even standing up against friends, relatives or coworkers.
This doesn’t mean being obnoxious or inappropriate; it simply means being intentional about addressing, in a respectful way, things that you know are obviously wrong.
» Connect with and support marginalized movements. If you come from a place of privilege, use that privilege to help minority groups. Attend a Pride march. Join a minority chamber of commerce. Go to a black church. Find the right outlets within your community, and connect!
If people ask what you’re doing there, say, “I’m here to support you.” Then ask them how you can do that. Become an engaged ally that’s willing to learn from minority leaders what makes an actual difference, because it might not be what you think.
» Make inclusion part of your daily life. If you are in any position of authority, be it at work or for an organization or club, you have an opportunity to be more inclusive of people from other backgrounds and communities. But it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that simply not discriminating is enough.
We can do better by taking proactive measures to invite people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized people into our space. If you’re recruiting, don’t simply put ads on the usual websites; find places where you can recruit people underrepresented in your workplace.
For example, predominantly black colleges and black business associations can help you recruit. LGBT community centers have job posting boards and you can advertise in LGBT media.
Your town or city may have organizations that exist specifically to connect immigrants, refugees and racial minorities in the community. Change our workplace culture and our community, and we can start to see our society change!
I hope we recognize how powerful a platform we have at our disposal as an industry. Money is the universal language. Everyone needs it to survive and thrive — no matter who they are. It’s a great cross-cultural equalizer and a significant door opener when you have the right heart.
Let’s seize the opportunity to embrace diversity, inclusion and equity, and lead NAIFA and our industry forward in 2020 and beyond!