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D&I Coach Acknowledges Privilege with Compassion

A new book explains why the privileged class shouldn’t be excluded from diversity and inclusion conversations and how to get them engaged.

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“Rewarding Reads” is a space for articles and personal essays meant to be thought-provoking and informative for human resources professionals, from sharing the “human” perspectives on workplace issues to book reviews of business titles we find inspiring. Have an essay or blog post to share? Contact us at workspan@worldatwork.org.

When it comes to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, many organizations are talking a good game. They’ve started D&I programs, they’re being more mindful of who they’re hiring/developing, and so on.

And yet, all too often we find those programs or revised hiring practices fall short of hitting those D&I goals. Why?

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From La’Wana Harris’ point of view, the answer could be that we aren’t really addressing the problem, we’re merely making it look like we are.

In her new book, Diversity Beyond Lip Service: A Coaching Guide for Challenging Bias, Harris attempts to challenge the status quo while also acknowledging that a status quo exists.

“The case has long been made for D&I,” she writes. “Our heads are convinced. What we need to do now is work on our hearts to get them in the right, welcoming place and then use our hands to start creating change.”

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Harris begins her book by noting the elephant in the room: privilege. Even for those of us who call ourselves allies to oppressed groups, we may have privilege — and we may not even be aware of it. Maybe we think we’ve “gotten what we deserved” for our efforts. Perhaps it hasn’t even occurred to us that for one reason or another, privilege is behind many of our successes.

But maybe you are one of those who has acknowledged that as a straight, white man (typically the most privileged class, but any privileged class can be substituted here), you have enjoyed certain perks that others haven’t — and not because you “earned” them, but simply because of your placement within a privileged class. And while you want to “use your power for good,” you shy away from engaging because you’re afraid your privilege will get in the way, that it will cheapen the message.

Harris asserts that you’ve made good progress! Awakening to your privilege is a positive step in the right direction. But she might also tell you to, well, get over it. In fact, it’s incredibly important that you get over it.

Because, the truth is — at least as Harris presents it — that D&I cannot succeed without the support, encouragement and active involvement of the privileged.

Harris even goes so far as to admit that saying such a thing can ruffle the feathers of those in diverse groups. But she also states that:

“Diversity and Inclusion goes all ways. It cannot be about condemning white men as the oppressor or throwing stones.”

What I loved about this book is that I don’t feel like Harris is attempting to cast blame for all the world’s ills on one group or another. She simply acknowledges the sometimes harsh, but still accurate realities of society, at least in its current iteration. And she tries to be understanding, even empathetic, to those who get nervous at the mere mention of D&I. She aims to assure them that it’s really not a win-lose scenario, that it’s not a zero-sum game. Her idea of diversity and inclusion has to include everyone, even the privileged, or else it’s all mute. She only wants the privileged to a) acknowledge their privilege and b) use it for the good of all, not just themselves or those that they can identify with.

Given her experience as a diversity coach and leader, she goes into much detail on how to approach these conversations in a way that conveys compassion and understanding. And these conversations should be happening, not just within ourselves, but within our organizations.

Or, in Harris’ words:

“Asking How can privilege be used in a way that moves us forward together? can be a powerful starting point for progress and make the conversation an easier one for everyone.”

About the Author

Stephanie N. Rotondo is a writer/editor at WorldatWork.


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