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Privilege within DEI

Posted on April 23, 2021


Privilege within DEI

This guest article is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, local government professional in transition. This article was written for the Hard Conversations about Racial Equity Cohort. Read all of Matt’s other articles at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.


I’ve spoken about my privilege before on ELGL. I wrote about it in my first post for ELGL on identifying and engaging with our privilege in general, and then again covered it in regards to my perspective and to add context to what this series would and would not be.

As I’m now over a year into this passion project, and as part of the Hard Conversation about Racial Equity Cohort, I want to discuss privilege within the frame of diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

The quick answer: Yes, as a cisgender white male I have a leg up in DEI.

I’ve witnessed firsthand women and people of color with far more personal and professional experience challenged when discussing DEI in a way that I’m not. I’m given at best the benefit of the doubt, at worst the consent to speak unchallenged by those who disagree with me. It’s a real problem, and it’s the environment we are working within.

More than once I’ve found myself the most impatient to take action and see what happens when working on a task force or other project in DEI. This is in large part related to the last point, that my experience with DEI has been overwhelmingly welcoming and positive, given thanks where many of my peers risk professional and personal attacks and rejection. I am given a lot of freedom in exploring and promoting DEI, and many others who are just as capable if not more are not.

My wife, who is an immigrant with her own career and aspirations, asked me about a work dilemma, how to discuss a DEI-related concern she faced. I provided her all the potential strategies and solutions I’d use from being subtle to finding support, to a more direct confrontation, none of which was helpful because she faces obstacles and boundaries I don’t. What was for me a learning opportunity was to her a lived experience.

These are just a few examples, the list can (and should) go on.

For those of us in a privileged position, the hard truth I’ve found engaging with DEI is not that the bar is too high, not that we don’t belong in the conversation. The trouble is the bar is too low. Being able to listen, learn, not get defensive, and contribute when appropriate isn’t all that hard, and too often that’s all that’s asked of us.

I don’t have an answer to change the current expectations and dynamics in engaging with diversity, equity, and inclusion. What I can offer is a few of the perspectives and tools that have helped me, as someone in a very privileged position, work with unbalanced settings.

1. The word “and”

The most useful word I’ve had when reconciling and dealing with seemingly contradictory situations is to replace “but”, “yet”, “although”, and other similar words with “and”.

Example: Replace “More cisgender, white men like me should get involved with DEI, YET we also need to amplify the voice of the disenfranchised” with “More cisgender, white men like me should get involved with DEI, AND we also need to amplify the voice of the disenfranchised”

It’s a small shift, but one that is more active, more able to accept the tricky nuances we come across.

2. Tasks over vision

As someone who grew up thinking I was a “big ideas” person, I’ve come to find that it’s not terribly useful at all. Anyone can come up with big ideas, it’s getting from point A to B that counts, it’s in the implementation that an idea finds value. If our goal is to promote greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, that means to help guide the vision of those without the privilege to have their voice be heard.

Rather than say, “I have a really good idea, this is what we should do!” try “How can I help make your really good idea happen?”

3. Self-Effort

The final technique I’ll offer, and to get to the heart of hard conversations… put in the self-effort to be resilient enough, aware enough to be an asset instead of a burden onto others. DEI work isn’t just when we’re at a table with BIPOC professionals, isn’t just when we’re assigned on a committee. Have strong enough legs to not fall over if we’re called out for our bias. Have open enough minds when the priorities decided on differ from our own.

Research, meditate, watch documentaries, journal, put in the effort on our own so we don’t put the entire burden of guiding and teaching us on those who ought to be spending their energy fighting for a better tomorrow.

We cannot snap our fingers and even the playing field easy as that. What we can do is be aware of the tools, skills, and resources at our disposal, of the same for those facing prejudice and bigotry, and find ways to engage with each other to make great things happen. It’s not easy, and it’s worth it.

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