When I first heard the words “white privilege” years ago, I bristled at the term. My colleague, Pastor Sims and I were mid-conversation, so I didn’t tell him it bothered me. I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway. As I reflect back on that moment, I remember feeling ashamed that I didn’t fully understand a term I thought I should know. And I recall feeling defensive because I didn’t like being labeled because of my skin color. I didn’t see the irony at the time.

White Privilege Defined

Feeling racial stress, which was also new to me then, I looked the term up on Wikipedia. White privilege means that those of us who identify as white have unearned advantages not usually experienced by people of color under the same circumstances, based on a system – social, political, economic, etc. – created by white people. Unaware of my advantage but curious, I dug into the subject. It was my sister that shared Professor Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the invisible knapsack.” Peggy, who is white, identifies 50 daily effects white privilege has in her life that she’s pretty sure her African American colleagues and friends can’t count on. Looking through Peggy’s lens, I began to notice my advantage, even in a grocery store. When I opened a package of cookies to snack on no one would question whether or not I was going to pay for those cookies. My colleagues of color may not get that same benefit of the doubt.

Similarly, Gina Crosley-Corcoran in her Huffington Post article, “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person,” explains that she was initially hostile to the idea of white privilege. In her case she exclaims, “my white skin didn’t do shit to prevent me from experiencing poverty.” But after being directed to Peggy’s work, Gina came to a new understanding.

Crosley-Corcoran writes in her Huffington Post article, “There are a million ways I experience privilege, and some that I certainly don’t. But thankfully, intersectionality allows us to examine these varying dimensions and degrees of discrimination while raising awareness of the results of multiple systems of oppression at work.”

If there are a million ways I experience privilege that I’m not even aware of, my first step is to take notice, and become more aware.

Stand-up Comedian Illustrates White Privilege

My business mentor, Kellee Sikes recently shared with me probably the best spoof on white privilege I’ve come across. In the last four minutes of his somewhat raunchy SNL Stand-up Monologue, comedian Louis C.K. simultaneously illustrates, reflects on and enjoys his version of white privilege. He notices his privilege and acknowledges it to the audience. I laughed out loud. Then upon further reflection of his monologue, I realized he didn’t change his behavior. This likely made it funnier to me and his predominantly white audience but for those often on the other side of that attitude, it’s probably not funny.

Being white and of majority American culture, I’m often unaware of the impact of my words and action on those who identify with minority groups. Therefore, I’m no expert. Yet, I’ve grown. Now, when I do notice myself acting into my privilege, like Peggy McIntosh describes, I slow down and acknowledge it. I stop pushing my own agenda and start listening. With cultural intelligence, I can appreciate different perspectives and adapt my words and behavior to another’s cultural context. In cross-cultural conversations, I now work to adopt an attitude of learning and take an interest in another person’s experience, and learn their stories. And when cultural intelligence is present in a conversation, both of us can feel valued, heard and engaged.

Three Steps We Whites Can Take

Initially, the shame I felt around my privilege would silence me, stifle a conversation, and ultimately a connection with another person. Over time though, I started seeking to learn other perspectives, hearing people out and owning any cultural mis-steps that made me come across as uncaring. Although I felt vulnerable and awkward, the acknowledgement of a mistake was so often met with grace. Feeling more courageous in confronting my white privilege now, I…

  1. Notice my advantage,
  2. Acknowledge my behavior and words and,
  3. Act in a way that honors the other and me (i.e. stop, listen and hear the other person out, even if I don’t agree or completely understand).

Even as I take these steps, it’s still awkward more times than not. Yet the rewards are far greater than the temporary pain. I now enjoy a depth in relationships and authentic friendships never before experienced. And I get to share this grace with my colleagues and clients. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

*In a Series of interactive workshops with Dr. Narishkin, “Awkward to Awesome: Boost Productivity & Diversity with Cultural Intelligence,” you can acquire the skills and attitude needed to help you and your organization ensure that no one is side-lined or silenced and everyone can contribute and feel valued. Why wouldn’t you want your whole team working at their top level of productivity in a low to no drama environment? This is the outcome for culturally intelligent organizations.