Lesson on privilege.
Once upon a time, in this same city, I opened, owned, managed and operated a small boutique law firm. I was so excited to hire another attorney and I a wonderful freelance attorney became part of my team. I admired and respected his work and he was a most interesting human being. Let’s call him Jeff.
Jeff was older than me, white, grey-bearded and looked like a typical “high end” attorney. He was very hardworking and detailed oriented and supported my practice for many years.
One day, a white male, who had done business with us in the past, walked in and asked to speak to the person in charge. The person, let’s call him Carl the Customer, was dissatisfied with something my support staff had told him – a deadline could not be met or something equally normal. When my staff informed me that a customer wanted to speak to the person in charge, I put on my suit jacket, checked my face in the mirror and walked out to the lobby.
Note a couple of things:
The name of the firm was “The Johnson Firm, P.C.” which reflected my married name at the time and I was dressed in a professional pantsuit and looked lovely with makeup, jewelry, cute hair and even high heels. I remember this distinctively.
I walked into the waiting area and the gentleman was rocking and pacing slightly which informed me that he was probably impatient.
“Hi, my name is Iyabo Johnson. My staff said you wanted to speak to me. How may I help you?” I asked stretching out my hand, smiling broadly and bringing forth my best customer service persona.
“No, I do not want to speak to you. I want to speak to your boss,” he said firmly and authoritatively.
As I pulled my arm back to my body, since he had not responded to my professional and polite invitation for physical contact, I said, “O, I am my own boss” and smiled sweetly. I noticed that he placed himself firmly in one place and did not move towards me as I had moved towards him when I entered the room. His arms were now akimbo on his hips.
“Get out of here. I want to speak to your boss, Jeff,” he angrily retorted as he began to get a little bit red in the face.
I said, “Sir, you must not understand. I am Iyabo Johnson and I am the owner of The Johnson Firm. Obviously, you are upset and I would like to be of assistance to you. As a customer, it is my job to make sure that you are ok. What happened and how can I help?”
Carl the customer raised his voice and said, “You are not the boss. I have done business with Jeff and that is your boss and I just want to speak to him. Not you!”
At this point, given that the space was not a huge office space, everyone in the office could hear his voice and Jeff came out of his office.
Jeff said, “Hi there, what is going on here?”
Immediately, Carl, the customer lit up and moved towards Jeff, “Listen, I am not sure what is going on here, but I need you to get your staff under control. This woman here tried to tell me she is your boss. I am not sure why your staff would say something like that. Was she joking?” He held out his hand to Jeff and beamed.
As the awkward pause began, Carl the customer said, “I need to go over some contract terms with you. Can we go to the conference room?” He began to move towards the work area behind the door of the waiting room and moved past me and Jeff.
Jeff, (much respect to him) laughed and said with an open palm gesture towards me, “Well, hold on. Let me properly introduce you. This is Iyabo. She is my boss. She is the attorney who owns this firm. She is the Johnson behind the name of this office, The Johnson Firm.” He placed the same palm on his chest and said, “I am just an employee.”
Carl the customer turned around and faced both Jeff and I as he had walked past us uninvited into the workspace reserved for employees.
His lips slightly parted, the redness coming back to his face said, “I don’t understand.”
I turned to Jeff and warmly said, “Thank you, Jeff, why don’t you use my conference room and make sure he is taken care of.” I walked towards the back office. The gentleman stepped out of my way and I looked him in the eye as I walked past him and said, “Thank you for your business. Let me know if there is anything else I can help you with and have a great day.”
Not one word. He said not one word.
Jeff helped him out and we never heard from him again. Jeff and I talked about it several times and he never quite saw it with the same lens that I did but I have revisited that scenario, millions of times probably, in my mind. I did not have the language of “privileged” back then to discuss it but I was always impressed with Jeff’s sensitivity and how he handled that, and so many, many other situations over the years that we worked together.
Precious reader, this was not that long ago. This picture paints one of the most painful experiences I ever had regarding privilege. You see, for me as an immigrant, woman of color, I just don’t fit into the default settings that calibrate privilege.
Let us get some learning in about privilege. What does privilege mean?
The origins of the term “privilege” can be traced back to the 1930s when WEB DuBois wrote about the “psychological wage” that allowed whites to feel superior to black people. Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels and gives advantages, favors, and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of target groups. In the United States, privilege is granted to people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups:
- White people;
- Able-bodied people;
- Middle or property-owning class;
- Middle-aged people;
- Thin people;
- College educated people; and
- English-speaking people.
Privilege is characteristically invisible to people who have it. People in dominant groups often believe that they have earned the privileges that they enjoy or that everyone could have access to these privileges if only they worked to earn them. In fact, privileges are unearned and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not, and regardless of their stated intent.
Unlike targets of oppression, people in dominant groups are frequently unaware that they are members of the dominant group due to the privilege of being able to see themselves as persons rather than stereotypes. Privilege is simply the opposite of oppression. Privilege describes what everyone should experience. When we use the word “privilege” in the context of social justice, it means something slightly different to the way it’s used by most people in their everyday environment.
Often, we think of privilege as “special advantages.” We frequently hear the phrase, “X is a privilege, not a right,” conveying the idea that X is something special that shouldn’t be expected. To illustrate: Nobody should be treated as if they are untrustworthy based on their race. But often, people of color – particularly black people – are mistrusted because of prejudice towards their race.
White people, however, don’t experience this systemic, race-based prejudice. We call this “white privilege” because people who are white are free from racial oppression. We don’t use the term “privilege” because we don’t think everyone deserves this treatment. We call privilege “privilege” because we acknowledge that not everyone experiences it. Privilege doesn’t mean your life is easy or that you didn’t work hard. It simply means that you don’t have to face the obstacles others have to endure. It means that life is more difficult for those who don’t have the systemic privilege you have. However, privilege is not entitlement.
Analogy: Two people decide to go cycling. They decide to cycle for the same distance but take different routes. One takes a route that is a bit bumpy but pretty much downhill. It is hot, but the path is a little shady. For this person, the path was challenging and was definitely a vigorous workout, but this person feels good for meeting the challenge of the workout. When the two people meet up, the other person says that the ride was awful for her. Her path was also bumpy but the road she took was at an incline the entire time. She was even more sunburnt than the first person because she had no sunscreen. At one point, a strong gust of wind blew her over and she hurt her foot. She ran out of water halfway through. When she hears about the first person’s route, she remarks that her own experience seemed so much more difficult. Yet it was the same distance, and both rode their bikes. This is what privilege looks like.
Examples of privilege might be:
“I can walk around a department store without being followed.”
“I can get to a meeting late and not have my lateness attributed to my race.”
“I can drive a car in any neighborhood without being perceived as being in the wrong place or looking for trouble.”
“I can turn on the television or look to the front page and see people of my ethnic and racial background represented.”
“I can take a job without having co-workers suspect that I got it because of my racial background.” “I can send my 16-year old out with his new driver’s license and not have to give him a lesson about how to respond if police stop him.”
(Source: Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women Studies.”)
I tell my clients, “Do NOT apologize for your privilege. Become aware of it. Daily increase that awareness and make it a tool, an effective tool that you know when to use and how to use it.”
In my story above, Jeff did not earn the respect and regard of Carl the customer. It was granted to him as a white male. It was unfathomable that Jeff, a middle-aged, white, genteel man, would work for a black woman immigrant with a “funny” name in Carl’s mind. My race, gender and name cost me future business with Carl.
Jeff, on the other hand, probably did not have language and experience to fully understand what had happened. He was aware that it was a disrespectful encounter, but I am sure he never thought about it through the lens of privilege.
This week, I watched this video closely and I saw “white privilege” all over the place. The white male was not even listening to the painful lived experiences of the black woman. He just wanted her to be “polite and nice” and he negated her reality. Take a step back, watch this with what you have learned above and make a quality decision to do better. You won’t always get it right, but at least begin having an intentional relationship with your privilege.
What are you going to do this week to convert your privilege into a tool?
More by Iyabo:
Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).
Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).
Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com
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