Stopped in My Tracks
Recently, I came across a striking passage from So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo. She’s a Seattle-based activist who was often an F.O.D. in her circles. With stark honesty, Oluo writes:
“I began to see how unaware of our privilege our group had been. We had been patting ourselves on the back for creating this great community, for creating a home for people of color in a hostile city—and our unexamined privilege had kept out those most negatively impacted by overwhelmingly white, wealthy Seattle—those who, unlike us, could not cushion some of the blows of racism with at least some of the indicators of success that white Seattle valued.”
These words did more than give me pause. They made me think hard about my work at Leverage to Lead. About my clients, my readers, and the spaces we occupy.
And I think about who I’m not working with or writing to. Whose lives I’m not impacting because they stand outside the margins of my work.
The truth is, I’ve been confronting the issue of unexamined privilege for a long time, both personally and professionally. I think a great deal about what I’m doing here and for whom, about the limitations and constraints of my perspective on career strategy.
Today’s article is a deep dive into the personal. I’m taking a hard look at my own privileges and how they impact my work. My privileges challenge me with discomfort, guilt, shame, and even regret. I promise you, they don’t go unexamined. But they have, for too long, gone unspoken. Until now.
Seeing Ourselves and Others
It goes without saying that within a group identified by race, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, or other shared characteristic, individual differences are plentiful and diverse. There is no singularity to being Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, immigrant, or female. Of course. And yet these terms still operate to encompass a lot of people at once.
I mentor and lead and write about women and people of color. My clients are as diverse as they come, but they cut across certain lines that need to be acknowledged. They are high achieving, professional (often executive), high-earning, formally educated. Despite their encounters with bias, discrimination, exclusion, and hostility, my clients carry these privileges. So do I. I chose my job title, Executive Career Strategist, carefully and with intention. It tells people who my clients are and who I choose to help, which is a small fraction of the population.
None of this likely comes as a surprise to you. So why am I taking the time to say it? Because if I don’t, my words run the risk of giving a false impression that anyone can leverage their difference for advancement, better choices, and higher compensation. I want to take responsibility for how my work—my career strategies, advice, and analysis—excludes certain groups.
Examining Our Privileges
I don’t write this to deny the reality of my clients’ struggles against a white normative culture that regularly denies them opportunities. Without a doubt, we have a long way to go for women and people of color in corporate America.
Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge the privileges that got them here, which are not available to many.
The Privilege of Safety Networks
Our work together very often pushes my clients to take risks with great courage. I see them leave a steady job to start their own business. They move across the country and change industries. They lean on their nest egg to develop a passion project. All of these risks require a certain level of stability and security, plus a fallback plan.
For myself, I had the privilege to quit my job and live on a smaller income while I built my business. Many of my life’s circumstances were already designed to support my risk: my husband still had his work; we didn’t endure huge commutes to work or school; we had loving families who would step in without hesitation if we found ourselves in need.
The Privilege of Education
Attending college is a privilege, even if we pay for it ourselves and work hard for every opportunity. If you have the time and capacity to work hard, earn the tuition, and figure out the education system because you were not raising children, caring for elders, overcoming a disability, or struggling in another way to simply maintain a basic quality of life, it’s a privilege.
The Privilege of Cultural Capital
Put simply, cultural capital means knowing how things work or having the capacity to find out. You may not enjoy many privileges within the system, but the system itself is not a confounding mystery to you because of your language limitations or lack of exposure. Imagine the immigrant who doesn’t know how to fill out their children’s school paperwork. Imagine the nineteen-year-old with zero work experience not knowing how to follow chain of command. Imagine anyone who doesn’t know their rights.
Strange as it may sound, your exposure to white normative culture and your capacity to adapt to white normative values is a privilege. Understanding and working within white cultural norms means you can navigate people and situations with nuance and savvy, you can calibrate your actions and expectations, and you can fit in–sometimes.
The irony is strong: adapting to white normative culture can be oppressive and force you to filter your difference and authentic self. And yet knowing how to do it in the first place is what opens up certain choices and opportunities.
The Privilege of Negotiation
My clients hold positions in industries that value experience and achievement. They can leverage their expertise for higher compensation. Many hourly workers aren’t safe to ask for a raise. Neither are my clients performing commoditized work like house cleaning, landscaping, or child care. Seen as dispensable and replaceable, these employees risk their very jobs by asking for what they deserve. And no matter how many years of experience they accrue, their salaries will never rise commensurately with their skills or experience.
What Helps Can Also Harm
Sometimes, in my strategies and my writing, I use “we” and “us” to talk about collective experiences of bias. I do think my client-base can relate to common experiences, but I certainly want to acknowledge that my clients and readers comprise a specific set of people whose circumstances and privileges give them the capacity to follow my advice.
For a much wider sector, my advice would not only fail to work, but it could truly be dispiriting. It would render them, their story, and the reality of their circumstances invisible. Not everyone can change jobs, ask for a raise, push their supervisor for better accountability practices, or disrupt bias.
Though my strategies may not be impactful for these people, it matters that I see them.
It matters that I acknowledge racism as a system that presses more heavily on some than others.
It matters that when someone with a little more choice and opportunity begins to leverage what they have, it can look from the outside like others are simply choosing their own oppression.
Protecting My Work from Misuse
I say all this for several reasons: 1) it’s true; 2) it’s my responsibility; and 3) it protects my work. What I mean is, the last thing I want is for my work to become weaponized against the most vulnerable, marginalized, and invisible groups out there.
I am aware of how executive career strategies for confronting bias and advocating equity can be twisted. How anti-equity voices can say, ‘See? You have a road map for success, start working harder.’
The risk is that my work can be used as a call to ignore oppressive structures.
Where I Stand
I love my work. It’s what I know and what I’ve lived. And yet why, instead of helping the unemployed, the unskilled, the inner city, do I help executives? Why do I help people who have already risen to the top? Why don’t I help those who are struggling to make it?
The simple answer is, that’s not what I know.
My answer also goes back to our need to dismantle harmful group identity. Because I’m black, I’m assumed to be able to speak to all black people, regardless of their background, regardless of whether we share anything else in common besides race. My father was in the Air Force and I moved around like other military kids. I can’t just step in front of any group of black people and know their stories, their experiences, their culture.
Even though there is no such thing as a singular black culture, I can’t help but feel some shame in not being able to cut across lines of class, privilege, experience, language, and background. I used to feel uncomfortable about the way I talked in front of my cousins, suddenly sounding not like the military kid I was, but less black than the rest of my family.
What I Can Sit With
All that said, the truth is that I struggle with feeling a little complicit. I struggle with the idea that I might be teaching people how to be better players in an oppressive system instead of attacking the system itself. I worry that my focus on executive-level biases makes other working conditions seem less important.
I’m not sure I have a good answer here. I know that we all, myself included, need to get comfortable with discomfort and learn to sit with conflicting ideas. Maybe this is true for me—maybe I need to sit with the discomfort of knowing that some workers are too preoccupied with gaining access to clean water to worry about whether they work in a toxic company culture.
Knowing Our Responsibility
We ask white people all the time to be aware of their complicity, to name their privilege, to understand how they benefit from white normative culture. The truth is, everyone with privilege should be responsible for doing the same. We all need to do this hard work. How can we expect others to if we’re unwilling?
Despite the complexities, challenges, and many ways we fall short, I remain extraordinarily optimistic. I am hopeful that change, growth, and awareness can still be gained from my work. I am hopeful for my clients and the spheres they are impacting.
Through our work some of my clients have come to the realization and the capacity to invest in the work of other women of color. These are more than simple stories of charity or paying it forward. For me, they are examples of changed outlooks, of expanding consciousness.
It helps me see that my work gives women new freedom, time, and choices, with which they can live their values, get creative, and channel their energies into building their own paths toward crucial work no one else can do.
The Importance of Seeing and Naming
I realize none of this adds up to the kind of career strategy I usually offer in these articles. I’m sharing these thoughts because I want to stay committed to transparency, reflection, accountability, and honesty. I want to own my limitations.
And I want to stay personally aligned with my professional practices. I tell my clients that they deserve to be seen. That invisibility is a form of oppression. Which means I need to see, acknowledge, and name many others, even those—especially those—whom my work doesn’t reach.
I know they’re not reading this right now. Know that I’m seeking out ways to enter into different spaces, to broaden my understanding and my reach. I’m going forward with an open mind and heart. This is most certainly something I will return to and write more about, with updates on my progress and growth.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive her newsletter directly in your inbox, please sign up here.