The AltoPartners Guide to Diversity and Inclusion : What are white privilege and white fragility? And how can people and companies change things?

October 13, 2022 Share this article:

White Fragility

“White privilege to a white person is like water to a fish.” – White social worker Brittany Alfarano

The term white privilege, which originated in the United States in the 1980s, refers to both the obvious and the hidden advantages afforded to white people by systemic forms of racial injustice.

The definition looks simple enough – but it is a controversial term, liable to cause division in the workplace if not understood. We break it down step by step.

First, some basic definitions from writer Cory Collins at the Learning for Justice initiative in the southern United States:

Racism: the set of individual- and group-level processes and structures that are implicated in the reproduction of racial inequality.

Systemic racism: when these structures or processes are carried out by groups with power, such as governments, businesses or schools (think of Apartheid in South Africa as an example).

Bias: a conscious or unconscious prejudice against an individual or group based on their identity.

Racism and bias rely on racialisation – the grouping of people based on perceived physical differences, such as skin tone.

What white privilege doesn’t mean

Collins notes that the concept of white privilege packs two connotations that inspire pushback.

First, the word “white” creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race. Second, the word privilege sounds like it does not apply to white people who are poor or disadvantaged in some other way.

But the use of the term “white privilege” does not suggest that white people have never struggled, nor that all white people have enjoyed privilege. White privilege is also not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; many white people who have achieved success worked extremely hard to get there. White privilege is separate from one’s level of income or effort.

What is white privilege then?

Feminist magazine yes! describes white privilege as the “reality that a white person’s whiteness has come – and continues to come – with an array of benefits and advantages not shared by many people of colour”.

A key aspect of understanding white privilege is to recognize that it often shows up in behaviour based on a white person’s lack of awareness that they hold power. White people move through the world comfortably; they are unaware of that; and their lack of awareness translates into a set of assumptions about how the world works, which they then unconsciously use to judge others.

Examples of white privilege

An Australian study sent trained testers who differed in ethnic appearance to bus stops asking the driver for a free ride on the basis that their bus pass was faulty (which it was). In 1,552 observations of whether testers were allowed a free ride or not, white testers were accepted during 72% of the interactions against only 36% for Black testers. That study demonstrates a key facet of white privilege – being given the benefit of the doubt in a situation in which a person needs help or support.

Peggy McIntosh, who is credited with coining the term white privilege, provides an illuminating list of the daily effects of white privilege. Three examples of how the world works for a white person:

  • I can swear, dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  • If traffic police pull me over or if the revenue service audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

In the workplace, manifestations of white privilege could be:

  • If you’re white, imagine that you are going for a job interview and it is stated that certain hairstyles (braids and dreadlocks) are unacceptable in the workplace. If you don’t notice the line about the hairstyles, that’s white privilege.
  • If you do well or are a high achiever, are you worried that others will be surprised or tell you that you are a good role model for others of your race? If not, that is an example of white privilege.

And what’s white fragility?

When white people are accused of white privilege and react with defensiveness or outrage, that’s white fragility. Reactions can range from shame, guilt and fear to avoidance and defensiveness.

What can individual leaders who are white do?

All white people can start with acknowledging their privilege and accepting that they will do the wrong thing. And when they do, they should apologise, learn and move forward. As United States writer Ijeoma Oluo puts it: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that’s the only way forward.”

Jane Farrell, co-founder and chief executive of EW Group, a diversity and inclusion consultancy, has some tips for white leaders to raise the level of awareness in their organisations:

  1. Listen to what Black people inside and outside their organisation are saying about how current events capture their lived experiences of micro- and macro-aggressions (for instance in the criminal justice system or politics).
  2. Have difficult conversations about anti-racism. First, they should work to understand how racism operates, how white people benefit from it and how advantage and disadvantage works in their organisation.
  3. Don’t expect Black people to explain the issue. Black people being asked to bare their souls about their lived experiences is not the way to go.
  4. Know what not to say - saying “all lives matter” detracts from the reality of structural systemic disadvantage. (And leaders shouldn’t say they don’t see colour. The goal is not to stop seeing colour, but to stop making decisions based on colour.)
  5. Think very carefully about any statement they make and ensure they back it up by outlining what practical measures they are going to put in place to deal with racism.

What can companies do about it?

Simply appointing more people of colour is not the answer. As Sonal Agrawal, co-founder and managing partner Accord India / AltoPartners India and global chair of AltoPartners, said in a previous AltoPartners article: “It starts and ends at the top. The CEO and the Board must talk and walk the agenda and consciously craft a culture that accepts and celebrates differences and ensures equality.”

Companies can start by ensuring that line managers are trained to understand how advantage and disadvantage play out. It’s valuable to carry out a forensic analysis of recruitment and selection and data about who is – and who is not – being appointed to what positions, how long Black staff stay in the organisation compared with white staff, how pay is broken down by ethnicity, and employee satisfaction levels.

Leaders should also ensure that staff running internal diversity and inclusion networks are rewarded (ideally paid) for their time, rather than working on a voluntary basis (which simply leads to minorities having to work doubly hard), writes Alice Allan, Business Fights Poverty Challenge Director.

Above all, writes Allan, heed the words of a placard seen during BlackLivesMatter protests in London:

‘Treat Racism like COVID-19’

Assume you have it

Listen to experts about it

Don’t spread it

Be willing to change to end it