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  • Writer's picturePooja Sachdev

How do you teach someone about White privilege?

The issue of White privilege[1] and racism has been all over the media recently, triggered by the “big exit” of Harry and Meghan from the Royal fold, and the consequent debates (on TV and across social media) about “whether this is about race”, “whether we live in a racist country”, “whether the media is racist” and, most interesting: “whether a White person can even answer that” – because, the argument is, racism is not something that can be fathomed, let alone understood, from a position of White privilege.

Lisa Nandy famously defended Meghan on Good Morning Britain recently, asking Piers Morgan (who claimed Meghan’s treatment by the media had nothing to do with her skin colour): “How on earth would you know? As someone who’s never had to deal with ingrained prejudice, you’re not in a position to understand people who have.”[2]

According to Kimberly McIntosh, a Senior policy officer at race equality thinktank Runnymede Trust (as quoted in the Metro on 25 Feb 2020)[3], “explaining what racism is, in any real or substantive way, is damn-near impossible in a few short minutes of a live broadcast.

Most broadcast media outlets are only interested in speaking about racism in reductive terms... So, you end up on live TV, trying to explain racism, once again being shouted down by someone with little to no expertise or personal experience. And it is unbelievably draining to go through this”.

Her comments resonated with me.

Like many other people of colour, I’ve often been left frustrated with my inability to explain why I think I (we) are treated differently because of skin colour or accent or gender. It’s not always obvious or easy to pinpoint, particularly in today’s day where racism and sexism isn’t as overt as it used to be. Political correctness has driven racism under the surface.

There are new forms of discrimination now which are ‘modern’ and ‘aversive’ and harder to see. As I’ve said before, in some ways, life was simpler when you were just called a Paki in the street... at least you knew where you stood![4] And so I’ve often ended conversations about this topic (even with close friends) with “you just wouldn’t understand!”.

Yet, this leaves us at a dead end.

How are we to move forward with our discussions on race and inclusion if we simply “cannot” understand each other’s experience and perspective?

A sensible approach is to try to collect ‘evidence’. For example, some writers have, very helpfully, rounded up instances that highlight the difference between the way Kate and Meghan have been treated by the media for the same actions.[5]

But in most cases, we don’t have the luxury of having a bank of evidence like this to validate feelings of marginalisation or discrimination. How do you “prove” racism from a single incident, or even a handful of incidents, particularly where it’s more subtle? How do I know whether this is someone’s unconscious bias playing out, or just that they don’t particularly like me? Where there isn’t an overt expression of racism or an obvious pattern of behaviour, we can never be sure of the motive, and this leads us to question ourselves – unable to trust our own instincts – and as a result, we often keep it to ourselves. And over time, the tongue-biting and self-doubt builds up inside our psyche and changes who we are: as individuals and as a society.

And it’s not just those on the receiving end of racism that are biting their tongue.

It seems that we are at a point in our society where we are all scared to say anything for fear of getting it wrong – either for saying something that might be construed as being racist (when it’s not intended to be), or that might be construed as “using the race card” (even if in our minds it’s not a ‘card’ but a truth).

And if we are all scared to say anything... how do we make any progress?

How do we approach the subject of racism and raise awareness, in a way that is honest, productive, positive and leads to learning rather than defensiveness and backlash?

That is the big question.

Clients sometimes ask us for training on racism or White privilege – which raises a significant challenge: how do you “teach” someone about a topic, if you can’t even talk about it constructively?

Many trainers use exercises like the “privilege walk”. This is where participants line up and they take steps forward if they can answer positively to statements read out by a facilitator, such as “I have never been the only person of my race in the room” or “I am heterosexual” or “I have never felt poor”. (In case you haven’t seen it, here is a video demonstrating it[6]).

The idea behind it is that it visually and experientially brings to light the different kinds of privilege we all hold (or lack) – whether it’s because of our race or sexual orientation or money or something else – and it demonstrates how certain people have unfair advantages over others in our society.

The exercise is powerful. It evokes strong emotions. It raises awareness. But does it create learning and change? I’m not so sure. It’s like the horrifying images of cancerous lungs on cigarette packets – they evoke a strong negative emotion in the moment, but do they stop people from smoking, in the long run? I don’t know.

Here is why I don’t like to use exercises like this:

When people feel strong negative emotions, the primitive part of the brain can mistake this for a “threat” and respond in a “fight or flight” way rather than a more thoughtful way. We tend to become more prejudiced and defensive. This is not conducive to learning and empathy.

In fact, an exercise like this, (particularly if conducted without a very strong basis of trust), can create MORE rifts between people as it highlights differences, forces personal disclosure, induces shame and guilt (and defensiveness), and heightens “us-them” thinking.

As Chris Yates and I discuss in our book[7], “much of the work in diversity and inclusion to date is driven by threat and fear – fear of legislation, lawsuits, penalties, backlash, or the fear of being excluded, of saying something ‘politically incorrect’, of being called a racist or of not fitting in. When our actions are driven only by primal responses of avoiding threat, they are limited, defensive and not always reliable.”

Rewire Book: How to shift mindset and culture to enable real, sustainable change in diversity and inclusion. By Chris Yates and Pooja Sachdev

Here are four suggestions for making conversations about topics like this more effective...

So, what should we do?

1. Create the right conditions first

Before we can have productive conversations and build our own and others’ understanding of emotive topics like race and privilege, we have to create the right conditions in which our minds are open, and learning can take place. We have to create an atmosphere of trust and safety, where people can have honest conversations without feeling like they are being judged or doubted when they speak their mind.

We have to demonstrate and uphold two core conditions: honesty and respect. These go hand in hand. People need to trust that they are able to state their point of view authentically and that they will be accepted and heard when they do so, even if the other person disagrees or has a different perspective.

Without this, conversations will continue to feel adversarial, and people will continue to be defensive.

2. Teach people how to really listen

We have to help people to learn how to really listen. That means listening with a genuine intent to learn and to understand, not to debate.

This is not something that always comes naturally – especially in organisations that are competitive or highly performance-driven (which most are!), where people have to constantly ‘prove’ or promote themselves, where winning rather than learning is rewarded, and being rushed is the norm. In those environments, this can feel counter-cultural. Yet, it is critical.

We have to teach people that communication is not always about winning an argument or proving a point, or demonstrating one’s own personal knowledge and expertise. We need to practice being respectfully curious and adopting a position of ‘not knowing’ so we can be open to hearing about someone else’s lived experience. Because without truly understanding each other’s perspective, we can’t really move forward.

3. Meet people where they are

When we design presentations or workshops, we often focus so hard on the content and topics we want to cover, that we forget to think about our audience. Who are the people in the room? Before we can teach someone, we need to reflect on:

• where they are coming from

• what perspectives they bring

• what their desires and hopes are,

• what their fears are, and

• what their starting points are...

And take that into account in what we say and how we approach the issue.

A training session is an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of empathic communication we want people to adopt.

4. Don’t ignore feelings

Finally, we need to bear in mind not only what information (“key messages”) we want people to leave with, but also how we want them to feel when they leave.

We need to design for ‘head’, ‘hands’ and ‘heart’: Information isn't enough. Yes, people need to know what the issue is, what behaviour is expected of them, and how to do it. But, most importantly, they need to care.

At Rewire, all our workshops are experiential, practice-based and designed to tap into empathy and emotion. Our vision is to help people move away from seeing this as a ‘difficult’ issue, into a hopeful space that empowers and inspires everyone to play their part in being the change they want to see.

These are the building blocks on which any presentation or training course or workshop or conversation on the issue of race and privilege should be based.

Rather than shutting down and opting out of these discussions OR going at them in anger and defensiveness, we can choose to be thoughtful, open, respectful and empathic.

I can understand why Reni Edo-Lodge published “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” back in 2017. I totally get it, and there are some days when that is exactly how I feel.

But I’m not willing to give up just yet.


Further reading:

The term ‘White Privilege’ dates back to a 1989 essay written by an American feminist called Peggy

McIntosh, where she describes privilege as an “invisible backpack of unearned assets” or social advantages.

Image of Peggy McIntosh

The essay is entitled “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account Of Coming To See Correspondences Through Work In Women's Studies", an excerpt from which can be found here.[8]

She states: “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege... I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious”.

These are some examples she outlines:

1. I can if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. 2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of being shown housing in an area which I designate as one in which I would want to live. 3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbours in a new location I choose will be neutral or pleasant to me the day I move in. And so on.

While set in a particular time and social context, the essay was ground-breaking in that it started to raise academic and wider awareness of a previously unspoken truth of minority experience, and the intangible nature of privilege.


[1] Wikipedia defines White privilege (or white skin privilege) as “the societal privilege that benefits white people over non-white people in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise under the same social, political, or economic circumstances” [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]


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