It was early December, 2000, and the unresolved presidential election was in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. I was at a holiday party where I knew the host and some of the guests very well. There were also some friends of the host there who I typically caught up with only at this annual event. Steve, the man I was talking with, fell into that category. He said, “Ken, you know I’m not homophobic and I’d love to hear the gay perspective on Gore v. Bush?”
I can’t help smiling as I remember Steve’s question, a gift revealing so much about the stories we tell ourselves.
“Steve, how can you possibly say that you’re not homophobic?” I said in a tone that I hoped sounded kind and not accusatory. “How can anybody who grew up in the United States say they’re not at least a little bit homophobic? I’m homophobic and I’m gay. I didn’t even admit to myself that I’m gay until I was 35 because the world around me—at school, all of media, and even in my family—had convinced me that being gay was one of the worst things anyone could possibly be.”
Steve and I continued our conversation. I told him that what I’d said about homophobia applied to racism and sexism as well. These had been drilled into me every day at school and by the television shows, movies, advertising, and songs of the day. I told him that almost every one of my textbooks and educators, starting in first grade and continuing through graduate school, would have me believe that all the great achievements in science, art, government, and sports belonged to white men. People of color were depicted almost exclusively as primitives if not savages and white women were mentioned mostly as helpmates and caregivers, born to provide support but never leadership. I told Steve that I’d work the rest of my life to get homophobia, racism, sexism, and other power over patterns completely out of me and out of my workplace, family, and everywhere else where I have any hope of making an impact.
They still live inside me and show up too regularly:
- One afternoon I noticed three African-American young men laughing with each other as they headed toward me on a sidewalk in Newark, NJ. I reached into my pocket to secure my phone and wallet. Observing my own behavior, I challenged this racist impulse by reminding myself that these young men were behaving exactly the way that my white son and his friends do when they are on their way somewhere together. I relaxed, smiled, and said a quick “hello” as they passed. They returned my greeting.
- When opening business meetings, I remind myself to remember the importance of everyone having equal time to voice their contributions and receive validation. I note my tendency to listen more carefully to human beings whose names begin with “vice president” than those who hold lower organizational titles. I note my lingering tendency to listen to men more carefully than women and white people more carefully than people of color. I recall times when I have caught myself enacting these classist, sexist, and racist patterns. I once caught myself just after I had interrupted an African-American woman who was one of the members of a team I led. I stopped speaking and apologized to her. I also told her and the others present that cutting her off was my racism and sexism rearing its ugly head and that, unfortunately, this continues to happen sometimes despite my best efforts.
- After interviewing an employment candidate, I told a colleague that I thought my interviewee may be a great fit with the team but worried about their health and stamina because they were extremely overweight. My colleague said, “You have no idea what kind of health problem may be lurking inside of any of us and to make an assumption that this person is close to having a disability is all kinds of problematic. I’m glad you told me what you’re thinking because it’s called body shaming and you need to own it and get past it.” The person in question turned out to be an extraordinary member of our team.
Bias and oppression:
I mentioned that I almost used my institutional power as a leader to decide against hiring a skilled professional because of their body size. How many times have hiring managers rejected a candidate for this reason or because of their skin-color, gender, or sexual orientation, all of which have nothing to do with their professional qualifications? How many times do people of color, women, queer people, and people with disabilities leave a job because their coworkers in small but cumulatively powerful ways make them feel unwelcome? Bias means I like or dislike something. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and body-shaming are biases backed up by institutional power. They are forms of oppression. Negative bias can be harmful. Oppression, on the other hand, destroys careers, lives, families, and communities.
I worked for a time within a school-based family counseling clinic where I was the only man on the staff. At one meeting, the agency’s leader wondered aloud whether I sometimes found myself on the receiving end of “sexist oppression.” She said, “You’re the only man here and it seems like we’ve been wrapped up in bridal and baby showers these past few weeks. I hope you don’t feel “oppressed by a bunch of sexist women.”
I told her that not for one moment did I feel oppressed. I remember telling her that, while I was the only man within the agency, I could walk over to the public high school we served and be in a place where the principal and superintendent were male. I mentioned that the governor was male and, moreover, that the majority of people who held positions of power everywhere were male. I had absolutely no reason to fear that the school system or any of the other institutions of our society would back an effort to mistreat me because of my gender.
Even if this leader had held a bias against men and mistreated me accordingly, this would not have been sexism. Sexism is the ancient and enduring system in which all major institutions (governments, communities of faith, educational systems, mainstream media, and large workplaces) treat women as though they have less value than men. The world has never devalued people simply because they are men.
Even small acts of resistance matter.
Just as our complicity with oppression matters, so does our resistance to it. Together, we continuously shape the institutions that create our society. Together, we are those institutions. Our resistance matters even when it takes the form of speaking just a few words. At a conference some years back one of those present repeatedly said, “There are men and there are women.” I can’t remember exactly what point he was trying to make with this pronouncement and, knowing him, I am absolutely certain that he did not mean to offend anyone. I, however, felt compelled to interject, “I just want to add that there are human beings who do not identify as either men or women.” The man who had spoken agreed entirely and thanked me for saying that. Years later I was speaking with a colleague who made a point of saying to me, “I want to thank you. Years ago, we were at a conference together and you spoke up for the existence of trans people when I was feeling like their existence was being denied. I wanted to speak—my sibling is trans—but didn’t have the courage. I’ll always remember what you said and how it helped me feel comfortable again in that meeting.”
Privilege and oppression:
Privilege and oppression are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. Women being paid less than men for the same job (sexism) means that men are receiving more pay than women for that job (male privilege). African-American defendants given more significant jail sentences than white defendants for the same crime (racism) means that lesser sentences are being given to white defendants (white privilege). When same sex couples could not obtain the legal protections of marriage (homophobia) the fact that only opposite sex couples were able to receive these protections was an example of heterosexual privilege. Sexism cannot exist without male privilege, racism cannot exist without white privilege, homophobia cannot exist without heterosexual privilege, and so on. This is how power over works. For every oppressed group another group receives privilege. The remedy to privilege and oppression, the foundation of power with, is equality. Equality, the foundation of power with, will be the remedy.
Institutionalized Power Over Creates Privilege and Oppression
Class (Organizational Level) Privilege/ Classism
Able Privilege (Including Mental Wellness Privilege) /Ableism (Including Mental Illness Stigma)
Beauty Privilege/Body Shaming
Acknowledging the realities of privilege and oppression and accepting where we stand personally can make us feel deeply uncomfortable because, mainly, we take our privileges for granted. It may be difficult for a white person to see that not having to worry that we’ll be followed by a department store’s security staff as a suspected shoplifter is a privilege—but it is. Cisgender people may not be aware that it is a privilege to never have to worry that we may face assault as a result of our gender expression. People who live with heart disease, diabetes, migraines, and back problems may occasionally talk with their coworkers about how they’re doing with these conditions. They benefit from the concern and support they receive. Some of these people may never have imagined that this sort of supportive conversation is a privilege generally unavailable to people who live with anxiety, depression, and addiction disorders.
It’s a privilege to actively demonstrate racist, sexist, and other oppressive behaviors and not be held accountable for the impact of these behaviors upon others. We may never have been asked to consider how saying “that’s so gay” in the presence of a person struggling with accepting their sexual orientation may contribute to their feelings of isolation and despair. We may never have been challenged when we’ve made disparaging comments about people who practice a particular faith or people who live with disabilities. We may have made hiring, promotion, or key assignment decisions that were shaped at least in part by our sexist concern that a female team member, because of her gender alone, may be less devoted to her work than her male colleague. Because it can be uncomfortable to look at the ways that the world grants us advantages and the ways that we participate in sexism, racism, and other oppressions, we often resort to an all-too-human solution: denial.
Moving beyond denial:
How many times have you seen an interviewer on one of the cable news shows ask their on-air guests to opine on whether or not one public figure or another, usually an elected official, is a racist? The question always gets asked in a tone fraught with tense anticipation, as though the interviewer might just as well be asking whether the guest thinks that individual is a serial killer.
The tension surrounding this question reflects our dilemma regarding whether or not we can tell the truth about our power over system and the privileges and oppressions it requires. For well-intentioned people to benefit from the privileges delivered by this inherently unjust arrangement, without feeling bad about it, we must deny what is happening. Our denial shows up when we:
- Resist examining our own racist, sexist, and homophobic thoughts and behavior and, as a result, continue them unchanged.
- Become defensive rather than appreciative when our ideas and behavior related to diversity and power are challenged by others.
- Reflexively defend rather than critically examine and work to make the institutions with which we identify more inclusive.
Our denial of oppression and privilege is what makes the question “Is (insert public figure’s name here) a racist?” so fraught with taboo, so full of potential for drama, and, hence, so irresistible for broadcasters. The question leads nowhere constructive, however.
Imagine a broadcast in which the interviewer asks a different question: “Given that we’re a society struggling to overcome racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism, how do you think (insert name here) is doing at challenging their own racism, sexism, and homophobia and leading us toward a future built on equality?” This question removes the need to deny the “isms” that live within the institutions of our society and us as individuals. It opens a path that leads away from power over and toward power with. The question frees us to say, “Of course, given my background and experiences in this society’s power over system, I have been indoctrinated into these ways of thinking and behaving. This admission does not make me a bad person. On the contrary, it frees me to examine myself and make healing changes in the ways I think and behave. It frees me to recognize another way forward.”
This admission also empowers me to challenge others from a place of love and understanding. When Steve, the man I mentioned at the start of this piece, said “You know I’m not homophobic and I’d love to hear the gay perspective on Gore v. Bush,” I saw that in one sentence he had managed to both deny and demonstrate homophobia (imagine asking a heterosexual person for the heterosexual perspective on Gore v. Bush). I also understood that I have done similar things too many times to count. I challenged him knowing that he and I are in this together.
I’ll bring this piece to a close by paraphrasing the words of great minds such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Paulo Freire: Pretending neutrality means siding with those who oppress. We are either working to end the attitudes and behaviors—in ourselves and in the institutions of the world around us—that support power over or we are supporting the continuation of those attitudes and behavior. There is no neutral ground.
I will continue to work on this aspect of radical self-awareness personally and share additional insights with you along the way. I look forward to hearing from you as well.
- Accepting that I have internalized racist, sexist, and other oppressive attitudes does not make me a bad person. On the contrary, it means I’m being honest about the ways that the world around me has shaped my thoughts and behavior.
- Acknowledging my participation in racist, sexist, and other oppressive patterns of thought and behavior can be a powerful first step toward change.
- Denial is the enemy of personal and systemic change.
- Vigilance regarding my own behavior and appreciative response to constructive feedback from others are essential for deepening self-awareness and increasing positive interactions with others of all backgrounds.
- My behavior matters because, together with others, we shape institutions–workplaces, government, educational systems, families, communities–as they shape us and those who come after us.
- Power over systems strive to create us and them distinctions. Power with systems strive to affirm that there is no them, only us.
Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, LMFT, SPHR, is an award-winning leader, speaker, consultant, author, and family therapist. He founded GreenGate Leadership® in 2017 after retiring from his role as Vice President, Health and Wellness, at Prudential, where he was responsible for behavioral health services. His team’s work led Prudential to receive the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Organizational Excellence Award. Ken was honored with the 2017 Leadership Award from the Employee Assistance Society of North America (EASNA). The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ New York City Metro Chapter named him 2016 Corporate Leader of the Year. Ken has authored four books and numerous other publications. He is a monthly NBC TV affiliate on-air guest and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine and other media. Learn more at www.greengateleadership.com