How does it feel to be a minority?
I’m not sure I really know.
Last week I spoke to a women’s leadership summit. I was one of only 3 males in the entire event of more than 270 women. “Was I nervous?” A friend asked as she helped me prepare my thoughts. “Yes. Very!” I replied. “I don’t blame you,” she said “I’m nervous too when I’m a minority outnumbered by that many.”
That’s when I was hit with a realization of my own male privilege.
“No,” I realized, “that’s not at all why I was nervous.” I was a bit stunned and confused. The fact that I would be a minority hadn’t even crossed my mind!
“Huh!” I thought. Isn’t that ironic?
While I was preparing to speak at a women’s leadership conference to a room full of women, I was indeed aware that I would be the only man — but I never considered myself a minority.
Even in an environment where I am the minority of one, I am apparently incapable of seeing myself as such! I see myself as inherently equal. That’s very much a white, male privilege thing, isn’t it? Us white men are are taught from the ground up that that we are capable, competent and top of the heap! The system that favors us, and teaches us to see ourselves as at least equal with everyone else.
That’s not inherently the same for women and minorities who clearly aren’t favored in that same system.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t know I was the only guy. I knew it. I acknowledged it. I saw it, but I’d simply never ever thought of it in terms of having a minority experience. Because, honestly, I didn’t have a minority experience. I might have technically been a ‘minority,’ but I had none of the experiences women may have in the reverse situation, or minorities feel almost constantly. I wasn’t afraid for my safety. I wasn’t afraid for my career trajectory. I wasn’t afraid I would be hit on or harassed with inappropriate comments (truth be known I was more afraid I would make stupid comments). I was afraid of being laughed at. I was afraid of making an embarrassing mistake.
Then I was reminded of a quote by the feminist writer Margaret Atwood. She interviewed some of her male and female friends, independently, about what they most fear of the opposite sex. This is what she learned:
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Men are worried about their ego. Women, their safety. My white, male privilege is being able to speak at a conference where I am a minority of 1 to 270, and still not having to actually experience what it’s like to be a minority. I still can’t seem to fully wrap my mind around this and the real lesson it teaches, but it begs the question: What else? What else as a leader do I miss and need to notice to be a more effective leader, a more compassionate human being, a more empathetic person?
What’s your privilege?