Alice Jennings was the great-granddaughter of a Confederate soldier. She grew up in Tennessee without electricity or running water and attended segregated schools. She infuriated her family by marrying a Yankee from Massachusetts. One of her sons married a Black woman. Another son, Kevin, is gay and would have been considered mentally ill before 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. He was 10 years old then.
“In one generation, my family went from a legally segregated country to one with an African-American president,” Kevin Jennings said. “It’s important to recognize how recent things are.”
Jennings is the assistant deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). He told his family’s story to DiversityInc’s audience of chief diversity officers and executives at our two-day diversity event in Washington, D.C., where he talked about how ingrained sense of privilege and attitudes about what is “normal” can impede further movement.
To attend DiversityInc’s March 2–3 event, featuring New York Times Columnist Frank Rich, Ernst & Young Chairman and CEO Jim Turley and others, click here.
Jennings pointed out that of the United States’ 44 presidents, only nine presided after the end of legal segregation, only eight have presided after homosexuality was no longer classified as a mental illness and only one is not a white man.
The presidency is a reflection of the unearned privilege of the nation’s dominant group, in which that group views that its social, cultural and economic experiences are what’s “normal.” That privilege, Jennings explained, confers invisible advantages, even in 2010 where bigotry is no longer acceptable in polite society. For example, Jennings talked about Arkansas School board member Clinton McCance, who lost his board position after posting on Facebook that he’d prefer that all gay people commit suicide. While his fellow board members would not stand for his bigotry, those same people may not recognize the subtle, systemic barriers to diversity.
Jennings offered three tips for individuals to overcome their addiction to privilege:
- Check yourself. Avoid using the word “normal” when you’re talking about facts, not perceptions. “‘Normal’ is a value judgment. ‘Norm’ is a statistical fact.”
- Be an ally. For those accustomed to privilege, a member of their group speaking out against injustice or pointing out bigotry may have more impact than hearing from a person outside of that group.
- Believe the impact. When someone comes to you about a problem, don’t minimize it.
Jennings offered three changes for systems to cease to operate on privilege:
- Distinguish your organization from the norm. He provided an example of teachers putting up posters in their classrooms with words typically used to put people down and telling students that they would not allow those words in their classrooms.
- Target recruiting.
- Put your money where your mouth is. Mentor across networks. Invisible networks pervade institutions. Open the networks to everyone, starting with executives and members of privileged networks having mentors who are not part of their suites or networks.