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9 Things NEVER to Say to White Colleagues

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9 Things NEVER to Say to White Colleagues

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Frank McCloskey’s wife of 31 years, Debbie, talked about her husband with her new coworkers, telling them about his job as vice president of diversity for Georgia Power. During lunch one day, Debbie, who is white, had just finished telling a story about Frank’s diversity efforts when a colleague of hers said, “I want to tell you how courageous it is that you are married to an African American.” Oops! Frank is white.

Too often, white men–and to a lesser extent, white women–are assumed to have no role in diversity-and-inclusion efforts. But white people who are heterosexual, Christian and not disabled can and do champion diversity efforts. To assume otherwise is like assuming that talented Black or Latino executives do not exist.

To further explore stereotypes about white people in the corporate-diversity world, DiversityInc talked to several white men intimately involved in diversity-and-inclusion efforts. Here are nine things they suggest never saying to your white colleagues.

1. “You’re a carpet-bagger” or “Why is a white guy doing this?”

It is often said in murmurs but not openly talked about that white people involved in the diversity industry are carpet-baggers, people involved for the money rather than the mission. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc, takes offense at such sentiments.

“A person at a financial institution [who works in diversity] said I’m only making money from diversity. But if she is working in a diversity department, isn’t she making money off of diversity also? Now that we got past the fact that we both make money on diversity, let’s look at what we do for diversity,” says Visconti.

2. “You’re not diverse”

Diversity includes white people. It is incorrect and insulting to use the word “diverse” to refer to people other than white heterosexual men with no ADA-defined disabilities. All people are included in the concept of “diversity.” As a result, properly executed diversity management benefits all people in an organization.

Also, too often, non-white people assume whites don’t come from a diverse background or have any experience with different cultures. Some white people also make this mistake.

Visconti makes the point that in today’s America, many white people have a personal involvement with traditionally underrepresented groups. “Twenty-two percent of American households have a biracial component,” says Visconti. “Practically every family has an LGBT component, and many people have a non-visible disability and/or will develop an ADA-defined disability in their lifetime.”

Moreover, Visconti affirms that to assume a white person cannot have a true, heartfelt connection with diversity is historically wrong.

“Benjamin Franklin was the president of the Anti-Slavery Society, William Lloyd Garrison founded the abolitionist newspaper ‘The Liberator’ and was a mentor to Frederick Douglass, and Lyndon Johnson had a profound change of mind and became an advocate of civil-rights and anti-poverty legislations. Many white people have been and still are at the forefront of societal change to eliminate oppression and increase equity,” says Visconti.

3. “There’s no way you as a white person can understand”

But the knee-jerk response is “If that’s true, then why should I try to understand?” says Howard Ross, the white founder and chief learning officer for Cook Ross, a Maryland-based diversity consultancy.

Don’t beat up your white colleagues by cloaking them in the shroud of “ignorant oppressor” while wearing the shroud of “victim.” Look for the personal stories that will develop commonalities and shared ideas.

“Now at some level that’s true–I can never be an African American, Latino or Asian American. But also, it minimizes the various levels of discrimination that everyone deals with and can understand through the human dynamics that apply to all people,” says Ross.

Visconti adds that saying you can’t understand because you’re white is treating a white person as if he or she is ignorant of culture and diversity issues. “It belittles the good intentions [white people] may have,” says Visconti. “It doesn’t progress the discussion. Considering that nearly [one-quarter] of U.S. households have a biracial or multiracial component, you should never assume a white man or woman is not intimately involved with issues surrounding diversity.”

4. White men are automatically “in the corporate in-crowd”

Being isolated or segregated from the in-crowd is not unique to executives who are Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, people with disabilities or LGBT people.

“For the most part, [white men] don’t feel they’re included or privileged,” says McCloskey. “Unfortunately, it’s too easy to put [that feeling] at the foot of race, diversity and gender initiatives. Corporate America by and large doesn’t do a good job of feedback. I hear from white men that ‘I don’t think I’m a part of something and I don’t know why.’”

McCloskey adds that corporate leadership must rid itself of subtle behaviors that create disengagement and mistrust, “not only for African Americans, women and other dimensions of diversity but also for white men.”

5. “You’re just a typical white person”

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Yes, Barack Obama said it and was thoroughly chastised for describing his white grandmother as a “typical” white person. The implication in such a statement is that all white people are alike, and that white people are all predisposed to be prejudiced. But characterizing anyone based on the presupposed behavior of a group is a slippery slope that leads to confusion and miscommunication, says Ross.

“Any language that sees white people as a group, such as ‘typical white men,’ is as offensive to white folks as it is to people of color,” says Ross. “When branded ‘typical white person,’ it diminishes them and creates a sense of hopelessness and that [they are] never going to be anything other than a ‘white person.’”

“Don’t assume I don’t want to learn,” adds Visconti.

6. “You KNOW you’re being racist”

In the absence of concrete evidence, don’t assume that a comment considered prejudiced was the result of a conscious thought process designed to stereotype, says Ross.

“We’re learning that an overwhelming number of decisions people make are not made by bad intentions but are made by people blind to their own behavior,” says Ross. “Rather than assume that a person intended to be sexist or prejudiced, assume they didn’t mean any malicious intent.”

McCloskey adds that often people who are not white assume whites know their behavior is racist or prejudiced: “But being in a place of privilege is such a powerful place to be that the assumption is that everyone is living my life experience.”

Ross says people should stop before they reply to a comment deemed prejudicial and ask themselves if their reaction is the result of thinking the white person is like “all white people” or is a person who “happens to be white.”

“If I’m dealing with them as ‘all white people,’ my triggers will be [switched],” says Ross. “If I’m dealing with them as ‘a person who happens to be white,’ then they’ll be [communicative].”

7. “You talk about us when we’re not around”

Being in the majority group provides freedom from the constant concern of race issues and fear of people who do not share your racial or ethnic background. So white people usually are not talking about Blacks, Latinos or Asian Americans when people from those groups are not around.

“Generally, we’re being oblivious and doing our thing,” says Visconti. “Being oblivious doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you oblivious.”

8. “You’ve got all the money”

“My first response is, ‘No, I don’t,’” says Jeff Hitchcock, executive director for the Center for the Study of White American Culture. He adds that while the majority of people who are poor are white, it is true that the percentage of whites who are poor is less than the percentage of Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans who are poor.

But such a comment uses broad generalization to make a point. Generalizations rarely are the best way to open up the lines of communication on a one-on-one basis.

Hitchcock also says that many people mistake the make-up and the purpose of his organization, assuming that any reference to white culture must be a veiled reference to white supremacy. To dispel that notion, he put the following in bold letters on the center’s homepage: “Not an organization for white supremacists as some people might infer, we are instead a multiracial organization that looks at whiteness and white American culture.”

9. “I don’t like white people” or “I don’t get white people”

Unfortunately, people do communicate things like this. “In a business setting, a person probably wouldn’t respond, but people can give off vibes,” says Hitchcock. “Sometimes I get that vibe from people of color and I don’t know if it’s me giving off a vibe or it’s them–it’s probably both.”

Hitchcock contends that it’s tough not to acknowledge that anger when considering a history that included slavery, segregation and systemic racism. Such a national culture forced Black people, Asian Americans and Latinos into subservient roles. But, he says, assume the best rather than assuming the worst when interacting with people.

“As a white person, you should be aware of that history and how that has led us to the present,” adds Hitchcock.

“What gets me in trouble is thinking that my truth is the truth–holding onto some idea I need to let go of and I’m holding on to it because I’m comfortable,” says McCloskey. “You’re saying, ‘You adapt to me.’ I’m saying leadership in the past has been rewarded for forcing others to adapt. It’s time for leadership to expand its ability to adapt to others who are different.”

 

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36 Comments

  • Thank you. As an African American working in Diversity I have never uttered any of these, but am quite appreciative of the perspective. Inclusion should aim to validate the point of view of everyone, white people included.

    • Johhny Gwuen

      Good points. Appreciate oyur honesty, however we are also not just a color. We are European-Americans. We have an ethnicity just like every one else. Too bad the well intentioned author doesn’t get his obvious to me raisal biased in his words. Thanks.

  • As someone who has spent their life in the promotion of cultural diversity in Australia I find this article enlightening.
    Australia is a multicultural and multi-faith society, but we do not determine diversity by colour, as much as by culture, language and faith.
    So, I find it very interesting that when I come to the USA I am a ‘white guy’ whereas in Australia I am a Greek Australian, or a ‘multicultural Australian’ or more clumsily a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Australian or CALD Australian.

    • Johny Gwuen

      Yes, I am a European American, but the media including this article, will only address us as a simple color, but would never do that as you can see to other groups as all can plainly see. I guess it is today’s racism.

  • Ok so I hear you, but as a someone actively involved in anti-oppression work I have a hard time with the idea of telling people : “You shouldn’t say…” I think that white people who understand their privilege will know what stuff is theirs and what isn’t. However I have to say, I’m not one to stereotype people because I myself break a lot of stereotypes, but some things are so widespread its hard not too. Working in activism and social justice efforts, I encounter soooo many well-intentioned white people. The problem is not their ignorance, ignorance can be worked with, the problem is the denial of ignorance. Over and over I meet people who will say: “Well none of MY relatives had slaves” or “My dad marched on Washington, I’m not racist” or “I’m poor so I don’t benefit from being white”. These statements wear me out. White people benefit from a racist society without having to lift a finger or intend for it to happen. Its not about just interpersonal stuff, its systemic and widespread. Often white people in social justice work get frustrated by being asked not to dominate the conversation or be the face of the movement. Often they want all the acceptance without the work. For me, its not a choice to be in the struggle. I’m latina, I’m queer, and I come from poverty with limited access to college. Classism, racism, sexism, homophobia are part of my every day. I fight because I want a world that has room for me in it without constant violence and discrimination. I dont have the option to go back to sleep or to seek “the quiet life”. So when I work with white people who burn out easily and go on hiatus for long periods because they can, or who get frustrated with not getting to be leader (like they are in most of the rest of their life), or who cant accept that the number in their bank account doesn’t reflect the benefits they’ve had from able-bodied whiteness… it tests my patience a LOT. This doesn’t mean its all white people but it is so frequent that its easy to fall into assumptions when people make familiar statements, or do familiar things that mimic patterns I’ve seen before. All this to say, if your feelings are easily hurt by the above statements I have a hard time believing that you are conscious of these things I’m talking about. The trick is to remain teachable.

    • You make a lot of good points and I am sorry that your life is such a constant struggle. It cannot be easy for someone like you living in a society like ours. However, you are still treating “whiteness” (i.e. “able-bodied whiteness”) as a monolithic thing. Sure, white people do receive some benefit from being white. But there are many facets to a person in addition to their skin colour. Witness my family history; we were ethnic German immigrants immediately following World War II who did not speak English, only German. We were poor, having left a decimated Europe that was in huge economic depression. We were “the enemy” (and still are in many Hollywood movies). Do you not think we faced widespread discrimination and hatred, despite being white?

      • Luke Visconti

        I’m not familiar with how people of German decent are treated in Canada (where you’re from). However, I’d think that, 70 years and four generations after World War II, a white German-Canadian can visually fit in far better than a black Caribbean-Canadian, unless you’re at the W.
        I looked up economic disparities in Canada and don’t seem to find them for German-Canadians. That’s my litmus test for fairness.
        Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • ” This doesn’t mean its all white people but it is so frequent that its easy to fall into assumptions when people make familiar statements, or do familiar things that mimic patterns I’ve seen before. All this to say, if your feelings are easily hurt by the above statements I have a hard time believing that you are conscious of these things I’m talking about”

      This quote sounds a lot like what you say you are against. Whether you see patterns or not, people are still unique. I’m Norwegian-American. I’m unique. If I have privileges that a non-white person has, then I guess I do. Obviously you mean something other than economic, because whether you want to hear it or not, it’s true: there are many people (of all races) in a higher economic class that have a lot more privileges than I do. Do you think I can better myself by realizing I am privileged and appreciate it? Nothing wrong with appreciating everything in life. But, I think I will just concentrate on trying to be a decent person. I’m doing my best to have a happy and productive life, and one can’t do this with a pile of guilt weighing him/her down.

    • Dear Mariah!

      Beautifully put!
      I thank you for your provoking, thought-evoking, and inspiring self-disclosure!
      My favorite radio station is Latino Mix,
      And I am a white American chica, who was born in Hungary. .and a vegan for 20 years. .
      Besitos. .Vanda

  • The problem with people, and I’m saying people to include everyone black white purple green blue and orange, is not that they’re racist or ignorant. it’s that they’re so afriad of offending someone, so afraid of speaking their minds that they feel they have to say something like “my family didn’t own slaves”, “my dad marched on Washington…” they think that because they are born a certain color(which by the way NONE of us choose, just as we don’t choose our parents or the financial class we’re born into) they have to compensate, or feel guilty. do i think anyone should put another down simply because of their race, class or educational level? absolutely not. however, if someone wished to not be defined by the color of their skin, money or education, they have to work hard to break the stigmas forced upon them from birth. I am a middle class white female and i’ve had moments where people have looked at me and asked “what would you know? you’ve had everything handed to you. you’re beautiful, educated and well off.” all of those things are just an assumption that an ignorant person made when they looked at me after i had expressed an opinion. the truth is i have not have everything handed to me, i had to work just as hard to get into college, just as hard to pay for things and just as hard to be accepted. my parents started out dirt poor when they got married and it was through perseverance and hard work that they got to where they are today, that and good financial planning. instead of saving his paycheck and investing, my father could have spent it on drugs but instead he chose to be wise and rise above temptations of the world. white people live in the same world as black blue purple yellow orange and green people, we have to go through the same struggles. we should not be blamed for the history that this country had to go through. i’m not stupid enough to believe racism is gone, it is alive and kicking. but it’s not just the white people the fuel it. i work with black people who do not talk to me and look down at me because of the color of my skin. there is a girl at work that doesn’t even talk to me because she believes that i am so different from her simply because i have less melanin in my skin than her. how is this right? how is it right for there to be a black people connect or an BET? if a white person were to start a company simply for getting white people hired, they’d be stormed with pitchforks. there is a double standard. i don’t know who set it up, but it goes both ways. and don’t get mad and say without those things, black people couldn’t succeed. that’s crap, because before the internet, people of all races were working hard without the help of social networking created just for their skin color.

    • Luke Visconti

      There are no purple, green, blue or orange people. By phrasing your comment that way, you dismiss people who care very much about who they are and how they’re described. Majority people (in any culture) often make this mistake, because they don’t see themselves as anything but “neutral”—that’s why we don’t capitalize the “w” in white, but do capitalize the “b” in Black. The rest of your comment suggests that you have a long way to go to overcome biases that are deep within your thinking. You don’t have to do that, but if you do I think you’ll find your life a lot more pleasant as our country continues to become dramatically more diverse—and the globalization of business means that just about every business will do business globally and/or compete with global competitors. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • buggabreathes

        Neither “black” nor “white” is capitalized when used as a description to describe paint, crayons, skirts, or the hue of a person’s skin.

      • You believe that she is ignorant because she does not agree with your opinion. Being considered ignorant due to the paleness of skin is no better than judging PoC bases on other stereotypes. This PC world we live in makes it impossible for any white person to have any opinion without offending someone. I have friends that are white, black, gay, etc. and I like them for their minds and what they add to my life. I don’t disregard what they say based on a “label” society has assigned them. In fighting for equal treatment it is important to remember that equal treatment includes everyone.

        • Luke Visconti

          Whenever you see “PC,” it’s someone bemoaning the loss of being able to insult people at will. Instead of worrying about the damage the insults delivered to the productivity of the organization, the person is expressing the damage he or she is doing by being unwilling to evolve to adapt to today’s workforce. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Have you ever heard of white privilege Sarah? It is an interesting thing, you should look into it.

      • Johny Gwuen

        Yes we have heard of that racist term Taylor. Why don’t you worry about your own bigotry?

    • Poor thing. I find it truly interesting that you feel that you are being blamed for this country’s history. I find it interesting that you believe that you go through the same things that any person of color goes through. In a country that adheres to a single standard of beauty, I find it interesting that you feel that people disapprove of you and your “whiteness” for the simple fact that you are white. Poor you. Poor middle-class, white, american, college educated female. The fact that you don’t even realize that you benefit from a society that since its inception has been dominated and run by the racial group you are part of speaks volumes. You don’t have to be a multi-billionaire to have the same intrinsic benefits of being white as those that are. You don’t understand that as a white female in a white dominated society you have a position of privilege whether you choose to acknowledge it and take advantage of it or not. You’re probably a believer in “reverse- racism” and pulling the “race card” as well. While the article argues that diversity includes all people, it is telling that in this society, diversity is considered all that are non-white and how whites can learn to tolerate them in a politically correct manner. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Until you have experienced the plight of another, you will never understand why the things you say come off as racist or why you are treated as just another “pretty white girl” who doesn’t understand. Educate yourself.

      • Most of you come off very whiny and not caring. So you were born white and don’t like being grouped with white culture and can’t understand why people treat you the way they do. Or, you were born whatever else and don’t like being grouped as such and feel like white people will never understand. Get over it. You are what you are through the eyes of whoever looks at you. I learned at a young age, through being different from most people around me and military service, that the color of your skin has no bearing on who you are. But, nobody cares about who you are. Nobody wants to hear how good/bad you had it because of your skin/culture or how privileged you think someone else is. If you think people care, you’ve got a very hard lesson to learn. Stop crying about skin color. It’s old. Pick yourself up and prevail. The past cannot be changed, but that doesn’t give it the right to control us now.

      • Johny Gwuen

        I enjoyed the article, but then was sure taken surprise by so many racists on here like Lauren. Your words have more holes than your heart does.

    • Dear Sarah!
      I can relate to some of your comments..and I used to think like that before I became educated about white privilege issues
      Sarah..the world is not that simple. ..and you will develop much more compassion, and understanding as you keep educating yourself about these issues… I know you can grow….you have a good heart…

  • Susannotatwit

    Just because a person does not intend for a statement to be racist does not make it any less offensive. These are teaching opportunities where we can politely point out a preconceived notion that is not correct and correct it. We all need to examine our thinking and prejudices about lots of issues. It is best to try to always be a listener, share your ideas in a respectful manner and do your best to keep an open mind to incorporate new ideas. Extend yourself to others and make yourself approachable to others. I found this article to be a big finger shake at the accuser. When an idea is wrong or a person makes a generalized statement it is helpful to acknowledge it and discuss it. Even with all the good intentions and policies, it will take much more of an effort mostly for white people to start realizing they have beliefs that may not be right. There are many people who do and say the right things, then as soon as they can, they express how they only did or said that cause they had to. It is shocking to me as a white person how many times a day people put down people of different races and religions. Americans are arrogant and think we are the best and we are so right. The truth is we are human and we don’t know hardly anything about people of different cultures and are too thick headed to make an effort to learn. I can do better at this too and I will. I hope we all do.
    SM

    • “Just because something someone says wasn’t meant to be racist doesn’t make it any less offensive”…… Um…well it should. In your statement, you imply that one would now ‘know’ that the person didn’t mean to offend…..yet….you’re saying that they should still be labeled racist….

      • Luke Visconti

        It doesn’t work that way for any other subject. If I tell you that you’re fashion challenged and clearly needing a reflective surface in your house, it’s offensive. It doesn’t matter if I’m ignorant or “trying to be helpful,” it’s just offensive. If you have any doubts, it’s best to keep your comment to yourself. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Lol #2 is so perfect. So on spot if I look back at my life :)

  • as a non-white growing up in a community of whites, I can understand & sympathize with a lot of what is going on…

    I don’t think “white people” are bad… or are out to “get us”….

    actually, they were trying to help us most of the time….!

  • Matthew Foss

    Yes, diversity does include straight white men, although most companies disagree. A lot of “diversity training” does seem to mostly be directed at white men and how they and they alone need to be respectful and tolerant of other cultures.

    White men certainly are quicker to get in trouble for inappropriate comments than their female or minority counterparts. I remember saying “that’s gay” about something and getting reprimanded meanwhile another time a black co-worker addresses me as “white boy” and nobody bats an eyelash.

    • Luke Visconti

      I agree with you. Bigots come in all races, ethnicities, genders, orientation, and with and without disabilities. I know plenty of white men who have spent a lot of time on this subject when they didn’t have to do a thing. Food for thought. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Mixo Lydian

    Just as it is important to understand that deeper diversity exists within labels like Black and Hispanic, it is also helpful to realize that White (or white) is also a broad label with layers of diversity inside. In the US, “White” can describe a wide range of people, all the way from a well-resourced, college-educated ”son of former slave owners” to an impoverished Uzbek who immigrated this morning. Both are “White,” both are lumped together as being not ”of color,” and therefore both are suspect of gaining power based on their skin color. Although the former has vastly more privilege and power than the latter, neither can benefit from scholarships, grants, or other programs available to people of color. Our society continues to welcome immigrants from all over the world, white and non-white, for whom our history of slavery is much less relevant than the financial challenges most of us face today. Our society also allows many of its citizens (in Miami, 1 in 4) to live in abject poverty, and the wealth gap continues to grow wider for all races. I contend that the color that affords the most privilege in this society is not white, black or brown, but green, the color of money.

    • Luke Visconti

      I disagree. Class and race trump money, which will take you only so far. No matter how successful a Black person is, s/he will still be followed in stores, especially stores for posers like Barneys and Abercrombie—and the white “impoverished Uzbek” will, on average, get superior service. However, no matter how wealthy the white Uzbek becomes, or how intelligent s/he is, with a public-school education, s/he will struggle to be included in elite circles. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • “Diversity” by definition is the *state” of being diverse. It makes absolutely no sense to say “diversity includes white people”.

    • Luke Visconti

      You’re wrong. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Johny Gwuen

      European Americans in their thoughts are some of the most diverse group there is. Our positions from sports, to politics, to religion is so diverse like very few others. You name it, we do it.

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