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9 Things NEVER to Say to White Colleagues

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”

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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