Ask the White Guy: Privilege and Where Paula Deen Went Wrong

Question:


Who here is willing to be fired or ridiculed or demonized for something that happened SIX YEARS ago I think this is a knee-jerk, offensive reaction by a society that has become ENTIRELY too sensitive.

Answer:

Seeing or experiencing redemption is extremely powerful. In this case, I describe redemption as the process of turning away from wrongdoing and taking positive steps to redress the past. Enlightenment, especially self-enlightenment (epiphany), is a key part of redemptionand, in my opinion, even more powerful when it results in redress for wrongs committed inadvertently. If well thought out, statements of apology that reveal enlightenment, epiphany, redemption and heartfelt sorrow are so powerful that healing and restoration can begin at once.

In that regard, nobody should be demonized for something that happened six hours ago if they’ve seen the light, taken action to redress wrongs committed, and asked for forgiveness.

But that’s not what happened here. Rather than thinking about what happened and talking with people to gain context and clarity, Paula Deen went off-the-cuff in one of her video apologies and said what was in her heart: “Your color of your skin, your religion, your sexual preference does not matter to me ”

“Does not matter to me” is deeply insulting to people who have already been hurt. I doubt Paula Deen meant to hurt people’s feelings, but she compounded the damage done with this comment. She expressed white privilege in making an omnipotent disregard to how people describe themselves. You’ll hear white privilege express itself when people say, “I don’t care if you’re Black, brown, purple or polka dot” without understanding how deeply insulting it is to be told you’re equal to something that doesn’t exist (polka dot). Another example of hurtful obliviousness: “You’re not like one of them, you’re like one of us.” The recipient of that backhanded compliment cannot help but be insultedas they ARE “one of them.”

White privilege is not earned or asked for, it’s something that you’re born with if you’re part of the majority culture, which in this country is defined as white, heterosexual, Christian and without disability. The problem for people in the majority culture is that it’s practically impossible to understand what it’s like to not be in the majority. It’s something not even thought of, much less understood, and that’s why it’s very rare to hear a good apology when it comes to situations like this.

I don’t think that most people who say things like this are trying to be purposefully insulting, but it sure ends up being received that way. Paula Deen destroyed her own career by dismissing the use of the N-wordwhich compounded all the other things she did, such as considering a plantation-themed party with all Black waiters or allowing a family member to repeatedly call a Black cook “my little monkey.” The apology she issued was exceptionally selfish and oblivious.

Which brings us to your second sentence: As a society, I think we’re becoming APPROPRIATELY sensitive.

Within the last week, two diversity executives from two different companies were commiserating with me about having to handle “feedback” from (self-described) heterosexual people about LGBT Pride Month and same-gender medical benefits. I made the point that people have the right to their opinions, and leadership has the responsibility to provide a workplace that is free from oppression, because that is the FIDUCIARY RESPONSIBILITY of leadership. Hurtful or demeaning (intentional or not) comments from people, such as “When’s Heterosexual Pride Month” destroy productivitynot only of LGBT people, but of heterosexuals who have LGBT people in their circle of family and friends. Several of the comments shared with me rose to the level of immediate dismissal as far as I’m concerned (they were hurtful tirades expressed as providential truths), for creating a hostile work environment. Rather than hand-wringing, there is clear action to be taken.

One of the most powerful examples I’ve heard was from a CEO of a large insurance company. He told me that two of his direct reports were vociferously opposed to same-gender medical benefits, but that he believed it was an essential thing to do for his people and his business. I asked him how he was planning to handle those direct reports. He said with a clear sense of pride: “They no longer work here.”

I’m not sure there’s anything Paula Deen could have said after the deposition to save her business position. She was so cavalier about her behaviorso oblivious to the hurt she caused, the trust she violatedthat she only expressed true remorse about the damage to her own career. That’s not redemption.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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