Five Ways White Males Can Address the White Male Privilege Problem

When I speak about the experience of learning to lead as a woman, almost every time I get a response from a white man in the room, expressing crippling guilt at his own privilege.

So I often say, “There is nothing inherently wrong with being a white male.”

And, “The fact that you are listening and asking questions means you’re on the right path.”

So, if you’re a person of privilege reading this article, you may be further along than you think. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a white male. Click To Tweet

Is There a White Male Problem?

If we communicate that the “white, male problem” is about skin color or gender, we leave an entire section of the population whose voice is no longer important, creating a new kind of marginalization. Instead, the “white, male problem” is an issue of viewpoint. The majority voice rarely sees its own subjectivity. Which keeps folks in the majority from seeing or leaving space for the experience and voice of others. So as soon as white men begin to listen to others, internalize the experiences of others and see their own subjectivity, we’re on the way to healing. By discussing a 'white male problem' we've created a new form of marginalization—@UCCMandy Click To Tweet

How to Move Forward If You’re a White Male

For those who see no way to overcome the guilt of privilege, here are a few simple ways forward. Part of the problem is not knowing what we don’t know so here are some postures to choose, even if we don’t know that we need to learn something.

I’m no social scientist but these are approaches I’ve watched at work:

Ask Questions

When the experience of others is strange to you, ask questions. Statements like “I’ve never heard that before” or “That’s different” shut down conversation. And avoiding hard conversations with minorities only perpetuates the misunderstanding. It’s okay to say, “Your experience is different from mine. Help me understand.” Minorities do a lot work to understand the majority way. Show them you are willing to put in the same effort.

Speak With Caveats

Speak with caveats when expressing your opinion or challenging the opinion of a minority. Beginning with “I’d love to hear your perspective on this: I’m thinking . . .” or “I may be wrong, but . . . “ creates space for the experience of others. It acknowledges your own subjectivity and invites conversation, trusting that the goal is for us to discover the way forward together. I know that in the white, male world, these kinds of caveats communicate insecurity. To women they communicate humility and invitation. Even if you feel pretty confident in your own opinion, it may be helpful to choose this kind of language for the sake of making space for difference. It’s okay to say, 'Your experience is different from mine. Help me understand.' Click To Tweet

Learn the Words that Trigger Shame

Learn the words that trigger shame. While most enlightened white men would never use directly derogative language, it’s important to realize that most folks who are minorities have had intensely humiliating language of marginalization directed at them so there is very real hurt. Your flippant comment may connect to a previous experience that shook them to the core of their being. Allusions to stereotypes can trigger shame or anger. For example, once a woman is labelled as “too sensitive,” how can she defend herself? There are many trigger words like this for minorities but don’t let it keep you from engaging. Ask questions to discover what they are. Minorities certainly are responsible for their own healing but it’s not your job to tell them that. All you can do is learn your part. Most minorities have had humiliating language of marginalization directed at them Click To Tweet

Broaden your experience

Broaden your experience. Find places where you can be the minority in the room. Any time we go through a big life change—living somewhere new, or the mind-broadening experience of education—we have to create a new space in our minds. When I was 15 I had only ever lived in Australia. Now that I live in the US, my entire life takes place in a space which I didn’t even have in my imagination at 15. Which makes me create more new spaces in my mind called, “Other things I haven’t experienced or don’t know.” That’s where the experience of others fits, especially those different from me. Broaden your own experiences to help create those spaces.

Embrace Your Role as an Advocate for Minorities

Embrace your role as an advocate for minorities. Unfortunately, the white men who most need to read this article are not reading it. But you may have an opportunity to speak to them on behalf of women and minorities. When you do, if they belittle or shame you for your defense of people who are different, you may have an opportunity to know the experience of minorities.


I’m aware of how this article could sound like “How to tippy-toe around the sensitivities of minorities.” It’s important to understand that minorities also do plenty of “tippy-toeing.” When you exist in a minority sub-culture within a broader, majority culture, you have to learn two languages—your native tongue and the one that allows you get jobs and connect with people who are different. Women and minorities don’t have the luxury of choosing to only speak their first language. It's not about tippy-toeing around minorities. Minorities also do plenty of “tippy-toeing.” Click To Tweet

Of course, women and minorities have the responsibility to find healing, seek understanding, set aside blame and victimization. But this article is not for them. This list is an invitation to white men to become bi-lingual like the rest of us. Here is an invitation to embrace your own subjectivity, learn your own need for others and, in so doing, begin to find solidarity with minorities. And we’ll come to see we’re all humans, who need healing and forgiveness.

And each other.

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