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Do White Men Care? October 23, 2013

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.
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There’s an assumption that being a white man is easy, that if you are white, you’re right and can do whatever you want, there are no holds barred; a selection of jobs, promotions galore, choices in where you live and no suspicious sideways glances based on colour.  Simply put, because you are white you are perceived to have everything and be part of an ‘exclusive’ society.

However, during my coaching and training sessions, I have come to realise that white men do care and don’t always have it easy.  I recently investigated allegations of racism, made by a black woman against a white man.  The white man was devastated that he had been accused of what he considered a heinous crime and the resulting effect this allegation, even when not upheld would have on his professional life.  There was no evidence to indicate that he had behaved in a way that could be construed as racist and the allegation was dismissed.  I was nonetheless conscious that just the nature of the allegations and the investigation would have a devastating effect on him and his future behaviour.  The impact might even spiral; he would be hyper-conscious of his behaviour towards black and minority ethnic staff, who in turn could interpret his resulting, cautious behaviour as racism.  And so the cycle continues…
 
There is a flip side to the coin.  Managers have told me informally during breaks (in training sessions) that they, at times, feel pressured to overcompensate in dealing with women and black and minority ethnic staff, due to the fear that otherwise they could be perceived as discriminatory.  They felt they had to go the extra mile to justify their decisions, to the extent that, on occasions, they even considered allowing poor performance to continue rather than confront the member of staff concerned due to the attendant risk of being labelled racist or sexist. 

One manager said he regularly gave in to an individual’s requests to finish early on Fridays although he knew it wasn’t legitimate for this staff member to finish early.  But, on the two occasions he had refused, he was accused of being racist and somehow it seemed easier to cave in to an unjustified request than confront allegations of racism. 
 
During one-to-one coaching sessions (white male) managers have shared (with me, an Asian woman) their anxieties and dilemmas about ‘getting it wrong’.  They recognise that the coaching process is a safe place to air and explore views, without worrying about knowing the right answer.  Interestingly, many managers acknowledge that they feel unable to discuss these concerns with colleagues or the Human Resources team, as they fear raising such issues might have detrimental repercussions on performance appraisals or promotion (‘inadequate management skills / knowledge on diversity issues’). 
 
One manager told me that he was under considerable stress at work – he had witnessed sexual harassment toward younger women.  But he felt unable to expose this harassment as he knew that, if he did, he would be ostracised by the men in the team – and wouldn’t be invited to after work drinks to catch up on the office politics and promotion prospects.  He was also conscious that, in the current economy, he simply couldn’t afford to whistle blow, as staff were being made redundant by the very same men who were harassing the women.  Feeling powerless had caused the same man to suffer from headaches and nausea as well as anguish as to what sort of a role model he was to his five-year-old daughter.
 
The underlying theme in all these situations is the fear of being ‘told off’.  A director, in his late fifties, from the north of England said he had been reprimanded publicly when he used the term ‘coloured’, and was told unequivocally that this term was offensive.  He explained that he had understood that using the term ‘black’ was considered insulting and hadn’t realised that the ‘politically correct’ language had changed.  He said he wished someone had explained this to him rather treating him with contempt in front of colleagues as this had made him feel humiliated.
 
There is a saying that ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing (Edmund Burke)’.  The ‘good’ white men I have met over the years genuinely do not know quite how to promote equality and this compounds their biggest fear – being perceived as evil.  When confronted with the seemingly incomprehensible labyrinth of unwritten rules as to what is deemed as acceptable practice, I certainly do not see these men as evil; simply (and sadly) helpless.  

 

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Comments»

1. Jeremy Marchant - October 29, 2013

It would help greatly if more people understood that, when we take offence (whether we call it racism, sexism or anything else) the offence is something *we* create.

It is not possible for one person to *make* another feel, believe or do anything. People that argue that they were made to respond in a certain way by external forces, that they were therefore under the control of these forces, risk, in England, being sectioned [detained and treated without their consent] under the mental health act 1983.

Equally, it would be was well if people stuck to the concept of ‘no rights without responsibilities’. In other words, noone has the moral right to do anything legal, if the consequence is that others suffer, or might suffer. Of course, politicians flout this idea all the time but, as Oliver Wendell Holmes observed “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic”.

If I know that calling someone “scrambled egg” will deeply offend their religious principles (however barmy I think these are), I shouldn’t do it. But, if I don’t know it, and I call them “scrambled egg”, then I have made a simple mistake (“helpless” in your blog (last sentence) seems a little harsh).

For the offended person then to throw a self-righteous tantrum betrays their lack of confidence in their beliefs and they would be better off erring on the side of caution, assuming I made a mistake.
The trouble is that most people do not choose, or are not able, to hold these two ideas in their heads simultaneously.

I‘ve written more on this here: http://www.emotionalintelligenceatwork.com/harassment-v-free-speech.

Incidentally, like many quotations, there is no evidence that Burke said “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. At least, unlike many misattributions, it broadly reflects his views.

2. Alyson Malach - October 30, 2013

This is too simplistic. Managers need to manage, staff need to be educated, everyone needs to understand what constitutes racism- most don’t know. PC is an offensive term and should be eradicated or rebranded as Professional Competence. It should be thought of as Professional confidence in terms of EDI. Political Correctness to me smacks of tolerance as oppose to valuing individual differences, educating staff on cultural norms, updating staff at all levels on diversity in diction. It is easy to defend our actions of inequality based on ignorance however, as the law say, intentional or not it is unacceptable.
It does not matter whether your skin is black, white, mixed we all care and if we are educated we understand and make adjustments
I suggest that we debate the issues in this piece differently by looking at symptoms, causes and solutions. Let is share practice and support each other by an inclusive dialogue and not a judgement on our skin colour and how much that decides if we care or not.
Managing diversity is a challenging management task but training and support helps us to be impartial and effective

3. Melanie King - November 9, 2013

After rolling out Equality & Diversity Awareness training to over 600 staff (mainly white men) in the construction industry a few years ago, I fully agree with the comments in the article. The fear of getting things wrong and the ‘rumours’ of political correctness have led to some people being more defensive and unable to have a discussion in the workplace to ask genuine questions or understand the ‘acceptable’ language of the 21st century. The experience taught me that sometimes information is all that is needed to start a process of better understanding and by giving people a chance to have the discussion really made a difference to the perceptions of people of what is happening, in the UK against the reality for delegates in the workplace.


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