Leader? Take the Risk – Try and Test

I was asked by the Berkeley Women Leaders in Business at Berkeley Haas to kick off their evening Manbassadors session, convening a conversation with men and students of all genders next month.  That came on the heels of presenting to an affinity group of people of color at a large corporation. I must be an expert! Hah. I’m so not! I am learning though, and the reason why is quite simple: I keep trying, testing, messing up and trying some more.
I am a slow learner. I tried and tested 35 years ago when I really thought my fiance should take my name. I made my case. I said “one family.” “Yes,” she said, and she continued, “so just take my name!” I all but scoffed:  “Come on, Jen! It’s a simple tradition,” I said. “Whose tradition?” she asked. “Slavery was a tradition, too.” I had never been put on my heels quite like that.  I was glad for the learning and the resolution.*
I now see that my thinking was pretty typically privileged, a word I would not hear used in this type of context for a couple decades. When I did begin to hear it, I tested it, inquired about the term – sometimes with privileged irritation, sometimes with genuine curiosity.  And I am still thinking and risking asking with both mindsets – irritation and curiosity – one of which generates learning.  I hope those of you who, like me, are white and/or male and/or straight and/or cisgendered**, will test your irritations, confusions, and honest ignorance, too. Don’t be afraid to push back . . . but listen to what you hear.  It’s risky to test your opinions like this. But one of the huge marks of privilege is WE get to stay safe and silent; we choose when we want to risk. We don’t have to explain ourselves:
  • in the way that a woman engineer has to prove herself, or
  • an African American in a “white” neighborhood has to explain himself, or
  • a trans woman has to explain why it’s “moral” to be so, whether she is mistaken about her own self-identity, or why she should get to marry

What if you had to face these questions – spoken or simply harbored inside by those privileged not to have to deal with them – every day?!  My son invited to me a series for white folks about race. Over three evenings, I got tested a lot (and felt pretty testy at times).  I came away with one big thing, reinforced in a challenging book I am reading called White Fragility (and, if you feel some resentment about that title, then you’re probably feeling…you guessed it…white fragility).  This was my takeaway:

I am not a “good white person.” I am so much just a white person. It’s time to quit patting myself on the back while mentally punching “Trump and the racists” in the nose.  I need to help myself to a heaping plate of ignorance, served up in the form of honest questions about what it means for me to be white in America. We need to figure out a whole lot of our own stuff before we start telling “those people” – whether those people are African Americans or racists whites – what they need to do.
I always appreciate comments (or direct messages to dan@danmulhern.com, and I encourage you to do so today, especially if what I am writing is triggering for you.  Triggers can be great gifts.  They’re not great if we lash out – i.e., fight, or if we just flee, the easy privileged white thing to do.  Triggers are great if we can inspect them with curiosity and compassion. In too many ways, we white folks are afraid to let each other have our mixed feelings – our moral indignation and sadness, but also our confusion (“what did I do that was racist?”) and shame (“when have I ever really stood up when little or big racist things have been said?) and our feelings of helplessness. These mixed feelings are often the hardest to grapple with, so instead of doing the hard work of resolving our ambivalence, we cop out. Leader: opt in to
Lead with your best self!
* I suggested (saving face and seeking win-win):  let’s take each other’s last names as our middle names. We did.
** In case this word “cisgendered” may be unfamiliar to you, it means those “whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.” (Wikipedia).  Sometimes I have felt about words like cisgendered or gender fluidity or prounouns: “Geez this all used to be so simple. Why do we have to make all these adjustments?” This is an aspect of privilege, in the sense that when a person is gay but raised straight, or when their gender identity is different than the way they were assigned at birth, they have had to deal with the fact instead, that “this ‘simple’ normativity is for them so hard!!!” Our sacrifice – if we can call it that – in being tolerant with complexity, is minor compared to the inner conflict and often social abuse that people experience in cultures that are rigid in their definitions of what is “normal.”
  • Thanks for this important article Dan. Here at the Dominican Sisters Motherhouse in Grand Rapids we have been discussing this book with Sisters, Associates and friends. It is a very important concept for all of us to grasp and your honest, straightforward comments on it will be helpful. Thank you for this and all of our thoughtful reflections.

    • Thank you (Sister) Mary. I’m long an admired of so many great nuns, particularly my Dominican Sisters from Louisiana and the Adrian Dominicans who taught me letters and numbers along with social justice.

  • I just subscribed to your blog (based on your recommendation in UGBA 155!), and this was a great post to kick-off these weekly readings.
    Thank you for acknowledging your privilege. I think the point that really hits home is understanding that you don’t “have to explain yourself.” As a half Filipino-half Chinese American woman at Haas, I can attest to always having to explain myself. I feel like I have to explain, justify, and prove myself worthy of the career path I’m taking — which is not the conventional A, B, C route like many other students. Thank you for your insight.

    • Michelle,
      Thanks for writing. Go for it! Carve your own path. You don’t have to explain anything to anyone. (I recognize that this is a privilege I have that others tend to look at me as some kind of “normal.”) It’s a paradox that our best bet is to be our individual best, yet not pretend that it’s the same for one person as it might be for another.

  • Dan, bet that was hard.
    I am white, female, a child of divorced adults and a survivor of an abusive parent. I share all that to say I never felt privileged. Years of counseling later, I am coming to myself; not yet grateful but getting there.
    I so appreciate you.

    • Thanks, Linda. It’s a funny thing that sometimes when you learn something – like you’ve been a jerk to your spouse – you feel bad about the past. And you may have to clean stuff up. But there is something very liberating about the truth. It’s been hard – and sometimes still is – to face my being a beneficiary of what is for me privilege and for others racial oppression. But awareness brings freedom and a new opportunity to be better. And that’s great.
      I’m glad you are “coming to yourself.” Or, maybe I would say “leading with your best self.” That’s cool.

  • Hi Dan,

    Very honest and refreshing to have a ‘priviledged’ being fully consider the ‘traditional’ non-priviledge experience of life – willingly. That, takes courage.

    Thank you for sharing

  • Many times this year I remember wishing I was black because then I would of had justice instead of being told to, “hire a lawyer” or “we need to focus on what really matters.” Being white I can’t get justice for being beaten by police then falsely arrested to cover it up, sir. Can’t talk about it on social media because people wants to pretend it’s racist but it’s not. Facts are facts. Sorry for the way I spoken to Mrs G. but I’m tired of being called white privilege by her, someone I respect. I was beaten and my clothes ripped off and taken outside for people could see and Mrs G will say it doesn’t happen to whites.

  • Not sure if my first comment I accidentally erased or may still pop up. People says a person is racist if a victim is white and mentions it. Your wife uses the term “whites are privilege” and I get offended because I’m a victim of beatings and raped by the cops and then falsely arrested to cover it up. I have a great deal of respect for Mrs G (and you too, sir) and I know she must not like it when I do mention police brutality is a problem for any race. That’s racist to many people who have never been a victim. I have been a victim and it went on for over a decade it’s something I can’t forget. I’m upset with myself at the way I spoken to your wife on social media days ago. I can’t take it back but maybe one day she’ll forgive me. It’s not her fault what the cops did to me nor her fault that I was denied the right for justice. I’m so tired of being called white privilege knowing the cops beated on me for just walking down the street. I am one of the most trusting persons but who would believe it if they knew I was in jail. I did nothing wrong. I don’t break the law but cops do. I believe we should all be treated the same.
    I do wish the two of you the best, Dan. And sorry if I said anything wrong. Not my intent.

  • Privilege can be complex or simple. Not all whites are privileged, some are “more equal” than others. A well dressed, well mannered person can be the biggest phony on Earth, but because of appearances is more trusted and forgiven than the person who’s cloths are dirty and who does not speak well. It is strange how favors will be done for a wealthy person who needs no favors. Or how an average student graduates with high student loans, because they did not qualify for scholarships, and then for a large part of their life find it more difficult to succeed due to the debt; or the person who has one felony on their record, which may have been unjustly applied to them; or the white collar criminal who spends a few years in a low security prison after ruining thousands or more financially. Privilege is a matter of determining what is fair, what is just.

    I wonder, when it came to the children, what last name were they given? Or were the girls given Jen’s last name and the boy yours. One family? I think it was harsh to use slavery as an example of a tradition in this case. I think of the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye sings about “Tradition,” and at one point sings, “You might ask, how did this tradition begin? I don’t know! But it is a tradition!”

    • Mark John,
      I always appreciate your thoughtful approach. A few thoughts, in the order you present them:
      1. Yes, privilege is uneven, particularized. AND, yet there are undeniable sweeping tendencies, e.g., in the example of the two felons, one white collar. They face the same “blind” justice, but one comes with a lawyer, a nice suit, speaks white English, etc., and has a great leg-up. My major point, with which I don’t think you’d disagree, is that race gives some people a free pass in so many ways. Yesterday a black woman is shot in her own home by police who have been called by a neighbor who saw her door open. It’s mind-boggling.
      2. Our kids were named ____ Granholm Mulhern. They’re making their own choices now :-).
      3. I love the line from Tevye. We might posit, Mark John, that many many traditions – including slavery, including male-only suffrage, including rights and privileges accorded the clergy, the lawyers, etc., flow from a fear of loss of order and control. Loss of order and control are scary! We need only look to Turkey or to Hong Kong (or to the markets during the trade war) to see the incredible fear when order is threatened. AND we have to recognize that these traditions so often uphold the status quo and reinforce privilege and disadvantages for people who are not making and enforcing said rules.

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