Fighting Privilege Blindness


Plenty of Canadians were shocked by social media posts showing Joyce Echaquan receiving verbal abuse instead of treatment before she died in a Quebec hospital. Same goes for video clips of George Floyd’s murder by U.S. police, not to mention the ongoing discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of Canada’s former residential schools. But in many cases, the shock comes from not being able to comprehend being treated as less than human by doctors, police officers, educators, and religious leaders.

And therein lies a serious problem with workplace equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) programs. Individuals who experience bias, prejudice and systemic racism on a regular basis are well aware of how it impacts their lives. But effectively tackling a problem when you can’t fully comprehend its impact is difficult, and most people in charge of organizations that have committed to battling systemic racism haven’t lived it.

There are different forms of privilege blindness because there are different forms of privilege. In the context of this article, being privileged doesn’t automatically mean someone is a racist. It also doesn’t mean someone’s life has been easy or even fair. It just means that an individual’s personal set of challenges doesn’t include dealing with racism, and this form of privilege provides unfair advantages that have been embedded in our society.

My eyes were opened to my own privilege blindness while working as a venture capital executive in the United Kingdom during the dotcom years. During a meeting of major players from London’s Square Mile, I heard a racist phrase used to describe a potential hidden problem with an upcoming high-profile IPO. The phrase in question uses a racial slur to describe a Black person concealed in a woodpile. I was dumbfounded, but I shouldn’t have been. When I was a kid, the same phrase appeared in everything from Dr. Seuss and Looney Tunes cartoons to Agatha Christie, Perry Mason, and Hardy Boys mysteries. I just hadn’t noticed because I was blinded by privilege.

The above example is dated. But nothing much has changed since I heard that phrase casually used in a corporate setting. In recent years, the same words were used by a British politician to describe a problem with Brexit, and after using the phrase on-air, an Australian radio broadcaster even added “If one can use that expression,” as if the offence was debatable.

Clearly, it is time for change, but the expectations set last year are for generational and lasting change, which will require much more than having a few uncomfortable meetings and then issuing diversity statements, setting targets, and conducting bias training. Meeting the expectations of employees, consumers and investors who deeply care about EDI will require transparency when examining the unjust status quo and initiating cultural change initiatives to fix it, including a greater focus on character when hiring and promoting because bias and racism isn’t just systemic. As highlighted in a recent paper by Gerard Seijts, Executive Director of the Ivey Business School’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, and Associate Director Kimberley Milani, character is what equips people with the consciousness that enables organizations to embrace and cultivate equity, diversity, and inclusion.

There is no question that today’s organizational leaders have a full plate. But they are paid—and typically paid well—to multitask. And EDI must be actively championed from the top.  Unfortunately, as noted above, since individuals of privilege can’t rely on lived experiences to fully comprehend just how unjust things have been, successfully bringing social justice to the workplace won’t come naturally for most of today’s leaders, including ones with unquestionable character.

The sporting world provides a good example of how privilege blindness can impact responses to racism. On August 26, 2020, NBA officials were taken off-guard when the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t appear on court for a playoff match against the Orlando Magic. Not everyone understood what was happening, even when Orlando’s players stopped warming up and returned to their locker room. Some spectators assumed COVID-19 was at work, but others instinctively knew the police shooting of Jacob Blake had sparked an NBA boycott.

The civil rights protest started by the Bucks led to the postponement of two other NBA games. It spread to the WNBA and jumped to other sports. A Washington Post headline screamed “Sports come to a halt” as the NFL and MLB cancelled games. But on the evening of August 26, the puck still dropped for Game 3 of the NHL’s second-round playoff series between the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As Sportsnet broadcaster Kelly Hrudey put it: “I don’t think we should be here.” Nevertheless, the NHL—which eventually decided to cancel games later in the week—initially only saw the need to offer a “moment of reflection” before playing on because, at least in part, it is dominated by people who are largely blind to what exactly they needed to reflect about.

Acknowledging privilege blindness is just a step in the right direction. Whenever the business world faces any other problem that it seriously wants to conquer, it is standard practice to do some research on the issue to gain a better understanding, so leaders of privilege who really want to help make things right need to do some homework. That point was made by Boston University historian Ibram X. Kendi during a discussion about racism with future business leaders sponsored by the Ivey Business School’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership last year.

As noted in the IBJ feature “Moving Beyond Window Dressing on EDI,” a good place to start is Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Over at the BlackNorth Initiative, founder Wes Hall recommends Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, which explores the pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, and stigma.

In a recent Q&A with Ivey Business Journal, Hall also advises organizations to overcome the temptation to go it alone. “As things stand, there are a lot of organizations doing a good job,” he says. “But there are also a lot with internal people working in silos to make things right despite obviously not having all the answers. That’s a recipe for frustration, not progress. To really move the needle, we don’t just need companies to be willing to change—we need them to be willing to work with outsiders in order to successfully identify and address internal problems.”

The corporate world has long managed to drag its feet on gender diversity, but there are just no excuses for half-measures on the EDI front today because research clearly shows it is good for business and society alike. But to achieve lasting generational change, leaders of our institutions and organizations need to take a deep dive into how bias, discrimination, and systemic racism have impacted everything from hiring practices to supplier networks. And doing this requires some serious reflecting on why it has taken so long to make something that improves performance a real priority.