The diversity and inclusion movement needs more white men to step up — that's the message of racial justice advocates and gender equality activists that drove the conversation during the SHRM Inclusion session on the role of White men as allies.
Simply put, race and gender privilege make White men's voices the most resonant on these issues — even among the LGBTQ community and within disability rights advocacy. As Michael Baran, Senior Partner and Digital Solutions Lead at inQUEST, told his SHRM audience, allyship doesn't involve the centering of White men's feelings. Instead, that group needs to listen to people with marginalized backgrounds when they are describing the identity-based harm that they are facing and come up with actionable solutions that can help reduce that harm.
Below are Baran's pro tips for self-reflection as a White man at work.
Realize: "Microaggressions" have huge impact
First and foremost, it's important to remember although the term is "microaggression," the harm it can cause is astronomical. "If you're someone feeling these microaggressions all the time, they sure don't feel micro. It feels like a big deal. So then someone says, 'Well, it's just a micro thing,' that doesn't make you feel very seen or heard," Baran told his SHRM audience. He added that the "micro" prefix communicates to people that the emotional damage is a small issue and isn't cause for concern. Again, this is incorrect, and leads to problematic assumptions and conclusions.
Baran brought up key microaggressions, such as the loaded phrase, "You're so professional." On the surface, it may appear to be a compliment. It's crucial that White people ask themselves, "What is getting communicated under the surface?"
"'You're inadequate, actually, because I didn't expect you to be,'" he explained. The same goes for the phrase, "You're so articulate; you're so well spoken."
A helpful reframe is "subtle acts of exclusion"
Because "microaggression" can be a misnomer, Baran prefers to call them "subtle acts of exclusion."
"It doesn't mean they feel subtle — they sure don't. But it means that the subtlety is usually what makes it so that [these moments] keep flying under the radar and they keep happening. They're acts; they're not intentions. It's not a judgment of your character. It's the thing you said or the thing you did."
Another example of exclusion Baran brings up is asking an Asian-American coworker, "Where are you really from?" and not taking a U.S. state for an answer. This line of questioning may be veiled as innocent curiosity. However, Baran highlights, "Under the surface, what someone feels is maybe you don't belong."
Self-awareness is imperative
Something Baran emphasized is that often, diversity and inclusion work can feel like a demonization of White people. "These days, people understand racism as one individual person did something intentionally mean to another person. So all we're doing is we're looking for the villains who are racists, and we're gonna separate them from the rest of us not-racists, right?" Baran illustrated.
"That's not super helpful. We should be looking for the villain in all of us," he said. "We should be looking for the villain in our systems and the way things are set up, if we really want to make a difference."
Allow others to call you in
Baran underscores the importance of calling people "in" instead of calling them "out." In short, this involves talking to someone about their harmful behavior from a place of empathy and care. White men need to accept feedback about their behavior, and that feedback needs to be received with grace.
"You can't be defensive as the first thing you do, or else you're just going to shut down the conversation. Instead lean into understanding the impact on the other person," Baran said. For example, ask the coworker in questions such as, "Hey, can you tell me more about this? Help me understand."
"If they're already telling you — which they probably are — just listen. We think we're so good at listening. We suck at listening. For real. We're terrible. We're trying to think of what we're going to say in response. We think that the goal is to come to some consensus. Not all White men, but many White men think it's OK to play devil's advocate and push back when people are explaining things," Baran explained. It's not OK, he said and added that White men need to listen and validate their coworkers' feelings when they're being vulnerable.
Baran said, so often, white men are filtering situations through their own experience. "'Well, that wouldn't have made me upset. I wouldn't have cared about that.' Doesn't matter about you, you don't have that person's life," he said. "You don't have that person's experiences. Lean into it instead with curiosity, and then use the opportunity to grow."