Privilege

A final barrier to inclusion is privilege. Privilege is an advantage held by a person or group that is based on age, race, ethnicity, gender, class, or some other cultural dimension, which gives those who have it power over those who don’t. Privilege has been described as an unearned advantage that some people have in comparison to others. In situations where it exists, privilege excludes others and puts them at a disadvantage. For example, in many countries around the world, privileged people in the ruling class have political, economic, and social power over people living in poverty, who are exploited and lack opportunities to transcend their circumstances. Or, to consider another example, during the Jim Crow period in the United States, privileged white citizens had power over Black citizens, and as a result,

Black citizens suffered tremendously on all levels from employment and economics to education. Privilege is something that often goes unrecognized by those who have it, but usually is very apparent to those who do not have it.

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Because privilege is a barrier to inclusion, leaders need to be introspective and determine if they are privileged in some way in comparison to others, including their followers. Because leadership involves a power differential between the leader and followers, leaders can often be blinded to the privilege they have. In addition, privilege can be very difficult for those without it to address because leaders may deny they have privilege or not acknowledge it because they do not want to weaken their power.

Those with privilege sometimes argue that the status and power they have is not privilege. Rather, they believe it is the result of their hard work, competence, and experience. For example, individuals who are born to affluent parents and go to elite schools are likely to land high-paying, prestigious jobs when they graduate from college. If one were to challenge privileged individuals about their privilege, they might say they obtained a good job because they worked hard and put in long hours. Rivera points out that it is often the connections that privileged individuals have with others of influence that lead them to find better jobs. Ultimately, privilege and hard work are not mutually exclusive and both an individual’s circumstances and their efforts can contribute to their success.

Unfortunately, those with privilege are many times unaware of how that privilege makes their lives different from the lives of those without privilege. Some people may believe that those in poverty are lazy and undeserving because they have not worked hard enough to pull themselves out of their circumstances. They may not be aware that poverty is a difficult condition to transcend. For example, imagine being the mother of two children, and as the result of a car accident, your spouse has developed a chronic health condition that keeps him from working and requires he have constant care. His medical bills wipe out any extra money you have. Even with TANF benefits and disability income, it’s a struggle to make rent and utility payments and buy enough food to feed your family. You want to work, but you can only work during school hours on weekdays when your children are in school. You do not have a car, so you must walk or take public transportation, which limits how far away your job can be from your home. Any small thing can upset the fragile balance you have established: a trip to the doctor, an unexpected bill, an increase in expenses. The road out of poverty for this mother and her family seems nearly impossible. Her situation seems so intractable that no amount of motivation or hard work could resolve it.

Having privilege blinds individuals to the experience of the underprivileged. Without the ability to understand, without judgment, individuals and their unique situations, leaders end up excluding rather than including them.

Collectively, the barriers to embracing diversity and inclusion (i.e., ethnocentrism, prejudice, unconscious bias, stereotypes, and privilege) underscore the difficulty in accepting and confirming those who are different from ourselves. Leaders must not only address these barriers as they occur with their followers, but must also take a critical look at their own biases regarding diversity and work to eliminate these barriers in their own lives. As we have learned from Ferdman’s framework, inclusion is a fluid process and must occur at the individual as well as societal level.

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