As a member of the group with the greatest amount of societal privilege, I have struggled with how I can talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in a way that reduces marginalization and increases the functionality of our communities without in any way minimizing the experience of others. Navigating that challenge has caused me to feel frozen at times, worrying that whatever action I might take will only aggravate the underlying issues.
This is a very different place than where I was when I first read Peggy MacIntosh’s article, “White Privilege and Male Privilege” while in graduate school in 2000. I remember distinctly the conversation my classmates and I had about our sudden enlightenment and awareness of systemic racism, navigating the shame and guilt that came with discovering that my experience did not match that of people with other identifiers.
Often this enlightenment causes individuals to focus on themselves – let me think about how I am part or not part of the problem – rather than focusing on the experience of others. As I listened to The Person You Mean to Be by Dolly Chugh, something struck me. Namely, a person whose identity is imbued with privilege in our current society is uniquely able to focus on themselves and their own experience. Those of marginalized identifiers are continually thinking about circumstances and situations and how they will navigate those mine fields.
As I thought about this, I realized that the folks who are able to most think about their own experience without considering systems and circumstances are the very people who also have the capacity to act in ways that can minimize marginalization. In other words, a marginalized person is, by definition, unable to act in a manner that increases inclusivity or, at the very least, is at a grave disadvantage doing that. A person who is blissfully ignorant of the marginalization is the very person, once aware, with the greatest capacity to make a difference.
Since then, I have gone on the long journey so many of us have traveled to better understand the underlying systemic issues and what I need to do as a person with my particular identity. For much of the time, the role I needed to play was to learn, listen, support and understand, engaging in ways that I could. Like many of us, I needed to understand what was about me and what, much more importantly, was not about me but required me to be engaged and to listen and learn. Namely, my needing to understand and validate other people’s experiences and not insert myself into those stories and narratives. As we think about leadership, truly great leaders know that leading is not about them and is about supporting the individuals and the larger group in their shared work and experience together. Leading is about serving others.
Now, as I think about the greater understanding of individual experiences and the systems in which we all exist, I am imagining new actions I can take that will aid in creating a more equitable and just community and world. I suggest that it comes down to a two-part set of dependent conditions. The first is that I and we each need to ensure that each person feels valued for who they are, whatever aspects of their identity are important to them within a given context.
The second can only happen if the first condition is met and only lasts as long as the first condition is met. In psychology, a superordinate goal is a shared objective that supersedes the individual in the group. In other words, when we are part of a group that has a shared superordinate goal, we are committed to our shared work together. That only works when we feel we are valued as individuals, able to contribute our full selves to the shared experience.
I wonder if now many of the places I find myself need different actions from me. While I always have more to learn, I am knowledgeable enough that I can move from learning to taking positive action. My identity has often felt like a governor on my ability to act. I ask, will my actions cause more problems or will what I do be helpful to the cause? The often used line that people of privileged identifiers have work to do has often suggested the need to learn and listen, not act.
If we are at the point where I need to act, what actions might I take that will help create a more equitable and just society? An equitable and just society is our superordinate goal. Viewing the monolith that is systemic racism, a meaningful action sometimes seems beyond reach. Still, our individual actions are the only thing that will remove the societal structures and biases that result in marginalization and will create an opportunity for a truly just and equitable society. So what do we do?
Like any good adaptive challenge, addressing this question will require creativity and new actions and systems. I share this idea only as my starting point. You may have more and better ideas or a different starting point, and I look forward to hearing about your journey. That said, I begin with doing everything I can to make sure each individual with whom I have contact knows that I value them and that they are important to me. This happens through small and large interactions. A hello in the hallway to sitting down to hear about a concern both help a person to feel I value them. Helping individuals share in ways they are comfortable is critical to this. In other words, I need to make my interactions with others about them, not about me.
As I do that, my identity and my feelings about the world become much less significant than helping the other person know that they are part of something greater themselves and are valued for their contribution. To go back to the beginning, the listening and learning I needed to do when I first began to understand the scope and issues of marginalization are still some of the most important actions I can take. The difference is that I am no longer learning about the system and my place in it. Instead, I am learning about the experiences of others and learning how to help minimize marginalization so that they may contribute in ways meaningful to them in our shared experience, community and society.
Marginalization is not a problem with an absolute and final solution. We need to work tirelessly and continuously to stem its effect as everyone stands the chance to feel its sting. While I will do all I can to help mitigate systemic marginalization, simply being human means that we will find ourselves engaging with people we have not met or worked with before. As a leader, I need to help those individuals come together and form a group where they feel valued as an individual and contributing to something greater than themselves. Our willingness to do this leading, each and everyone of us, is what will help create the possibility of equity and justice for all. I am excited to be doing this work together.
Going back to the beginning, I have my identity and identifiers just as each person has their own. From my place, I will continue to do what I can to stem systems and experiences of marginalization with the understanding that I need to be open to the feedback of others to help guide my actions. Feeling as though I have an understanding of how I can be of help, of actions I can take, gives me hope for the future.
“White Privilege Male Privilege”also known as “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” – Peggy MacIntosh
“The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias” – Dolly Chugh
Jeremy LaCasse, Executive Director of The Gardner Carney Leadership Institute, is currently Assistant Head of School at the Taft School. LaCasse held the Shotwell Chair for Leadership and Character Development at Berkshire School. He also directed the Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program; served as Dean of the sixth and fourth forms; taught European history and Medieval history; and coached the ski and crew programs. Following his time at Berkshire, he served as the Dean of Students at Fountain Valley School of Colorado, and following FVS, he was the Head of senior school at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, PA; the Head of Kents Hill School in Kents Hill, ME; and the Assistant Head of School at Cheshire Academy, in Cheshire, CT. He graduated with a B.A. in History from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and earned an M.A. in private school leadership from the Klingenstein Center, Teachers College at Columbia University.