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Updated: September 4, 2023 Outside the Box

White men feeling left out?

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
To read Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns, follow the links at the bottom of the article.
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How can it be white men feel left out of anything in American society, let alone in the workplace? They are at the center of power in nearly every space. White men are the wealthiest, make the laws, set policy, and sustain exclusive power networks elevating themselves. They hold the most leadership positions and decision-making power in the U.S. (and globally), and they make up the majority of business executives at 67.8%, according to Zippia.

Many white people did indeed come from poverty and are descendants of poor immigrants who did hard labor. Still, they benefit every single day from the intentionally racist systems in America sustaining their privilege, while oppressing Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). These systems were established to benefit the social construct of whiteness, where respect and access to opportunity, privilege, and safety is inherent to being white.

So, why are white men feeling left out of diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations, initiatives, and actions, when DEI impacts everyone? Perhaps DEI is most challenging for white men because it doesn’t center them, elevate them higher, nor forfeit them all of the power in any space. Not wanting to lose your power doesn’t make you a bad person, but the choices a white man makes to hold onto systems of power does perpetuate racism.

According to the White Men's Leadership Study, a study of white men and DEI, nearly 70% report feeling forgotten by DEI efforts. Feeling uncertain about whether DEI includes them is the main reason they either disengage or are not as committed to it. DEI does center belonging for all and empowers everyone, and it gives support and voice to the most vulnerable. Simply put, DEI works to level the playing field across industries, organizations, and society dominated by white men for centuries.

No one wants to feel disadvantaged, as if something is being taken away from them. Yet, consider how the following narratives coming from white men land for BIPOC, given the historical marginalization and oppression imposed on BIPOC.

• An engineer was enraged when he was told to cultivate an applicant pool with more diverse talent, even though a white man already interviewed with the knowledge and skills for the role.

• A leader was angered he was passed up for promotion several times because a woman or person of color was selected.

•A colleague murmuring under his breath he had to go to “another pointless DEI training,” and he wasn’t going to let it make him feel bad for being a white guy.

What are white men feeling? I cannot speak for them, it’s not my lived experience, but this is what I observe.

• They are feeling what it’s like to not dominate all of the power; what it’s like to not have advantage all of the time, what it’s like to be BIPOC past and present.

• White people don’t often think about their race; whiteness in this country is what is seen as most American and normal. This stems from racist ideologies, thinking along the lines of, “I have the power and privilege, so everybody else is different from me.”

• They may feel they are being blamed for the current state of affairs or they're being shamed for their privileges.

• Others focus on equality and fairness, missing the mark on equity, noting it’s not fair women and BIPOC are being given more advantages. This thinking presumes it's been fair all along, which is untrue.

• There’s a sense of loss, not wanting what’s good for the entire human ecosystem if it doesn’t benefit self.

• White men are feeling the pressure. Some feel like, “You're talking about me without including me in the conversation.”

We can’t force white men to engage the DEI conversation. The invitation is open. DEI work is lifelong learning, and it’s incredibly difficult to navigate in the workplace because it is organizational and deeply personal. Volumes of research shows a diverse workforce, an inclusive culture, and equitable systems and processes lead to greater innovation and performance, which leads to a competitive advantage and greater profits. DEI supports more opportunities for everyone, including white men, even if they feel like they are losing in the short term.

Bonnie J. Walker, a Worcester resident, is principal diversity & inclusion officer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington.

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Sandra Mahoney
September 7, 2023

thank you for this article. I found it extremely helpful in better understanding some push back I've received regarding DEI efforts that I've initiated.

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