Many people, across workplace sector, actually, really, genuinely do think that white men are automatically more competent at things than women and people of color, even if they insist they do not hold this belief and that they have not benefitted from this pervasive belief.In addition to many people harboring racist and sexist opinions they are aware of, this one's also about implicit bias - those racist, sexist, other-ist beliefs we hold that we are not aware of.
Imagine being around the table with several other people and a hiring manager trying to fill a high-level open position. The hiring manager wants to hire a white man that he knows, without posting the job or even interviewing any other candidate. The white man to be hired, from his resume, seems qualified, but the rest of the group suggests that the hiring process be opened to others…
…and also recommends that people of color should be actively encouraged to apply.
That part after the ellipses? That's where I think many with implicit biases completely shut down. In the case of this hiring manager, when he heard "people of color" he reflexively heard "people who could never be more qualified than my white guy friend." I'm not even psychic there. I just know that was the hiring manager's thought process because that's what he literally said, out loud, with other people around (all white tho). Like, the hiring manager just though he knew, without even trying to find out, that no person of color would be more qualified for the position than a man who was, in my opinion, just marginally qualified.
Not surprisingly, and against the group's recommendation, White Guy Friend gets hired. A few months after he's hired, another staff member suggested that his opinion seemed to be coming from a position of white male privilege, and White Guy Friend flips the fuck out, arguing that the phrase "white male privilege" was racist and sexist against him, because we don't know his background and he's earned everything in life.
That sounds completely like a made-up story, but I shit you not, folks, it's true.
And, I don't think experiences like that are uncommon. Multiply instances like these by a thousand, a hundred thousand, and we end up with masses of white men who obtain good jobs because of their white male status who nonetheless believe they got there based solely on their own merit and competence.
In this case, the hiring manager regularly gives lip services to issues of racial (and gender) disparities and would be aghast at the merest suggestion that he held racist views, even as racist statements come out of his mouth.
So too, do people like White Guy Friend deny, and act appalled at, any suggestion that they got to where they are in their professional lives because they are a white guy friend of another white guy friend in a high place. This is the case even when a person literally got his job because of the racist belief that he was automatically more qualified for a position than every single person of color in the entire world.
The lesson here is this. When I see instances like this, in which a white man was such an obvious and explicit beneficiary of white male privilege and yet that white male privilege was still vehemently denied, I know for damn sure it's going on in more subtle ways that are even less visible to those who regularly benefit from such privilege.
I'm certainly not the first to say this, but privilege is so often invisible to those who have it. People with privilege, like White Guy Friend, are the proverbial people who started life on third base and think they got there by hitting a triple.
As for solutions, we all (especially people with privilege) need to be vigilant of implicit biases we might be harboring ourselves so we aren't contributing to the problem. Finding trusted allies to talk about this stuff with in the workplace can help people feel less isolated and helpless. Or, you know, write blog posts about it so you're not letting it sit inside you, eating away at your very soul of being.