DISCLAIMER: This post moves into territory I have never before addressed publicly. I recognize that for some this topic may push into what they experience as polarizing space. I offer this essay as MY reflection on MY experience in the world right now, and I make no judgment whatsoever about you and your position in the world. I invite you only to notice yourself as you read. Thank you for holding the space for my processing.
If you want to comment on what you read here, e.g. what you noticed about your own reaction to my writing, how lovely (there’s a link at the end). If you want to push back from a perspective of telling me I’m wrong or telling me how angry I made you, please don’t. Because I am not trying to be RIGHT – I’m trying to be authentic and human and acknowledge that accessing HAPPINESS in the world is a far more complicated process than I’ve realized in the past. AND I am trying to engage in a global conversation that I believe is going to make a difference in the quality of life that my children and grandchildren live. It’s important to me to invite others into this conversation, but I know not everyone wants to have it. And that’s OK.
Please know (and I offer this with all the love and respect I can muster) I am not responsible for your happiness or your joy in the world. I offer tools for you to reflect upon and practice. Period. If this post takes that reflection in a direction that triggers something in you, please notice that. But don’t expect me to take care of that for you. This is an adult conversation, and you’re an adult. I honor that in you.
Happiness is not an even playing field
The work of Sonja Lyubormirsky (The How of Happiness, 2007) introduced us to the three factors that affect happiness: genetic predisposition or “set point” (50%), life circumstances (10%), and intentional activity (40%). My work in the space of positive emotions has always been focused on that whopping big 40% that we can control with purpose and through practice.
I begin every workshop, webinar, coaching engagement, or even article from the perspective that, given your genetics are different, we are likely having the Happiness conversation from the same place.
Lately, I’ve come to realize that is not (always) true.
Happiness exists in the world, not separate from it
Since the captured-on-video killing of George Floyd, a black American citizen, the social justice stewpot has been at a high boil. For those who focus only on the United States, you may think this is a problem unique to us, but events in the US have apparently touched a global nerve of injustice. We are, for example, witnessing pushback against horrific tribal brutality in Nigeria, revisiting of injustices against the First Nations of Canada and the aboriginal people of Oceania, and simmering frustration over inequities and institutionalized prejudices against people of color in many European nations, which are spotted with communities built by migrants from Africa & Asia during their respective colonial eras.
New to the social justice conversation has been the prominent repositioning of white superiority, or “whiteness” as a necessary part of the discussion, and the redefinition of “racism” as an institutional term, not a personal indictment. (sorry if I’m getting too dense here, but this is still new to me and I’m clumsy in my languaging of it).
Part of my personal reaction to the social justice conversation as it unfolded was probably similar to many people like me… What!? I’m not racist! I have black friends! I adopted children of color! I used to do diversity training in the workplace! I’m a good person!
All these declarations let me feel good about myself and gave me permission to… well, to not have to DO anything. They allowed me to feel comfortable in my world.
But I kept hearing the term “white privilege“ and I bristled at it. My righteous indignation said, “How dare you? You don’t know me!”
Then I came across the work of Robin DiAngelo, a white woman (yes, I realize the irony) who has done deep work into the concept of white privilege (White Fragility, 2018) and I realized I did not understand what it meant.
I got curious, and instead of trying to defend myself against that label, “racist,” or deny that I enjoy “white privilege,” I began to ask, “What do I need to understand here?” and “What does this have to do with Happiness in the world?” and “Why do I feel called to be in this conversation?”
What’s emerging for me is that life circumstances — that 10% in Lyubormirsky’s model — really do matter.
Wait. What?! White?
Let me back up a second. In the middle of all this I was nominated for a position to the Board of Directors of a global coaching organization, and subsequently elected. The organization, like many others in this time, has recently taken a stand on social justice, or DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging). As a board member I was invited to participate in a White Affinity Group** (WAG). Perfect timing for me in my search for understanding.
(Affinity groups have been around for decades, especially in the corporate space. They go by various names. Examples: The Women’s Network, or The African American Network, or the Indian Affinity Group, or the Black Special Interest Group. They’ve always been about women or POCs – people of color – having a safe space to network with peers and discuss their challenges. Uhm, challenges with what/whom? We’ve never said, but it’s basically with white people and or white men. There, I said it.
I used to help form these groups when I was a Diversity Trainer and HR Leader! But did it ever occur to me to have white folks form an affinity group at work? Not. Ever. Why? Because when you’re the majority, you don’t have to figure out how to succeed in the world – you’re setting the norms that all the “others” have to navigate.)
So, I’ve been in this white discussion-group/book club having some really uncomfortable conversations with other white people about our whiteness (sounds really boring, but it’s tremendously challenging!) and I finally understand what it is I’ve been denying about myself for a long time. I do have privilege.
What IS White Privilege???
Primed by my reading and the discussions, I showed up one day in a conversation with an executive client, who happens to be a woman of color, and her challenge that day was “being seen” by a certain member of her Board of Directors. Witnessing her struggle, I was for a moment powerfully connected to the truth of my privilege and the way I am able to show up in the world with near zero friction in a way that’s not available to her.
What follows is the journal entry I wrote that day:
<START OF JOURNAL ENTRY>
Labels matter: I am a tall, fit, middle-class, cisgender, university-educated, English-speaking, articulate, heterosexual, Catholic, married, conventionally-named, white male, without visible disability, who is a parent, and who works in a mainstream occupational niche.
How many times in my life have I had to walk into any room and think:
“How will the people in this room judge me based on:
- My name?
- My hair?
- My manner of dress?
- My height/size?
- Being cisgender?
- My sexual orientation?
- My being married?
- Being a parent?
- Being able-bodied?
- Presenting as educated and middle class?
- My occupational choice?
- My Midwest-American accent?
- My religious beliefs?
- Being a non-smoker?
- Being fit and healthy?
- My directness?
- How I insert myself into the conversation?
- My gender?
- My skin color?
- Whether I “belong”?
- How much of a “threat” I present to them?”
I’ll tell you how often. Never.
How much friction must I deal with to live my life? From that list, it’s none. Zero.
Have I faced obstacles in my life? Absolutely!
Have I ever been bullied? Yep!
Have I experienced loss and grief and failure in my life? Regularly.
Have I had to dance with unfairness and cruelty? Yes.
Here’s the thing.
I have NEVER faced a challenge or an obstacle or a bully or a loss or a failure or an incident of unfairness…
… where I ALSO had to deal with someone else questioning my competence or my right to be in the room or even my right to exist because of any dimension of who I am.
That’s been my privilege. My white, male privilege.
Never having to even consider it. Being free to live my life unencumbered by anyone else’s assessment that I am not legitimate or that I am less than in any way.
A woman would be judged on many of the attributes that I listed above that I never have to consider. Where I am applauded for being direct or confident, a woman is told she is aggressive or bitchy.
A person of color would be judged in ways unfamiliar to me. I have never been asked to get someone’s coffee (or worse) because of an assumption that I was an admin assistant. I have never been told that my natural hair is “unprofessional.”
Despite the fact that I am tall, I have never had the experience of people crossing the street to avoid me because I looked dangerous.[Aside: I recognize that I am feeling extremely clumsy in this conversation, that my thoughts are still incomplete and incoherent, and that I am still trying to figure this out. But if I wait until I have it completely figured out, I will be dead. I am a Work In Progress, and I am holding a space for everyone else to be the same.]
I just don’t see it, my white privilege. I’ve never had to work that “muscle” of understanding that I’m being treated a certain way because of my race or my gender, so when conversation speaks to racism, I take it personally. My whiteness becomes about me, not about my racial group.
But it’s not about me. It’s about the inconvenience that everyone who is not like me has to work through just to live their life, and I cannot imagine how annoying it might be for some to watch a person like me succeed without any of that friction.
I am not taking anything away from me or other white guys who succeed, in that we work hard and have challenges. But there’s this little level of friction that we just don’t notice because we’ve never had to carry it.
I’m understanding that racism is not personal. It’s not about me, but about the systems and structures that support the Institutionalization of Inconvenience for any persons who don’t look like those who built the systems.
I think we can do more and better.
We have not stood up. We have not addressed the inconvenience as a reality.
I recently heard a speaker exhort, “don’t say you’re color blind, because that means you’re blind!”
I’ve got to see color. If I don’t see it, I can’t explore it. And White is a color. No matter who we are, we have bias. Implicit bias is part of the Human Operating System, a survival skill that goes back to our primitive days when anyone who was “other“ was someone who would steal our food. It’s part of who we are.
I am not perfect, and shoot me if I ever claim that am. I am Curious. I am trying to show up in the world to ask “what is happening here? What is really happening, not what is going on through my old filters?”
<END OF JOURNAL ENTRY>
Connecting to Happiness and Leadership
One of my big Aha’s is this: I’ve come to realize that my definition of Happiness existed within the bubble of white privilege. I can teach and coach about the tools to access joy and happiness and confidence all day long and have conversations with you about the Body and Emotion of Leadership.
But what if you feel you have to tamp down some part of yourself every day to fit in? What if you assess you must be vigilant about who is in the room and how you interact with them? What if you always have a thin drip of adrenaline running through your system, pushing Happiness and Confidence a tiny bit farther away, so you always have to take one or two more steps to get there than I do?
It’s a puzzlement to me. I don’t know how I’m going to respond to this learning, yet I’ve committed to the curious search.
I am Somebody
How can I be happy when the world around me is so unhappy? Oh, I can choose to live in my bubble and experience moments of happiness, and I will continue to do that my entire life. AND I feel drawn to engage with the wider world around issues that don’t necessarily affect me but are shaping the world that my children are inheriting and that for my grandchildren will look wildly different.
For their sake, I want that to be that SOMEBODY who makes it a positive different.
If you’ve read this far, thank you for holding the space.
I am curious – what’s happening for you? I invite your reflections back to me. I look forward to staying in the place of discomfort, for that is the only place we learn.