Are All White People Privileged?

davidlivermore | June 13th, 2019 No Comments

You can’t have an honest conversation about cultural intelligence (CQ) without addressing white privilege,  the idea that white people inherit certain privileges simply by the color of their skin.

But privilege is not an easy topic of conversation. People on all sides of the issue quickly become emotional and defensive. People of color are fatigued by having to prove the point to white colleagues while many white people feel anything but privileged and experience what Robin DiAngelo refers to as white fragility.

Are all white people privileged? It depends on how you define privilege. You knew you would get that kind of response from me, right? But hear me out.

Imagine you grew up in a very poor, white family. One reason J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Ellegy resonated with so many people was that he offered insight on what it means to grow up poor and white. His family struggled with poverty, domestic violence, moving from place to place, and navigating the welfare system. His ancestors were day laborers in the southern slave economy and eventually, coal miners, machinists, and mill workers. They’re referred to as hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash by the dominant culture. To be clear, that’s not the same as a history characterized by being forced to the U.S. as slaves, but it’s a perspective worth considering.

Even most middle class, white people don’t easily embrace the idea that they’re privileged. It’s not like someone knocked on their door and handed them their college degree, job, or home. And yet what are the invisible benefits they experience day-to-day that stem from a long history of privilege?

A 1,200-word article won’t do justice to such a complex and highly sensitive topic. But here are a few guiding principles for making the conversation about privilege more productive.

1. White privilege is real.

It’s impossible to deny that being born with white skin affords certain unearned privileges. White privilege is knowing I can walk into a restaurant, use the bathroom, and leave without buying anything, and it’s unlikely that anyone will say anything to me about it. It’s knowing I can go to the front door of my house and not have someone ask me if the homeowner is around. It’s the confidence that I can turn on the TV and see people who look like me. I not only experience the benefits of white privilege in the U.S., I encounter it almost everywhere in the world.

It’s not that you’re privileged if you’re white. It’s that being white is a privilege. A white kid growing up in a poor trailer park living next door to a black kid growing up in the same environment has fewer barriers to worry about than the black kid does. But I’m not suggesting that’s the approach to take with struggling white families. Read on.

2. Privilege exists on a spectrum.

Who is more privileged? A white single mom living on welfare or a black, married man with a professional job? It depends! Both have some privileges the other doesn’t have. Ethnicity and skin color are an essential part of the discussion about privilege, but our understanding of privilege must be broader to include other dimensions of identity. Kimberly Crenshaw’s notion of Intersectionality allows us to see that people can be privileged in some ways and not in others. Skin color is one of the most significant variables of privilege, but there are many others. “Privilege” is anything you are born into, not things you earned. Your privilege often has a direct impact on the opportunities you get.

Consider how you would score on the spectrum of privilege in light of these indicators. A person born with most of these identity traits has the most power in most contexts:

  • Citizenship: Born in a stable, developed country
  • Social Class: Born into a financially, stable family and zip code
  • Skin Color: Born white
  • Sexual Orientation: Born straight
  • Sex: Born male
  • Ability: Born able-bodied/minded
  • Gender: Born cis-gendered

This is by no means an exhaustive list. And I’m not suggesting we should start tallying privilege points. But our discussions about privilege desperately need a more nuanced approach that acknowledges numerous factors that influence privilege. It’s reductive and insulting to reduce any individual to a single story. Privilege exists on a wide spectrum.

3. Don’t dismiss someone’s struggle.

Last week my daughter Grace was in a serious cycling accident. It took an emergency rescue team five hours to get her to the hospital, followed by a lengthy surgery overseas. She’s now on a long road to recovery.  All indicators suggest she will fully recover. The same day of her accident, another girl her age fell in the same forest, broke her back, and will probably never walk again. When my daughter was lying in agony, I didn’t say, “Well, at least you’re not like this other girl who will never walk.” Minimizing someone’s pain and struggle by telling them someone else has it worse is not only ineffective; it lacks compassion and empathy.

In a similar way, screaming that your privileged to someone who grew up in a trailer park with a single parent is tone deaf. Only in very specific circumstances would any reasonable person ask a white person in abject poverty to consider their white privilege. My daughter herself later reflected on how fortunate she is that her accident was not worse. But in an attempt to build awareness and foster perspective-taking, we should always avoid dismissing the reality of someone’s struggle and unique story.

4. Dialogue and reflection work better than debate.

It’s inarguable that white males have privileges others don’t have. But it’s the spectrum of privilege that is most helpful to consider. Debates about who has more privilege put people on the defensive. 30 percent of people feel like you’ve lost your mind when you tell them that their benefits are things that were handed to them. Rather than arguing with someone about whether they’re privileged, structure conversations to move toward reflection about the gradient of advantage they may have had as compared to if they had been born differently. For example,

  • How would your life be different if you had been born a different gender?
  • What about with a different skin color?
  • How would your reality change if you had been born in Sudan?

The point is not to say, “Hey—every aspect of your life is privileged.” That is not true for most people. But we want to get everyone to start thinking about it. The ask for white people is this: Consider the fact that because you are white, there are certain aspects of the world you don’t have to worry about.

5. CQ your messaging about privilege.

Finally, we need to apply cultural intelligence to how we talk about privilege. It’s ridiculous to suggest that white privilege is the same for all white people in the world. It’s equally ludicrous to deny that a white person has certain things they just don’t have to worry about.

Don’t say, “You’re privileged!”. Instead say, “You have access to privilege.”

We need to find the zone of productive disequilibrium where we allow enough discomfort to foster productive reflection and change but not so much that people shut down and feel defensive.

I didn’t choose to be a straight, white, able-bodied male. But I’m ignorant if I don’t acknowledge that I hit the lottery on the privilege spectrum. To be honest, I was leery of writing this article. Who am I to be pontificating about privilege? Our own team at the Cultural Intelligence Center has rigorous discussions about what we all need to consider about this personally as well as in light of our work. My privilege blinds me from certain aspects of this conversation. But the enormous privilege I have makes me all the more committed to engage in meaningful dialogue with others about these realities and to strive toward making the world a more inclusive, equitable place for everyone. I welcome your perspective on this complicated topic.

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Why I Answer Most Questions with “It Depends”

davidlivermore | April 12th, 2019 No Comments

I’ve gained a reputation for being the “It depends” guy. When fielding questions during a presentation on cultural intelligence, my default response is “It depends!”

What’s the best way to manage deadlines when working across borders? It depends!

Do Millennials prefer working remotely? It depends!

Who should adapt to whom? It depends. It depends. It depends.

It’s not that I have no opinion about the right course of action. And it’s fair for individuals to expect me to elaborate on “It depends.” But human interactions are far too complex to issue dogmatic answers without understanding more of the situation. More importantly, the most challenging situations that require cultural intelligence often happen with little warning and there isn’t time to reference an over-simplified list of “do’s and don’ts.”

Cultural intelligence, or CQ, is not just whether you can spout off the norms of different groups. In fact, as I shared recently, our research confirms that knowing a lot about cultural differences can actually be more dangerous than being culturally ignorant. Cultural intelligence is having the ability to accurately assess a situation and predict the best outcome you can. It provides a mental model for understanding and responding to complex, multicultural situations.

But how do we prepare for the situational complexity of life in the unpredictable, constantly changing world of life and work? Here are a few ways to move from “It depends” to a culturally intelligent course of action:

1. Know Yourself

It starts with self-awareness. You need to be clear about your core values and convictions and determine ahead of time, what lines you will and won’t cross. This might be whether you’re willing to flex your dietary preferences or whether you will pay a bribe or have back channel conversations to grease the wheels of the procurement process. CQ begins with a strong understanding of your core sense of self.

2. What behaviors will best express your values in this situation?

People often say to me, Isn’t CQ basically about respect? I think “respect” is a noble value and a really important foundation for cultural intelligence. But the way you express respect is culturally conditioned. I don’t need people to address me with formal titles to feel respected. But I can’t assume that’s true for others. I feel more “respected” if you give me feedback directly. But I can’t assume you feel the same way. Flex your behavior, not your values.

3. What’s the objective?

One of the things I’ve learned from working with military leaders is their relentless insistence on mission clarity. When we talk about the relevance of cultural differences with special operations commanders, it’s all about strategically using CQ in light of the mission. Cultural intelligence isn’t the end all. It’s a tool for accomplishing an objective in light of the cultural complexities. The life and death nature of many military operations has a way of forcing clarity about the objective. But it’s easy to get cloudy on the mission when dealing with the kinds of situations most of us face. Keep the objective in view and determine what kind of action will best support the objective.

4. What adaptations will strengthen what you do? What adaptations will weaken what you do?

Most people criticized Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for dressing like a traditional Indian wedding groom to meet with Bollywood executives. Yet New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was praised for wearing a hijab in the wake of the Christ Church mosque tragedy. When does adapting enhance effectiveness and when does doing so undermine the objective? Companies struggle with this quandary too. When Starbucks first opened stores in China, they designed them to resemble a traditional, Chinese tea house with tea as the main offering on the menu. The Chinese were incensed. They wanted the unique Starbucks experience, not an Americanized version of a tea house. Some adaptation is almost always needed. But remember that the goal is to get to the point where you can leverage the differences involved rather than everyone over-adapting to a boring vanilla middle.

The more you anticipate the kinds of scenarios you’re likely to encounter in culturally diverse contexts, the better you will respond during real-life situations. In the stress of the moment, you’re unlikely to explicitly recall what you’ve read or learned about cultural do’s and don’ts. And they might not be accurate for your specific situation. Instead, exercise your discernment muscle during low stress times so that when the real scenarios come along, you’ll have a subconscious inner compass to assess a situation, predict the outcome, and adapt in a culturally intelligent way.

And what’s the worst thing that can happen if you get it wrong? It depends!

Why You Need to Stop Teaching Cultural Differences

davidlivermore | December 13th, 2018 No Comments

If you’ve paid any attention to our work in cultural intelligence, you know that we’ve been saying for a while that cultural knowledge isn’t enough. You need more than a seminar on how to do business in India or how to work with Millennials to work successfully with those cultures. But now, a mounting body of research suggests it would actually be better to not teach cultural differences at all if that’s the only thing you’re going to do. Dozens of studies find that cultural knowledge leads to stereotyping and perpetuating bias rather than building cultural intelligence (CQ).

Why?

Knowledge without curiosity leads to stereotypes.
Once you learn characteristics about Indians or Millennials, there’s a tendency to start putting any Indian or Millennial in a box. Then, when you encounter an inexplicable behavior, you fill in the blank with a crass stereotype rather than suspending judgment and seeking to understand more.

Knowledge without cultural humility leads to arrogance.
Once you get some insight into a culture, you may end up being over-confident about your ability to understand what’s going on. It may actually be better to remain open-minded and culturally ignorant than to go in thinking your cursory understanding about another culture means you “get them”.

Knowledge without intersectionality leads to irrelevance.
The groundbreaking work on Intersectionality, referring to an individual’s overlapping identities (race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, function, etc.) illuminates the danger of reducing someone to any one part of their identity. An Indian woman is not only an Indian, she’s also influenced by her gender, social class, professional role, and much more. How will you know which part of her identity will be most relevant when you interact with her?

Knowledge without skills leads to ineffectiveness.
If knowledge was all we needed to work successfully with diverse groups, we should have this figured out by now. But some of the individuals with the highest level of knowledge about different cultural groups can’t for the life of them figure out how to actually get along with people who are different.

I could keep going but the point is, after several decades of courses, books, and videos teaching people about cultural differences, it’s time to stop. Of course, the best choice is to teach cultural knowledge along with the other CQ capabilities that are proven to predict one’s effectiveness in relating and working with people from diverse backgrounds. But it would honestly be better to do nothing at all than only teach cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Here’s a much more strategic approach.

1. Start with CQ Drive
Over the last decade, we have surveyed nearly 100,000 professionals from over 100 countries and there’s only one consistent characteristic among every culturally intelligent individual. It’s not where you grew up, how many languages you speak, whether you’re part of an under-represented group or how far you’ve traveled. It’s your curiosity, or something we call your CQ Drive. This is your interest and openness to other ways of doing things. And it’s your confidence and ability to persevere in the midst of intercultural challenges.

Before teaching about cultural differences, address the motivation by clarifying the goal. What’s the objective behind improving intercultural interactions and how does it relate to the broader goal you wish to accomplish as an individual, team, or organization?

Also keep in mind that no amount of information about how a culture operates means much if you’re physically or emotionally exhausted. There are times when I understand what’s going on in an interaction with someone from a different background, but I just don’t have the energy to deal with it. It starts with CQ Drive.

2. Teach archetypes first, then cultural specifics
I don’t really think you should fully stop teaching about cultural differences. But my overstated title was intended to be more than just an attention-getter. We really must get the message through that if you only teach knowledge about different cultures, it can actually be far more determinantal than doing nothing at all.

However, when combined with the other capabilities of cultural intelligence, the most valuable knowledge to begin with is learning broad archetypes that help with comparing one group with another. These might include:

  • Key Historical Differences
  • Family Systems (Kinship, Extended, Nuclear)
  • Religious Context
  • Cultural Values

Then within those broad archetypes, you can talk about the tendencies of a particular cultural group. In other words, don’t teach about Millennials or Chinese as a stand-alone topic. Be sure the discussion is rooted in a broader taxonomy of cultural systems and values so that individuals are equipped for the intersectionality of individual’s identities and the diversity that exists within any culture.

Rather than working toward a mastery of cultural knowledge, emphasize the kind of information that is most helpful to know and where to find reliable sources.

3. CQ Strategy is even more important than we thought
Based upon a meta-analysis of dozens of academic studies on CQ, we’ve discovered that CQ Strategy, or Metacognitive CQ, is even more important than we originally thought. CQ Strategy strengthens the effects of the other CQ capabilities. It’s what allows you to use your drive and knowledge to make sense of culturally diverse experiences so you can plan accordingly.

With the objective in mind (CQ Drive) and a broad understanding of cultural tendencies (CQ Knowledge), what plan is going to work best? Meta-cognitive CQ, the more precise concept behind CQ Strategy, is a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to relating and working with people from different backgrounds, rather than just blindly assuming that all Boomers want to be treated the same way.

Driven by Difference is almost entirely devoted to CQ Strategy, with specific application to leveraging diversity to drive innovation.

4. Equip for Adaptive Performance (CQ on the fly!).
I’m often asked for advice about how to handle a specific intercultural dilemma (e.g. “Our partner in Brazil consistently misses agreed upon deadlines. What should we do?”). My first response to most of these questions is, “It depends!”. It sounds like a cop out and it’s fair to expect me to offer some additional guidance. But working and living in today’s multicultural, globalized world requires a much more situational, strategic approach that is informed by understanding about cultural differences without over applying them to every situation.

We’re doing a lot of work currently with the special forces community in the U.S. military. Their leaders consistently tell me they have to find ways to equip their officers with “adaptive performance”—the ability to learn on the fly and figure things out as you go.

CQ predicts adaptive performance. But no one CQ capability leads to adaptive performance, and particularly not CQ Knowledge. All four are needed, otherwise, you end up with an insufficient approach.

Information by itself rarely solves anything. We know that, yet it becomes the easy default as soon as we encounter a need to work better with a different group. Clearly there’s a place for teaching cultural differences but resist the urge to build knowledge too quickly. There are far more important components to developing cultural intelligence.

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