‘White men’ are considered to ‘have it all’. But Snéha Khilay reflects on her experience of training senior managers and argues that white men don’t always have it easy. She’s found that white men often shy away from confronting their fear of being labelled racist or sexist.
There’s an assumption that being a white man is easy, that if you are white, you’re right and can do whatever you want, there are no holds barred – a selection of jobs, promotions galore, choices in where you live and no suspicious sideways glances based on colour. Simply put, because you are white you are perceived to have everything and be part of an ‘exclusive’ society.
However, during my coaching and training sessions, I have come to realise that white men do care and don’t always have it easy. I recently investigated allegations of racism made by a black woman against a white man. The white man was devastated that he had been accused of what he considered a heinous crime and the resulting effect this allegation, even when not upheld, would have on his professional life. There was no evidence to indicate that he had behaved in a way that could be construed as racist and the allegation was dismissed. I was nonetheless conscious that just the nature of the allegations and the investigation would have a devastating effect on him and his future behaviour. The impact might even spiral; he would be hyper-conscious of his behaviour towards black and minority ethnic staff, who in turn could interpret his resulting cautious behaviour as racism. And so the cycle continues…
There is a flip side to the coin. Managers have told me informally during breaks (in training sessions) that they, at times, feel pressured to overcompensate in dealings with women and black and minority ethnic staff due to the fear that otherwise they could be perceived as discriminatory. They felt they had to go the extra mile to justify their decisions to the extent that, on occasions, they even considered allowing poor performance to continue rather than confront the member of staff concerned due to the attendant risk of being labelled racist or sexist.
One manager said he regularly gave in to an individual’s requests to finish early on Fridays although he knew it wasn’t legitimate for this staff member to finish early. On two occasions when he refused, he was accused of being racist and somehow it seemed easier to cave in to an unjustified request than confront allegations of racism.
During one-to-one coaching sessions (white male) managers have shared (with me, an Asian woman) their anxieties and dilemmas about ‘getting it wrong’. They recognise that the coaching process is a safe place to air and explore views, without worrying about knowing the right answer. Interestingly, many managers acknowledge that they feel unable to discuss these concerns with colleagues or the Human Resources team as they fear raising such issues might have detrimental repercussions on performance appraisals or promotion (‘inadequate management skills/knowledge on diversity issues’).
One manager told me that he was under considerable stress at work – he had witnessed sexual harassment toward younger women. But he felt unable to expose this harassment as he knew that if he did, he would be ostracised by the men in the team and wouldn’t be invited to after-work drinks to catch up on the office politics and promotion prospects. He was also conscious that, in the current economy, he simply couldn’t afford to whistle blow as staff were being made redundant by the very same men who were harassing the women. Feeling powerless had caused the same man to suffer from headaches and nausea as well as anguish as to what sort of a role model he was to his five year old daughter.
The underlying theme in all these situations is the fear of being ‘told off’. A director, in his late 50s, from the north of England, said he had been reprimanded publicly when he used the term ‘coloured’ and was told unequivocally that this term was offensive. He explained that he had understood that using the term ‘black’ was considered insulting and hadn’t realised that the ‘politically correct’ language had changed. He said he wished someone had explained this to him rather than treating him with contempt in front of colleagues as this had made him feel humiliated.
There is a saying that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke) The ‘good’ white men I have met over the years genuinely do not know quite how to promote equality and this compounds their biggest fear – being perceived as evil. When confronted with the seemingly incomprehensible labyrinth of unwritten rules as to what is deemed as acceptable practice, I certainly do not see these men as evil; simply (and sadly) helpless.
Snéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk.