Lesson 2: Acknowledging White Male Privilege
I recently spent a week in the middle of India facilitating an extraordinary leadership immersion programe created by The Hunger Project. Instead of attending courses at Harvard or INSEAD, twenty leaders from a large financial services company went to India to learn about leadership from women elected to serve on their local village councils (‘gram panchayat’).
I learned a lot from these women but to my surprise the most impactful was what the world needs most from me as a man. There were seven lessons in total. This article is the second in a series.
I met Reka at one of the elected women’s monthly training sessions. We’d been there for a couple of hours and I was finding it hard to concentrate. It was over 40°C inside (104°F). The intermittent fans only made things worse, pushing even hotter air from the ceiling down on top of us. My bottom was numb from sitting on the floor cross-legged for so long. The translator was hard to hear.
But then Reka told her story. She wore a brilliant purple sari and was bedecked with silver and gold bangles. Her voice was quiet but clear and her gaze unswerving. I was transfixed.
The region she comes from suffers from severe drought in spring and summer. Amongst many other tasks, the women are responsible for fetching water each day for their families. Their only source is a local spring. Even those living close by must carry more than ten litres of water (weighing twenty-two pounds plus the container) twice a day on their heads. Some walk more than a kilometre (0.6 miles) each way.
Unfortunately, local men from a privileged caste regularly used the spring to perform their ablutions. Even worse, in spite of pleas from Reka and other women, the men would often urinate and even defecate in the water. As an elected representative Reka tried to raise this issue at the ‘panchayat’ (the village council), but was told by the men she would not be allowed to table the matter. The next month, she tried to raise it again but was pushed back.
A month later, having learned about the power of collective action at her training session from The Hunger Project, Reka arrived at the council meeting with a group of her fellow elected women representatives to increase the pressure. But through crafty political manoeuvring, the men on the council again pushed her back and the matter was not discussed.
To make matters worse, not only were the bathers at the spring polluting the water, they began taunting the women as if to say, “Just try and stop us.”
Reka would not be deterred. She and her colleagues discussed the matter with anyone who would listen, including women from the same privileged caste as the bathers. They were sympathetic when they heard what was going on. Finally, after four months of trying, Reka had a critical mass of support to ensure the issue was raised at the next ‘panchayat’ meeting.
In spite of continued resistance from some men on the council, it was decided to end the practice of personal ablutions in the spring. They also voted to install tube wells and hand pumps to make gathering water easier. With the council now supporting the project, the new infrastructure took only took a couple of months to complete. Clean water was finally available for all.
I was delighted for Reka. She was happy with the outcome. All she wanted was clean water and now she had it.
But I was uneasy. Men who shat in other people’s drinking water, just because they could, were still roaming free! What about them?
Then I remembered a radio interview with Jim Wallis, an American church leader who has been raising hackles all over the US talking about white privilege. He says, “If you’re white and don’t know what white privilege is, you’ve got it!”
John Coonrod, Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project, said it another way with similar dry humour, “I used to think everything I achieved was by my own resources, skills and intelligence.”
It made me wonder if my attitudes were that different from the Indian bathers. I have to accept I am the beneficiary of white male privilege. Through dumb luck and no effort of my own, I was dealt four aces at birth. I was born into a loving, middle class family in Canada. I attended an exclusive, all male private school and two elite universities full of men like me. We helped each other along the way with jobs, contacts and contracts. At no cost to us, a system constructed exclusively for our benefit was dropped into our laps.
What about the women in my life? My mother sacrificed a potentially glittering career in advertising to raise her four boys. My wife gave up her role as UK manager of a US company to raise our baby and allow me to pursue my career. There was little discussion; it just happened.
Until recently I’ve gone through life unaware and unappreciative of this unmerited grace bestowed upon me. And now everywhere I look I see men like me enjoying success, convinced it comes from the fruit of their own labour, and unaware how ridiculously lucky they are.
I’ve heard many men protest, with sincerity, they’ve done nothing wrong. It’s other men, they say. They glaze over when a discussion starts, convinced it has nothing to do with them. But even if we don’t consciously exploit it, men benefit from ‘male privilege’ and women do not.
The real issue is not about the behavior of individual men shitting in a well, passing over a woman for a promotion, or bragging in a bar how smart they are. Or even denying there’s a problem at all. The issue is our collective failure to recognize the ‘invisible’ structure inside which we live and these attitudes flourish.
It would be transformational if men stopped either exploiting or ignoring it, and looked for ourselves at the structure. Let’s make an effort to understand how much it is rigged in our favour, holding women back.
Marginalised people, in particular women, have done a lot to advance their own cause. They now need us privileged men to be their partners.
There is a quote from Jesus who recognised this issue two millennia ago, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required.”
Reka taught me a good lesson. But the challenge for me is to acknowledge the ‘water I swim in’: the invisible system I benefit from holding others back.
Watch out for manhood lesson #3: Don’t Do It Alone
The Hunger Project is a global NGO committed to the end of hunger and poverty by pioneering sustainable, grassroots, women-centered strategies and advocating for their widespread adoption in countries throughout the world. In India they coordinate the training and development of the most marginalised elected women leaders for the entire five years of their tenure in office, enabling them to be effective in ending hunger and poverty in their villages.