First, let’s get this out of the way. Your employer probably doesn’t have a resource group for straight white guys like us. Get over it. It’s also highly likely that we, as a group, probably don’t have issues specific to our group identity where we would need our own group to safely talk about them. If there’s an issue that affects us, it’s affecting all employees.
Still, it can feel a bit awkward when the folks we work with have their own groups, and have their own discussions, and we don’t really feel like we belong. Let’s face it, even when one of those groups is offering an event for all employees to attend, we feel a bit awkward about it. I get it. Seriously, when I worked in an office and there was a diversity presentation going on, it’s hard not to feel like everyone noticed when the white dude from IT walked in, right? So I rarely did. (Whether that was true or not, I felt it.)
Luckily, with everything having remote options now, it’s actually pretty easy to pop in and simply listen without really being noticed, or at least, feeling a bit better about not being noticed.
And, really, you should. Everyone should. Not because you necessarily have anything to add, but because you have an opportunity to listen.
Listening to different groups of people talk about their issues will open your eyes to the things that we, as white men, don’t notice. It gives us the opportunity to hear about racism and sexism that still happens to real people that we know and interact with every day. The stories about things like street harassment aren’t happening to random women complaining online, they are happening to the same women I just spent hours working through a project with, the people who’ve been victims of racist violence aren’t random names in the news, they are the folks we were just chatting about the weather with before a conference call, and collaborating with on documentation for the last week. The things we might read about adding pronouns to an email signature make it sound like a decent thing to do, but hearing someone you work with talk about how life-affirming it is to not be the “one” person at the company doing it? Yeah, it hits different when you hear that from someone you know.
So, as much as I have gone about my professional life glad that there were resource groups available but not really paying much attention to them, I’ve recently made a change and tried to drop in and listen where I could. It’s been a challenge. These are not fun, light, conversations. They shouldn’t be.
Listening to these things is hard. It hurts. I could choose to remain ignorant about them, and we all know ignorance is bliss. I guess we get that privilege, the privilege to choose to remain ignorant if we want to. Everyone else? They don’t get that. Those people we work with everyday, the people we interact with in our personal and professional lives, deserve to have someone listen to, and understand, their stories and experiences, and we have a chance to do that now just by sitting and listening in an online meeting.
Similarly, I have also listened to the testimony of victims involved in the current scandal and investigation of LSU’s total lack of Title IX compliance around campus sexual assaults right here in town, and have visited historical sites like Whitney Plantation, the only museum dedicated to the lives of enslaved people in Louisiana. (If you’re in the area, go.)
Both of those things also involved simply listening, and learning.
Like I said, these things hit different when it’s coming from someone or someplace you know. The LSU stuff hits different because it’s right here in town. My wife works there, pre-COVID we spent a ton of time on campus, seeing these students at events and strolling between classes.
As a survivor of sexual violence myself, those LSU testimonies hurt. I hurt for them. I hurt with them. I’ve gotten angry and I’ve cried while listening to them. I’ve read the now infamous Husch Blackwell Report and gotten angry and sad all over again, because I see myself in those stories of someone being victimized and having nowhere to go.
What the ERGs where I work have created is a situation where I now have that same reaction. Not that I see myself, but I see people like me, who do a similar job to me, have a similar educational and professional background, and who also have to deal with racism, sexism, gender-based and race-based violence, and harassment. It brings it home. It’s no longer something that happens “out there”, it’s something that is happening right here, in my circle. That hits different, and allowing it to hit different makes me a better human being and, I hope, a better co-worker as well.
So, if your company has groups for people of color, women, LGBTQIA, etc., and allow for anyone to join their events, try to do so. Listen. Find out what people need, find ways to help, to get involved in solving the problems instead of blissfully ignoring them. Keep learning, and growing.
Most of all, acknowledge that you and I have some ability to help create space for others who don’t look like we do in our professional world, and do what you can. I know many of you reading this are leaders, or desire to be leaders, in your workplace. What better way to demonstrate leadership than working to create a diverse, safe, environment for people to flourish?
Lastly, if your workplace doesn’t have any ERGs, maybe pass around an article like this one: