Designing for Diversity

Inclusive design is often confused with simply designing for people with disabilities. However, true inclusive design is much more than this — it is about designing for as diverse a range of people possible. It is a philosophy that encourages us to consider how size, shape, age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, education levels, income, spoken languages, culture & customs, and even diets shape the way we interact with the world. More importantly, it is about designing products and services in light of this understanding.

A list of some of the factors that should be considered for inclusive design — size & shape, gender & sexuality, ethnicity, income & social class, education & training, languages &communication, culture & customs, diets, and age

Designing for Mr Average

Not so long ago, the term ‘inclusive design’ did not exist. There was also a view among many that one-size may fit all, and designing for an ‘average man’ was good enough.

Today, we are still surrounded by products that only work well for a limited range of people. Some are hard to interact with if your hands are small, or you have limited strength or dexterity. Others don’t fit because of the shape of your nose or torso, others are biased toward those who speak a certain language or follow certain customs.

It is not always completely clear why products are designed to exclude people. Often, it’s a perceived efficiency-thoroughness trade off — a variant of the 80:20 rule, that crudely suggests that you can get it right for 80% of the people for 20% of the effort, while it takes a further 80% of the effort to get it right for the remaining 20%. However, much of the time it is simply that the designers haven’t thought enough about the diversity of the people who wish to interact with the product that they are designing, often because it’s not in the culture of the company.

How big a problem is this?

It is also often the case that the number of excluded people is dramatically underestimated. Capabilities are frequently thought of in binary terms. For example, you can either see or you can’t, or you can hear or you can’t. In reality, our sensory, cognitive and physical capabilities all tend to sit on a long spectrum. Some on this spectrum are excluded altogether, while a much greater number are inconvenienced. To complicate things further, these spectrums are rarely linear; in many cases, they are multi-dimensional.

Taking sight as just one example, the range of capabilities is incredibly complicated. Some people can see perfectly well without any form of correction, others require spectacles to see things that are far away or very close, others take longer to shift focus, or perhaps struggle in low light, some are unable to perceive colour, while others have a limited field of view (tunnel vision, or only peripheral vision), or monocular vision. The remaining senses are just the same, whether it is hearing touch, smell or taste — some people may have no sensation at all, however, a much larger group have different capabilities on multi-dimensional spectrums.

Physical capabilities are very similar. These include the kind of capabilities that we might naturally think about when we consider inclusive design, such as mobility, strength, flexibility, dexterity and reach. Just like our sensory capabilities, they each lie on a spectrum.

Our cognitive abilities also lie on a spectrum, and it’s not quite as simple as a link to IQ. Some people may have exceptional memories, problem-solving skills, communication abilities, recognition or attention. However, our capability in one aspect is rarely an accurate predictor for another.

To complicate things further, our capabilities are rarely fixed. As we become tired or fatigued, our capabilities may drop off. Likewise, things change as we age or as a result of events in our lives, perhaps some form of trauma.

Three aspects of usability — sensory (sight, hearing, touch, smell & taste), cognitive (memory, problem-solving, communication, recognition & attention), and physical (reach, dexterity, flexibility, strength, & mobility)

Downhill from forty

The old adage ‘it’s downhill from forty’ is not strictly true, in terms of our capabilities, it is actually more like mid-thirties! In early childhood, our sensory, cognitive, and physical capabilities improve very quickly. We master our senses at a relatively young age, while it typically takes much longer until we reach our peak in terms of physical and cognitive capabilities (in our early thirties). However, by our mid-thirties we are broadly at our peak on all of these, from then on we tend to start to see a general degradation as we age. By the time we reach retirement age, strength may be 50% of its peak, we also tend to shrink (by around 5%), while our sensory abilities also tend to deteriorate. Eye reaction time doubles, we require around twice as much light to read, we lose high-frequency hearing, and our sense of taste and smell become much less sensitive — often resulting in older people using much more salt, pepper and flavourings in cooking.

However, we are increasingly remaining in work for much longer. As such, the role of inclusive design is becoming more important if we wish to remain an efficient and effective part of the workforce.

Why design for a more diverse market?

The ethical case for inclusive design is easy to understand. Most of us want to live in a world where we all have an equal chance of engaging with society, participating in different activities, living independently. With an ageing population is most parts of the world, it also makes a good case at a societal level. But it’s a philosophy that also makes great business sense, and one that is embraced by some of the world’s leading companies to develop a larger customer base, improve customer satisfaction, reduced returns & servicing, increased brand reputation, and improved staff morale.

Perhaps the most credible business case is designing products that a greater number of people choose to buy and remain happy with — largely because of a greater fit with their capabilities. When thinking about capabilities it’s useful to think of them on three levels:

1. Permanent (e.g. having one arm)

2. Temporary (e.g. an arm injury)

3. Situational (e.g. holding a small child)

The market for people with one arm is relatively small, however, a product that can be used by people carrying a small child (or using one of their arms for another task) is much larger. As such, designing for the smaller market of permanent exclusions is often a very effective way of developing products that make the lives of a much wider group more flexibility, efficient and enjoyable.

Doing it…

Given the range of human capabilities that a designer has to consider, it is perhaps possible to understand why it is an area that is often overlooked. However, inclusive design does not have to be too taxing, particularly when it is embedded as a natural part of the design process.

The relationship between understand, define and evaluate

The first step on the path to designing more inclusive products is to understand where the current challenges are. The diagrams above can be useful prompts for this — firstly by thinking about the demands that the device places on people at a sensory, cognitive and physical level, and secondly by considering which aspects of human diversity may influence the interaction with the device (these are prompts rather than an exhaustive list).

The second step is to make informed decisions about the product specification. This includes balancing the needs of inclusion with other measures of system performance (such as efficiency, efficacy, safety, flexibility, and satisfaction). At the early stages of the design, the specification should always be seen as a ‘living document’ that should be refined and updated as the design matures.

The task does not end here however, the remaining step is to continually test and evaluate the design throughout the design process. In reality, this means testing against the specification (and relevant standards) but also testing with as diverse a range of users as possible. While much can be done based on methods and tools, there really is no substitute for testing with people.

Understanding how to make the product better is, of course, just one part of the challenge. Getting more inclusive products to market relies on the buy-in of the wider product team — a commitment to design better products that are appreciated and valued by a diverse range of people and, by doing so, achieve better commercial success.

How to Be an Ally to Women at Work

The problem is we’re moving in the wrong direction.

For the last two years, LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey have partnered to understand better what men and women are experiencing in the workplace in the #MeToo era in the US and UK.

60% of managers who are men in the US and 40% of managers who are men in the UK are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together.1

Senior-level men are now far more hesitant to spend time with junior women than junior men across a range of basic work activities such as 1-on-1 meetings, travel, and work dinners.2

We need to actively support women at work, including by mentoring and sponsoring them. Men—who are the majority of managers and senior leaders—can help make this happen.

Getting This Right Matters

Mentorship is critical

Mentorship is critical to the success of women across industries. We all benefit when a colleague shows us the ropes and sponsors us for new opportunities—particularly when they’re more senior, as men often are.3 This type of support can be especially impactful for women of color, who are less likely to receive career guidance from managers and senior leaders.4

People with mentors are more likely to get promoted.5

Women get less support

Women get less of the mentorship and sponsorship that opens doors.6 Whether this is driven by sexism or because men (perhaps unconsciously) gravitate toward helping other men, the result is that women miss out.7 Making matters worse, the number of men who are uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled since the recent media coverage on sexual harassment.8

Women are 24% less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders.9

And 62% of women of color say the lack of an influential mentor holds them back.10

What happens if men don’t take action

Women are already underrepresented in most organizations, especially at senior levels.11 If fewer men mentor women, fewer women will rise to leadership. As long as this imbalance of power remains, women and other marginalized groups are at greater risk of being overlooked, undermined, and harassed.12


Sexual harassment is twice as common in male-dominated organizations as it is in female-dominated organizations.13

What happens if men step up

If more men mentor women, it will ultimately lead to stronger and safer workplaces for everyone. When more women are in leadership, organizations offer employees more generous policies14 and produce better business results.15 And when organizations employ more women, sexual harassment is less prevalent.16

Organizations with diverse leadership realize higher profits.17

How to Speak up about Racism at Work

A firestorm of outrage, unrest and protest punctuates days and floods timelines in the wake of the senseless lynching of Ahmaud Arbery and the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Since the un-marginalized world awoke from its slumber with a riotous cry of #BlackLivesMatter, everyone wants in. Major brands and smaller companies are scrambling  to show solidarity, with perfected performative posts that condemn racism. My Insta timeline is drowning in a sea of black squares, civil rights quotes, and carefully curated videos from corporate heavyweights. Even my tweets featured a somber black bird instead of their ubiquitous blue and white logo. Still, the silence is deafening for the Black professionals and allies who continue to message me about how their companies choose to show up — or not.

Here’s the thing: diversity and inclusion work is a marathon, not a sprint. Marathons demand endurance. And endurance requires preparation. You don’t just show up to the starting line to run 26.2 miles without a plan. You train day by day until you complete the race. Right now, companies are racing to allyship. Organizations are sprinting to show support, to show up for a marathon they never trained for. We’ve gone from pandemic to protest, and let’s face it, not many companies were racing toward racial equity before this all began. They quietly collected medals and checked boxes to register for the race, but never showed up at the starting line. Now that the curtain of injustice is pulled back, everyone’s slips are showing, as my grandma would say.

Now that the curtain of injustice is pulled back, everyone’s slips are showing, as my grandma would say.

Corporate America spends millions of dollars on diversity and inclusion, but their efforts often fall flat for Black professionals, who are disheartened by seeing their corporations and colleagues clamor to create distance between themselves and the issues. According to the Center of Talent Innovation (CTI) Being Black in Corporate America 2020 study, the subject of race is more of a “third rail” at work — preventing the frank exploration of its merits and allowing systems of privilege to remain in place. Experiencing the trauma of racial injustice while advocating for change, especially in the workplace, is exhausting for black professionals. Even more cringey is employees succumbing to silence for fear of losing their livelihood.

Corporate America spends millions of dollars on diversity and inclusion, but their efforts often fall flat for Black professionals, who are disheartened by seeing their corporations and colleagues clamor to create distance between themselves and the issues.

That fear enables companies, especially those with predominantly white leadership at key levels, to cling to what’s codified in their handbooks and value statements, yet fail to acknowledge and address the systemic racism that exists within their walls.

Activism is my rent for living on this planet. – Alice Walker

Despite the source of the ignition, it’s been beautiful to see the spark of national and global outpouring against racial injustice. Yet in many offices, virtual or otherwise, Black professionals and our allies are left with more questions than answers. What should I do if my company is silent about racism? How can I take a stand? Amplify my voice? How do I address racism without losing my job? While I’m standing by to see which brands toe the line and which ones actually show up to run the race, I want to share four tips to become a workplace activist and activate allyship.

1. Find a Safe Place: Consider an internal ally with influence and access to key stakeholders that you can meet with or email. Share your transparent feedback. Be gentle in your discourse, but unapologetic in your perspective. Ask their views on how you might be able to help implement internal change, and who else might be willing to listen. This person should be someone who will know what is already being done at higher levels or who might be willing to take the lead on collective action throughout the organization. Activist Rachel Cargle created a downloadable letter template for Employer Accountability that you can use to hold your employer responsible.

2. Offer the Framework: If your organization is unclear on how to speak up or take a stance because of the lack of diversity in the C-suite or otherwise, offer yourself as a conduit for appropriate tools. There are already amazing allies like Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein who have created and circulated an anti-racism toolkit, and From Privilege to Progress, who has designed a framework for Allyship (Learn, Speak Up, Amplify). Ground your messaging in solutions and help internal teams work smarter, not harder. The resources are available and you can help bridge the information gap. Not knowing where to begin is not an acceptable excuse for inaction.

3. Band Together: As an HR and D&I practitioner, it is deeply disturbing to hear from so many professionals who fear retaliatory action from their HR department. Legal protections are nuanced and complex, but banding together as a collective generally affords more protection to everyone. Rally other employees who share your concerns to speak out as a group. It’s harder to dismiss the feedback or retaliate against an entire group of professionals. Collectively, ask your company to support organizations like The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and The Center for Policing Equity. Request that your company makes financial investments in corporate social responsibility dollars, supporting anti-racist reform, policy change and racial equity.

4. Move On: Don’t be afraid to take your talent elsewhere. While the recent unemployment numbers might cause delays in finding a new job, it’s important to remember you always have options. Start strategizing now to align yourself with a company that better serves your professional needs, including mental health and psychological safety. No company should benefit from your Black brilliance, if the basic tenets of humanity escape them. Visit sites like Kanarys, who are doing the real work to ensure we improve inclusion and equity in the workplace, by normalizing equity transparency and pointing diverse talent in the right direction.

Toni Howard Lowe is a Career & Workforce Strategist focused on challenging Fortune 100, 200, and 500 organizations to eradicate pay disparity for women and bridge the career gap for underrepresented minority professionals entering and currently in the workforce. She is a go-to career cultivation expert and D&I trailblazer known for her passionate advocacy for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. Toni is a sought-after trainer, speaker, panelist and moderator. She has partnered with recognized brands and organizations like Google, Southwest Airlines, Ally Financial, BB&T, and United States Black Chamber of Commerce. Her insights have also appeared in Forbes, Fast Company, NBC News, Huffington Post, Black Enterprise, Business Management Daily, Glassdoor and many more, where she speaks as an expert on inclusive leadership and workforce insights.

Addressing Racism Starts with Having Meaningful Conversations

There is a renewed focus on racial disparities in society and the workplace since George Floyd was killed while in police custody. His death ignited protests around the world over how people of color are treated in the U.S. and elsewhere.

A panel of experts examined race relations in the workplace and fostering more inclusive workplaces during a webinar June 18 co-sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC). The webcast was moderated by Veta Richardson, president and CEO of the ACC and the presentation, “A New Understanding of Workplace Diversity and Inclusion,” is now available for on-demand viewing.

The conversations that organizations need to have with their employees must start by demonstrating empathy and respect in word and deed, said John Page, general counsel and chief diversity officer at Golden State Foods in Irvine, Calif.

He was among four panelists participating in “A New Understanding of Workplace Diversity and Inclusion,” the first of a two-part presentation by SHRM and the ACC.

The partnership brings together chief human resources officers (CHROs) and chief legal officers to examine workplace policies and support more inclusive workplaces. The second webcast is scheduled for June 25.

Overcoming Workplace Bias

The conversations, Page said, should convey “that we appreciate the pain folks are going through, the difficulty, the discomfort, and being honest and authentic about it.” At the C-suite level, leaders should start with listening, learning and focusing on the problem, and understanding “there will be folks who are uncomfortable [having these conversations]” and who view these discussions—consciously or unconsciously—as a challenge to the status quo, he added.

Page quoted Booker T. Washington, founder and first president of Tuskegee University, a private, historically black university in Tuskegee, Ala., who said, “There are two ways of exerting one’s strength: One is pushing down, one is pushing up.”

“So those in this country who feel they are losing power,” Page said, “… ask yourself, how are you exerting that strength?”

He recommended organizations start the conversation by agreeing on shared values to find common ground: “Do you believe in freedom? Do you believe in the pursuit of happiness? Do you believe they should be taken away? And I think that’s where the conversation began at Golden State Foods.”

Continued intentionality in diversity and inclusion is a significant part of what is missing in corporate America, said panelist April Miller Boise, general counsel at Eaton Corp., founded in the U.S. and headquartered in Dublin, Ireland.

“We have to be really intentional about the teams we are putting together and the actions we are taking to bring diversity to our organizations.”

The idea around affirmative action “was to be intentional in our actions around diversity and inclusion,” but it has developed a negative connotation, sometimes associated with giving people opportunities they don’t deserve, Boise said. Managers often say they want to hire the best candidate for a job, she added, but think there’s only one qualified candidate per role.

“There are a number of qualified candidates for every opportunity. We need to be really thoughtful as we think about those candidates. How are they adding to the experience we really need to see in our organization?”

The definition of diversity has been greatly expanded, Boise said.

“I’m definitely in favor of having a big tent [that includes many people]. Unfortunately, what has happened is this expanded definition of diversity has meant we are not focused on how we are retaining, promoting and ensuring the advancement of Black people. I think black people have been left behind in this diversity movement.”

Including women on boards of directors is important, Boise offered as an example, “but it’s not the only definition of equity.”

Panelist Michelle Nettles, chief people and culture officer at Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup, noted that her company had “a rich conversation” around the importance of including the words “racist”‘ and “racism” in a statement from the chairman and CEO that referenced recent events that point to systemic racism. Protesters in Milwaukee marched for days in support of Floyd and calling for an end to racial injustice.

Manpower’s CEO also is president of the local chamber of commerce. In that role, Nettles said, he began communitywide conversations about the inequities in Milwaukee and started conversations with partners around the world about the company’s role as a corporate citizen in addressing systemic racism.


The company is focusing on active listening, calling out racism and upskilling people of color so they can acquire the skills needed to earn a living wage, she said. Its partnerships also include one that registers voters and educates them on the importance of voting to implement change.

Panelist Steve Pemberton, CHRO at Workhuman, which is headquartered in Framingham, Mass., wrote “Answering the Question, What Can I Do?” as a companion piece to his CEO’s statement on the protests, in which the CEO asked people to channel their outrage into action. Pemberton, who is Black, said he wrote his article after many of his white colleagues, friends and family members asked him what they could and should do.

He recommends reading Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In it, Douglass, a Black abolitionist who escaped slavery, points out the inconsistences of America and the clash of equality espoused in the Constitution and the reality of slavery.

Pemberton also urged white people to “remember a time when you were forgotten, overlooked or on the receiving end of a harm that somebody tried to justify.” Doing so, he said, “gives you a window into the challenge we face every single day in some way, shape or form.”

In announcing the SHRM-ACC alliance, SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, noted that racism is still rampant in U.S. workplaces.

“Organizations need to put more resources into their inclusion and diversity efforts, and it is not the job of the chief diversity officer alone. CHROs and general counsels have an important role to play,” he said.

Other resources referenced during the panel discussion:

What Is White Privilege Really

Today, white privilege is often described through the lens of Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Originally published in 1988, the essay helps readers recognize white privilege by making its effects personal and tangible. For many, white privilege was an invisible force that white people needed to recognize. It was being able to walk into a store and find that the main displays of shampoo and panty hose were catered toward your hair type and skin tone. It was being able to turn on the television and see people of your race widely represented. It was being able to move through life without being racially profiled or unfairly stereotyped. All true.

This idea of white privilege as unseen, unconscious advantages took hold. It became easy for people to interpret McIntosh’s version of white privilege—fairly or not—as mostly a matter of cosmetics and inconvenience.

Those interpretations overshadow the origins of white privilege, as well as its present-day ability to influence systemic decisions. They overshadow the fact that white privilege is both a legacy and a cause of racism. And they overshadow the words of many people of color, who for decades recognized white privilege as the result of conscious acts and refused to separate it from historic inequities.

In short, we’ve forgotten what white privilege really means—which is all of this, all at once. And if we stand behind the belief that recognizing white privilege is integral to the anti-bias work of white educators, we must offer a broader recognition.

A recognition that does not silence the voices of those most affected by white privilege; a recognition that does not ignore where it comes from and why it has staying power.


Racism vs. White Privilege

Having white privilege and recognizing it is not racist. But white privilege exists because of historic, enduring racism and biases. Therefore, defining white privilege also requires finding working definitions of racism and bias.

So, what is racism? One helpful definition comes from Matthew Clair and Jeffrey S. Denis’s “Sociology on Racism.” They define racism as “individual- and group-level processes and structures that are implicated in the reproduction of racial inequality.” Systemic racism happens when these structures or processes are carried out by groups with power, such as governments, businesses or schools. Racism differs from bias, which is a conscious or unconscious prejudice against an individual or group based on their identity.

Basically, racial bias is a belief. Racism is what happens when that belief translates into action. For example, a person might unconsciously or consciously believe that people of color are more likely to commit crime or be dangerous. That’s a bias. A person might become anxious if they perceive a Black person is angry. That stems from a bias. These biases can become racism through a number of actions ranging in severity, and ranging from individual- to group-level responses:

  • A person crosses the street to avoid walking next to a group of young Black men.
  • A person calls 911 to report the presence of a person of color who is otherwise behaving lawfully.
  • A police officer shoots an unarmed person of color because he “feared for his life.”
  • A jury finds a person of color guilty of a violent crime despite scant evidence.
  • A federal intelligence agency prioritizes investigating Black and Latino activists rather than investigate white supremacist activity.

Both racism and bias rely on what sociologists call racialization. This is the grouping of people based on perceived physical differences, such as skin tone. This arbitrary grouping of people, historically, fueled biases and became a tool for justifying the cruel treatment and discrimination of non-white people. Colonialism, slavery and Jim Crow laws were all sold with junk science and propaganda that claimed people of a certain “race” were fundamentally different from those of another—and they should be treated accordingly. And while not all white people participated directly in this mistreatment, their learned biases and their safety from such treatment led many to commit one of those most powerful actions: silence.

And just like that, the trauma, displacement, cruel treatment and discrimination of people of color, inevitably, gave birth to white privilege.


So, What Is White Privilege?

White privilege is—perhaps most notably in this era of uncivil discourse—a concept that has fallen victim to its own connotations. The two-word term packs a double whammy that inspires pushback. 1) The word white creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race. And 2) the word privilege, especially for poor and rural white people, sounds like a word that doesn’t belong to them—like a word that suggests they have never struggled.

This defensiveness derails the conversation, which means, unfortunately, that defining white privilege must often begin with defining what it’s not. Otherwise, only the choir listens; the people you actually want to reach check out. White privilege is not the suggestion that white people have never struggled. Many white people do not enjoy the privileges that come with relative affluence, such as food security. Many do not experience the privileges that come with access, such as nearby hospitals.

And white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there. Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.

Francis E. Kendall, author of Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Racecomes close to giving us an encompassing definition: “having greater access to power and resources than people of color [in the same situation] do.” But in order to grasp what this means, it’s also important to consider how the definition of white privilege has changed over time.


White Privilege Through the Years

In a thorough article, education researcher Jacob Bennett tracked the history of the term. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “white privilege” was less commonly used but generally referred to legal and systemic advantages given to white people by the United States, such as citizenship, the right to vote or the right to buy a house in the neighborhood of their choice.

It was only after discrimination persisted for years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that people like Peggy McIntosh began to view white privilege as being more psychological—a subconscious prejudice perpetuated by white people’s lack of awareness that they held this power. White privilege could be found in day-to-day transactions and in white people’s ability to move through the professional and personal worlds with relative ease.



But some people of color continued to insist that an element of white privilege included the aftereffects of conscious choices. For example, if white business leaders didn’t hire many people of color, white people had more economic opportunities. Having the ability to maintain that power dynamic, in itself, was a white privilege, and it endures. Legislative bodies, corporate leaders and educators are still disproportionately white and often make conscious choices (laws, hiring practices, discipline procedures) that keep this cycle on repeat.

The more complicated truth: White privilege is both unconsciously enjoyed and consciously perpetuated. It is both on the surface and deeply embedded into American life. It is a weightless knapsack—and a weapon.

It depends on who’s carrying it.


White Privilege as the “Power of Normal”

Sometimes the examples used to make white privilege visible to those who have it are also the examples least damaging to people who lack it. But that does not mean these examples do not matter or that they do no damage at all.

These subtle versions of white privilege are often used as a comfortable, easy entry point for people who might push back against the concept. That is why they remain so popular. These are simple, everyday things, conveniences white people aren’t forced to think about.

These often-used examples include:

  • The first-aid kit having “flesh-colored” Band-Aids that only match the skin tone of white people.
  • The products white people need for their hair being in the aisle labeled “hair care” rather than in a smaller, separate section of “ethnic hair products.”
  • The grocery store stocking a variety of food options that reflect the cultural traditions of most white people.

But the root of these problems is often ignored. These types of examples can be dismissed by white people who might say, “My hair is curly and requires special product,” or “My family is from Poland, and it’s hard to find traditional Polish food at the grocery store.”

This may be true. But the reason even these simple white privileges need to be recognized is that the damage goes beyond the inconvenience of shopping for goods and services. These privileges are symbolic of what we might call “the power of normal.” If public spaces and goods seem catered to one race and segregate the needs of people of other races into special sections, that indicates something beneath the surface.

White people become more likely to move through the world with an expectation that their needs be readily met. People of color move through the world knowing their needs are on the margins. Recognizing this means recognizing where gaps exist.


White Privilege as the “Power of the Benefit of the Doubt”

The “power of normal” goes beyond the local CVS. White people are also more likely to see positive portrayals of people who look like them on the news, on TV shows and in movies. They are more likely to be treated as individuals, rather than as representatives of (or exceptions to) a stereotyped racial identity. In other words, they are more often humanized and granted the benefit of the doubt. They are more likely to receive compassion, to be granted individual potential, to survive mistakes.

This has negative effects for people of color, who, without this privilege, face the consequences of racial profiling, stereotypes and lack of compassion for their struggles.

In these scenarios, white privilege includes the facts that:

  • White people are less likely to be followed, interrogated or searched by law enforcement because they look “suspicious.”
  •  White people’s skin tone will not be a reason people hesitate to trust their credit or financial responsibility.
  •  If white people are accused of a crime, they are less likely to be presumed guilty, less likely to be sentenced to death and more likely to be portrayed in a fair, nuanced manner by media outlets (see the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign).
  •  The personal faults or missteps of white people will likely not be used to later deny opportunities or compassion to people who share their racial identity.

This privilege is invisible to many white people because it seems reasonable that a person should be extended compassion as they move through the world. It seems logical that a person should have the chance to prove themselves individually before they are judged. It’s supposedly an American ideal.

But it’s a privilege often not granted to people of color—with dire consequences.

For example, programs like New York City’s now-abandoned “Stop and Frisk” policy target a disproportionate number of Black and Latinx people. People of color are more likely to be arrested for drug offenses despite using at a similar rate to white people. Some people do not survive these stereotypes. In 2017, people of color who were unarmed and not attacking anyone were more likely to be killed by police.

Those who survive instances of racial profiling—be they subtle or violent—do not escape unaffected. They often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and this trauma in turn affects their friends, families and immediate communities, who are exposed to their own vulnerability as a result.

study conducted in Australia (which has its own hard history of subjugating Black and Indigenous people) perfectly illustrates how white privilege can manifest in day-to-day interactions—daily reminders that one is not worthy of the same benefit of the doubt given to another. In the experiment, people of different racial and ethnic identities tried to board public buses, telling the driver they didn’t have enough money to pay for the ride. Researchers documented more than 1,500 attempts. The results: 72 percent of white people were allowed to stay on the bus. Only 36 percent of Black people were extended the same kindness.

Just as people of color did nothing to deserve this unequal treatment, white people did not “earn” disproportionate access to compassion and fairness. They receive it as the byproduct of systemic racism and bias.

And even if they are not aware of it in their daily lives as they walk along the streets, this privilege is the result of conscious choices made long ago and choices still being made today.


White Privilege as the “Power of Accumulated Power”

Perhaps the most important lesson about white privilege is the one that’s taught the least.

The “power of normal” and the “power of the benefit of the doubt” are not just subconscious byproducts of past discrimination. They are the purposeful results of racism—an ouroboros of sorts—that allow for the constant re-creation of inequality.

These powers would not exist if systemic racism hadn’t come first. And systemic racism cannot endure unless those powers still hold sway.

You can imagine it as something of a whiteness water cycle, wherein racism is the rain. That rain populates the earth, giving some areas more access to life and resources than others. The evaporation is white privilege—an invisible phenomenon that is both a result of the rain and the reason it keeps going.

McIntosh asked herself an important question that inspired her famous essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”: “On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn?” Our work should include asking the two looming follow-up questions: Who built that system? Who keeps it going?

The answers to those questions could fill several books. But they produce examples of white privilege that you won’t find in many broad explainer pieces.

For example, the ability to accumulate wealth has long been a white privilege—a privilege created by overt, systemic racism in both the public and private sectors. In 2014, the Pew Research Center released a report that revealed the median net worth of a white household was $141,900; for Black and Hispanic households, that dropped to $11,000 and $13,700, respectively. The gap is huge, and the great “equalizers” don’t narrow it. Research from Brandeis University and Demos found that the racial wealth gap is not closed when people of color attend college (the median white person who went to college has 7.2 times more wealth than the median Black person who went to college, and 3.9 times more than the median Latino person who went to college). Nor do they close the gap when they work full time, or when they spend less and save more.

The gap, instead, relies largely on inheritance—wealth passed from one generation to the next. And that wealth often comes in the form of inherited homes with value. When white families are able to accumulate wealth because of their earning power or home value, they are more likely to support their children into early adulthood, helping with expenses such as college education, first cars and first homes. The cycle continues.

This is a privilege denied to many families of color, a denial that started with the work of public leaders and property managers. After World War II, when the G.I. Bill provided white veterans with “a magic carpet to the middle class,” racist zoning laws segregated towns and cities with sizable populations of people of color—from Baltimore to Birmingham, from New York to St. Louis, from Louisville to Oklahoma City, to Chicago, to Austin, and in cities beyond and in between.

These exclusionary zoning practices evolved from city ordinances to redlining by the Federal Housing Administration (which wouldn’t back loans to Black people or those who lived close to Black people), to more insidious techniques written into building codes. The result: People of color weren’t allowed to raise their children and invest their money in neighborhoods with “high home values.” The cycle continues today. Before the 2008 crash, people of color were disproportionately targeted for subprime mortgages. And neighborhood diversity continues to correlate with low property values across the United States. According to the Century Foundation, one-fourth of Black Americans living in poverty live in high-poverty neighborhoods; only 1 in 13 impoverished white Americans lives in a high-poverty neighborhood.

The inequities compound. To this day, more than 80 percent of poor Black students attend a high-poverty school, where suspension rates are often higher and resources often more limited. Once out of school, obstacles remain. Economic forgiveness and trust still has racial divides. In a University of Wisconsin study, 17 percent of white job applicants with a criminal history got a call back from an employer; only five percent of Black applicants with a criminal history got call backs. And according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Black Americans are 105 percent more likely than white people to receive a high-cost mortgage, with Latino Americans 78 percent more likely. This is after controlling for variables such as credit score and debt-to-income ratios.

Why mention these issues in an article defining white privilege? Because the past and present context of wealth inequality serves as a perfect example of white privilege.

If privilege, from the Latin roots of the term, refers to laws that have an impact on individuals, then what is more effective than a history of laws that explicitly targeted racial minorities to keep them out of neighborhoods and deny them access to wealth and services?

If white privilege is “having greater access to power and resources than people of color [in the same situation] do,” then what is more exemplary than the access to wealth, the access to neighborhoods and the access to the power to segregate cities, deny loans and perpetuate these systems?

This example of white privilege also illustrates how systemic inequities trickle down to less harmful versions of white privilege. Wealth inequity contributes to the “power of the benefit of the doubt” every time a white person is given a lower mortgage rate than a person of color with the same credit credentials. Wealth inequity reinforces the “power of normal” every time businesses assume their most profitable consumer base is the white base and adjust their products accordingly.

And this example of white privilege serves an important purpose: It re-centers the power of conscious choices in the conversation about what white privilege is.

People can be ignorant about these inequities, of course. According to the Pew Research Center, only 46 percent of white people say that they benefit “a great deal” or “a fair amount” from advantages that society does not offer to Black people. But conscious choices were and are made to uphold these privileges. And this goes beyond loan officers and lawmakers. Multiple surveys have shown that many white people support the idea of racial equality but are less supportive of policies that could make it more possible, such as reparations, affirmative action or law enforcement reform.

In that way, white privilege is not just the power to find what you need in a convenience store or to move through the world without your race defining your interactions. It’s not just the subconscious comfort of seeing a world that serves you as normal. It’s also the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequity. It’s the power to weigh the need for protest or confrontation against the discomfort or inconvenience of speaking up. It’s getting to choose when and where you want to take a stand. It’s knowing that you and your humanity are safe.

And what a privilege that is.

Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.

​​​​​​​So, what can I do once I recognize my white privilege?


Beyond recognition, white people can use their white privilege in a way that is beneficial to all people. Here’s how.*

Don’t take it personally or use discomfort as an excuse to disengage.

Feelings of guilt or defensiveness are common responses, but ultimately, they’re counterproductive. Rather than centering your own feelings of discomfort, center the feelings of people of color in evaluating what to do with this information. If your instinct is telling you it’s more comfortable to retreat or reassure yourself that you are not racist, think instead, What actions can I take to help?

Learn when to listen, when to amplify and when to speak up.

When people of color speak to their experiences of oppression, it’s important for white people not to dominate the conversation or question those experiences. You can use your privilege to amplify those voices. Share the work and perspectives of people of color on social media. Credit colleagues of color for ideas. This not only helps marginalized people reach that audience but also helps spread their message from the source, rather than through the lens of a white person.

That said, there are also times when white people should speak up. It’s not fair to burden people of color by making them always take the lead on anti-bias work or intervening when something offensive is said or done. If you hear racist remarks, speak up. If you see opportunities to educate fellow white people about race, do so. As an ally, your privilege can be a tool to reach people who may be more likely to listen to you or relate to your journey in understanding your own relationship to race and white privilege.

Educate yourself.

Just as you should not always expect people of color to take the lead on speaking out against racism, you also shouldn’t expect them to educate you on racism. While it’s OK to ask questions of those who have expressed a willingness to answer them, you have the power to educate yourself. Seek out books and articles on the topic written by people of color. Critically evaluate documentaries that surround topics like slavery, race, the U.S. prison system and more. We have more access to information created by people of color than ever before. Take advantage of it, and avoid burdening friends or coworkers of color with constant questions about their experiences.

Educate fellow white people.

Share what you’ve learned. Push through discomfort and demand courageous conversations in your circles. Do not let peers get away with problematic remarks without making a serious effort to engage them.

Risk your unearned benefits to benefit others.

You have most likely seen a viral video featuring Joy DeGruy talking about her biracial sister-in-law using her white skin privilege to question why Joy was receiving undue scrutiny from a cashier. She risks her comfort and her easy transactions with the store to point out this unfairness and ultimately receives support from witnesses and management.

There are other ways to do this in our daily lives. It can be as simple as intervening if you see a boss or fellow educator treating someone differently because of their racial identity. It can mean advocating for a coworker to receive equal pay or opportunities. It can mean being an active witness when you see people of color confronted by law enforcement or harassed by bigots and letting them know you are there to support them and record the interaction if necessary. And it most certainly can mean engaging directly in anti-bias work, such as instilling more inclusive practices at your school or business or working with people committed to allyship and anti-racist activism, such as SURJ.

*Some of these steps were adapted from suggestions in Emily Chiariello’s “Why Talk About Whiteness?

5 Points of Discussion for Conversations About Racial Injustice

When teaching multicultural counseling courses, I often get questions from White students about how they can leverage their White privilege to help change America’s broken social system that privileges some while oppressing others. In addition to continuing to explore their own White racial identities, I encourage these students to initiate conversations with other White people in their lives about racial injustice. As more White individuals become aware of their White privilege and the racial injustice that exists in our country, greater degrees of systemic change are possible.

Counselors and counselors-in-training are uniquely equipped to facilitate these discussions, given their strong interpersonal skills and passion for advocacy. The goal of the conversation is to invite White individuals to engage in a dialogue about systemic privilege and oppression rather than become defensive. In an effort to assist White individuals who desire to initiate conversations with other White people about racial injustice, this article provides five possible points of discussion.


1) What characteristics do we attribute to race? Since the start of this country, we have fallen prey to an insidious scheme based on faulty logic: attributing characteristics and behaviors to race that have no rational correlation. We do it so frequently and so automatically that it often goes unrecognized. For example, if a Latino contractor does not complete his work satisfactorily, we are tempted to conclude, “Latino contractors cannot be trusted.” We erroneously attribute personal work ethic to race. Or, if we are cut off in traffic by a Black woman, we somehow link her behavior to the fact that she is Black rather than to an isolated driving decision.

When we pause and reflect on what characteristics and behaviors we attribute to race, we may be surprised by what we find. Logically, we know that skin color, eye shape and hair texture have no correlation with an individual’s morality, intelligence or trustworthiness — yet we have been socialized to make these associations. This is something that we need to unlearn.

Consider what would happen if someone watched a documentary about Charles Manson and concluded that he was a cult leader because he was White. We likely would explain that Manson’s role as a cult leader was the result of myriad factors (psychological state, early childhood experiences, environment, etc.) and that his behavior cannot be attributed to his race. In the same way, we need to examine the correlations we make between a person’s race and her or his personal characteristics or behaviors. How logical are these attributions? 

2) Do we desire people of color to “act White”? Many White people are genuinely trying to learn how to be culturally competent, but sometimes they can get stuck in a particular mentality: “I enjoy diversity … just as long as people of color act/talk/think in ways that I am familiar with.” Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we may encourage people of color to deemphasize their unique cultural identities to fit into the mold of White cultural norms. As a result, many people of color expend a lot of energy working to make White people feel comfortable around them (such as expressing only certain aspects of themselves while in the company of White individuals).

What is the cause of our desire for people of color to “act White”? It’s likely that we feel more at ease with what is familiar to us. There is a certain way of being that we deem “normal,” and it makes us comfortable when people behave accordingly. Therefore, the desire for people of color to “act White” is for our comfort.

Sadly, we rarely consider the discomfort that people of color face as they navigate White cultural norms every day. Often, their culturally diverse ways of being are not reflected back by those around them. As a result, people of color are forced to learn all the nuances of White cultural norms, whereas White individuals know very little about the cultural norms of other racial/ethnic groups.

What would it be like to let go of the strong grasp we have on our own cultural preferences and enter into the preferences of others (despite the unfamiliarity)? “Different” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “negative”; different can be exciting, invigorating, enlightening. Can we create space for all people to be proud of their cultural identities and to express those identities in whatever ways they choose?

3) Do we acknowledge that multiple interpretations exist for past and current events? Education is an amazing gift, and the opportunity to learn is something we should never take for granted or outgrow. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the stories we’ve read and the accounts we’ve learned in school represent one perspective, one side of the story. Authors of textbooks and class curricula write from their own frames of reference — they are not neutral, blank slates who simply report the facts. These authors make interpretations, derive meaning and present information from their personal lenses. It is important to consider that authors from different cultural backgrounds may have different interpretations, derive different meanings and present information differently, simply due to their frame of reference.

Consider an example from history: the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Depending on the perspective of the storyteller, this could have been a brutal uprising against the Spanish who were dedicated to bettering the community (Spanish as protagonists) or a liberating revolt in which oppressed Pueblo Native Americans took back the land that was rightfully theirs (Native Americans as protagonists). There are always multiple perspectives to every event, and it is important for us to consider differing viewpoints. Can we concede that what we think we know is only one perspective and that multiple, equally valid viewpoints exist?

4) Does defensiveness keep us from truly listening to people of color? It is important to consider what comes up for us when we hear people of color share their experiences of oppression. If our initial response is defensiveness, it is likely that our focus in that moment is off. Rather than focusing on the lived experience of the speaker, we are focused on what the information says about us. We are not attending to the oppression of our neighbors and how they feel; instead, we are attending to the impact of the information on our own sense of self.

One strategy that can help us maintain the proper focus is to listen with the goal of understanding rather than evaluating. Often when we listen, we are evaluating what we have just heard (Is this information right or wrong? Do I agree or disagree? What does this mean about me?) and simultaneously developing responses and counterpoints in our head. This process keeps the focus on us — our reactions, our beliefs and our assessment — and gets in the way of truly listening. There certainly are times when evaluation in conversation is necessary, but when people of color are sharing their experiences of oppression, it is more helpful to listen with the intent to understand, not to evaluate.

If we feel ourselves becoming defensive, we should do a quick mental check-in: “Am I evaluating what is being said and focusing on what it means about me?” If so, perhaps we should press pause and mentally switch our focus back to the speaker (“What was that like for her? How did she feel when it happened? How did this experience affect her life?”). When a person of color shares her or his experience, can we truly listen with the goal of understanding rather than evaluating?

5) We could do nothing about racial injustice, but do we want to? If we are honest, we all know that something is wrong with our social system. It is clear that people are treated differently as a result of their race. Consider two high school students (one White and one Black) who get caught with marijuana. Sadly, it is more likely that one of these students will be sent home with a warning (to a family who will “get him back on track”), while the other will be ushered into the criminal justice system. Or consider two identically qualified job applicants — one with the last name Jones and the other with the last name Hussain — who submit their résumés for an open position. Again, it is likely that one will get the interview because he seems like a “better fit,” whereas the other will stay on the job market.

We know, just by looking at the world around us, that inequity exists and that things are unjust. We also know that we can go our whole lives without saying or doing anything about it. We can choose to live in silent disapproval and never challenge the status quo, but is that what we want? Saying and doing nothing despite evidence of racial injustice likely means that we are living in opposition to our values (e.g., equality, justice, respect for the innate worth of all human beings), which can lead to incongruence and cognitive dissonance.

Also, if we allow our unjust system to continue, we likely will never experience the true joy that comes from living in a diverse community and celebrating cultural differences. We will not have the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives or to feel the excitement of experiencing new cultural norms. We may never form deep, meaningful relationships with those from different racial/ethnic backgrounds or experience the gifts that come only through diverse friendships. If we remain silent, we may be living life, but are we living it to its fullest? Those with privilege have a responsibility to leverage their unearned advantages to combat injustice and oppression. What does that look like for us personally?

There are many more talking points to consider, but these might help start conversations with White people in our spheres of influence. Let’s remember that as counselors, we have a unique set of interpersonal skills that can be extremely useful when facilitating conversations about racial injustice. We are primed to listen well, validate, and gently present alterative viewpoints. Perhaps we can all commit to using our skills to facilitate meaningful dialogue that could lead to lasting, systemic change.




Amanda L. Giordano is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include addictions counseling, multiculturalism, and religious and spiritual issues in counseling. She is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor. Contact her at