Two white guys walk into a lunch meeting…

Reflections, Social Work, Things I Take For Granted3 Comments

It didn’t seem like only two white guys in the room. I had happily volunteered to share my experiences with strengths-based assessment working with homeless teens during the first group question, and the facilitator had asked several follow-up questions. After that, the other white male in the room introduced an interesting ethical dilemma. I had what I thought was an important comment to make that would have resolved the dilemma, but at that precise moment I realized that for most of the discussion white guys had done most of the talking and yet we were less than 10% of the room.

So I didn’t offer my thought. And nobody said anything similar to what I was going to say. So a potentially valuable discussion point was missed.

There are a hundred reasons why white male voices like mine dominate even in rooms where we are a tiny minority, and none of them have to do with the value of our opinions. I’ve been trained my whole life to speak up just as much as everyone around me has been trained to believe mine is the voice of authority. If I want to, I can just say random things I think might be true, and people lean in to listen as if I must have studied this extensively.

So over the years I’ve had to learn to reel it back in–to create space for other voices that can’t speak over mine, because they’re not comfortable doing so, or because when we speak at the same time people choose to listen to me first. I think this is a vital, if meager, step toward relinquishing some of my unearned privilege. Granted, I still can speak whenever I want to and know that people will listen, so it doesn’t really adjust the balance of power in the room so much as it’s just a considerate thing to do.

But it’s difficult when I kept my lips sealed over the solution to that ethical dilemma, and nobody else had anything to offer but expanded analysis on why the situation was so tricky. It is possible that in not wanting to take up too much space in the discussion, I denied the value of my experience and perspective. If that’s true, then perhaps I just psyched myself out of sharing something important. But then maybe, like those around me, I’m over-valuing my own opinions.

It’s tricky to know how to act in these situations. It’s easy to shut up and let others speak when I would just be talking out of habit with nothing substantive to add, although I do still struggle with that habit. But it’s especially hard to shut up when I don’t know if I’m taking something away from the group by holding back. The question is, if I hold my tongue to contribute to a more inviting dialogue, am I doing something of higher importance than sharing my thoughts? And if my thoughts are actually worthwhile, should I exploit the unearned deference others lend me in order to share them?

SorenTwo white guys walk into a lunch meeting…

3 Comments on “Two white guys walk into a lunch meeting…”

  1. hackel

    “There are a hundred reasons why white male voices like mine dominate even in rooms where we are a tiny minority, and none of them have to do with the value of our opinions.”

    I don’t agree. You posses much greater knowledge than others which often will result in much more valuable opinions. This shouldn’t be denied merely because obtaining it was made easier on account of your white privledge opening up more opportunities. It’s kind of like the argument that we shouldn’t use any of the medical research obtained by the Nazis merely because we don’t agree with how it was obtained. The best outcome possible should always be the goal.

    I understand your desire to want to play fair and give others a voice, but once you’ve done that and see it failing to produce what you see as the right answer, I think it’s wrong not to share it. You alone aren’t responsible for helping people overcome years of societal conditioning. As long as you aren’t afraid to acknowledge your advantage and be aware of how it might influence things, you’re already way ahead of most and shouldn’t fear sharing your voice. If you can’t support your opinion with facts and solid reasoning, then what you say must be rejected regardless of the colour of your skin.

    1. Judy

      I don’t understand the assumption that he “possess[es] greater knowledge than others.” I think that he’s had different experiences than others without white male privilege, and is therefore more knowledgeable about that side of the coin, but is also relatively unfamiliar with deprivation based on membership in a marginalized group (a perspective that is probably pretty helpful in working with homeless teens) .

      I agree to some extent that sharing knowledge is a good thing, but it depends on the situation. In many cases, biting your tongue is detrimental to the greater good, but there are also times where the ends don’t justify the means. Perhaps the idea he had was only great in his own mind. Perhaps allowing other members of his team to speak up and feel invested in the process is more important than sharing one good point. Aren’t we also making the assumption that the contributions from other people weren’t equal in value to the statement he originally wanted to make?

      Also, the statement that he “isn’t responsible for helping people overcome years of societal conditioning” assumes too much. It assumes, first of all, that the main action is helping OTHERS overcome years of societal conditioning. Perhaps holding his tongue is a useful exercise in overcoming his own societal conditioning to speak over others or to dominate conversations in a way that is harmful to group mechanics.

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