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HR Magazine, September 2001Bringing Diversity to White Men
How do white males fit into corporate diversity training?

It was probably the single most enlightening experience of my life, states Don Keller, a principal analyst at Detroit Edison.

Thats a bold statement. Keller is talking about an experience he had discussing with other white men what it means to be a part of a white mans culture and how that relates to diversity in businesses.

Clearly, for the first time, I began to understand what white male privilege really is, how it affects women and people of color, both from the perspective of what they see in terms of their life expectations vs. what I, as a white male, might see in terms of my life expectations, and how these differences impact their interfacing with the white male majority.

Kellers comments are about his participation in the White Mens Caucus, which is a workshop offered by White Men as Full Diversity Partners, a consortium formed by three diversity consulting firmsEqualVoice in Minneapolis, Inclusivity Consulting Group in Portland, Ore., and Integral Coaching and Consultation in Herndon, Va. The consortium has spent the past four years working inside organizations to more fully engage white men as diversity partners.

For the most part, white men have been left out of the diversity discussion, the organizers say. In most organizations, the diversity coordinator is a man or woman of color, explains Jo Ann Morris, a principal consultant at Integral Coaching and Consultation. It is rarely a white male.

Bill Proudman, president of Inclusivity Consulting Group, is one of the few. As a white male doing diversity work for 12 years, I noted early on that diversity managers were women or people of color 99 percent of the time, he adds. In fact, I found I often was unable to get work in corporations because I was a white male. Id always hear the question, What do you know about diversity?

Michael Welp, a principal at EqualVoice, believes that for the diversity movement to reach the next level of effectiveness and change in organizations, white men must know a lot more about diversity. Most of what they know about diversity comes from women and people of color, which places a lot of pressure on these groups, he says. White men need to learn how to engage each other, so that women and people of color dont have to do the whole job of educating us.

To be fully engaged, Welp says, white men need to see themselves as part of a culture and a group. Many organizations define diversity as simply respecting everyones different culture, he says. This attitude ignores the fact that there are systemic advantages for the white male culture. For one thing, we never have to leave our own culture and enter someone elses. This allows us to continue to think of ourselves as individuals, not as part of a white male culture. Everyone else, however, must become bi-cultural in order to fit into our culture.

Welp and his partners believe that if you truly engage white men, you put the responsibility on them to further diversity and cultural understanding in organizations. If you dont, white men will leave that responsibility to minorities and will never be a part of the process.

Many white men claim that they dont see race or gender, adds Proudman. They say they treat everyone the same. What this means is, As long as other people act like white males, there is no problem. When they dont, there is a problem. But its not my problem. The problem is the other person has not assimilated into the dominant white male culture.

The Workshops

In 1996, Proudman created a workshop called White Mens Caucus for an international conference, with the intention of increasing the representation of white men in diversity initiatives. It was designed to look at issues of racism, sexism and homophobia in organizations, he states. The next year, he conducted a similar workshop for some of his client organizations. Now, we do about two a year, he states. Most are inside organizations and are done on a customized basis.

When Welp met Proudman and realized they were doing similar work, they decided to pool their resources and brought in Morris. The goal of our workshops is not to replace diversity initiatives, emphasizes Welp. We complement them with an issue that is usually missingthe active role of white males. To his knowledge, there are no other groups offering diversity training that focuses solely on white men.

The workshops have a number of goals:

  • Teach participants that there is a white male culture, and that they are part of it. White males are accustomed to being dealt with as individuals and much less accustomed to being dealt with as a group, explains Nancy Brown of Nancy Brown Associates in Cincinnati, a consulting firm that assists the consortium with some of its training. They like to see themselves as unique. We encourage white males to realize that there is a white culture and to learn more about it.

The workshop stresses that white culture is the dominant culture and one that offers preferential treatment. Until now, I have never had to think about what it means to be a white male, says Glyn Crocker, a customer technical support manager at Shell Oil, who attended a workshop in May. I have learned that it comes with many privileges that I enjoy, but [I] also have an impact on women, people of color.

  • Help participants get in touch with their individuality. White men need to reclaim the choices around who they want to be, explains Welp. In the white male culture, a lot of our individual identity comes from what we do, rather than who we are.
  • Help participants balance group and individual identity. The workshops help white men see themselves as part of a group but also as individuals, states Brown. In this way, she believes, the white men can begin to see women, people of color, gays and lesbians not just as members of different groups, but also as individuals.

Jay Haines, another Shell employee, recognized this while attending the seminar in May. Im just starting to understand what it means to belong to a white male groupwhich I didnt believe existed, but it doesand be an individual at the same time.

  • Help white men recognize their role in the work of diversity. We want to eliminate the existing inequity of people thinking that women and people of color are the only ones who know about diversity, and therefore expecting them to teach everyone else, says Proudman. We want to help white males see themselves and other white males as partners in the work.
  • Create inclusive organizations. The workshops ultimate goal is to facilitate a strategic view of what it means to be an inclusive organization, says Morris. We look at what it means to have white men feel grounded enough and safe enough about what diversity is for them, individually and collectively, so that diversity is not just about everyone else except them, she says.

Are there tangible benefits to these shifting attitudes? We dont tell clients what their outcomes should be, replies Morris. However, one client told us that one result was that projects moved along much more quickly, because the people involved in the projects didnt have to stop and think about how to talk to each other.

Other Voices

Other diversity experts have mixed feelings about the focus on white men in furthering diversity efforts in organizations.

I tend to agree with what they are trying to do, but not totally, says Jeff Hitchcock, executive director of the Center for the Study of White American Culture in Roselle, N.J., and author of Unraveling the White Cocoon (Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 2001). Hitchcock agrees that, unless the diversity process includes white males, it is not a complete process. I had never thought of myself as needing to be involved in a diversity process. I had evolved to the point where I realized that we, as white males, had all of the privileges, but I still thought that only people of color had a need for a sense of community. I realized then that white men also have a part to play in diversity.

Still, Hitchcock has some concerns about limiting the focus to white males. Im not sure its a good idea to make white men too much of an entity and tell them that they have their own culture, he states.

He offers two reasons for his concern. The first relates to racism. There is a lot of collusion between white men and white women regarding who we are as white people, he explains. When you place the focus on white men, it is sometimes difficult to get to the elements of privilege and culture for white men and white women. That is, when you remove white women from the discussion, you lose something. You give white women a break on issues of racism that they dont always deserve.

The second concern relates to sexism. Just as there is a lot of collusion between white men and white women on the issue of race, there is also a lot of collusion between white men and men of color on sexism, he adds. Again, Hitchcock believes that focusing on white men gives black men a break on the question of how they think about and treat women.

Lisa Willis Johnson, SPHR, deputy director of the city of Columbus, Ohio, and chair of the Society for Human Resource Managements Workplace Diversity Committee, also has mixed feelings about the workshops goals. If companies fail to be representative of the global markets they are trying to serve, it will be difficult for them to be successful, she states. Diversity is meant to be all-inclusive, and if it is viewed this way, then white men need to be equal partners in the diversity initiative. It is important that every group has a say and an opportunity to participate.

Michael Andries, a management consultant with Shell, who attended in May, articulates the advantages of having a forum for white men only. This caucus was the first opportunity I have had to explore how I really felt about diversity and other groups in the company of others like myself. To be able to express my views, and then once out, objectively evaluate and learn. As a result I believe I am beginning to get it. What women, people of color and homo/bisexuals need for me to do is to create the space for them to be themselves, with their unique and collective strengths and weakness to make life better for all of us.

Johnson goes on to say that its not necessarily true that white males are the center of the power structure and that diversity initiatives cannot succeed without them. ... A lot of women and people of color have gained power in recent years. Diversity programs can survive without every group buying into them.

Elizabeth Salett, president of the National Multicultural Institute in Washington, D.C., is concerned about potential problems with classification. You cant classify white men as a homogeneous group in terms of having the same attitudes toward diversity, she explains. Some resent it, while others are quite open to it.

Results at Shell, Detroit Edison

Both Shell Oil, based in Houston, and Detroit Edison have had in-house White Mens Caucus workshops.

We have had a diversity practice in place since 1997, says Rick Schroder, a diversity consultant at Shell Oil. While addressing issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., we realized that we were missing some populations.

Shell has been exploring tools that would help provide opportunities for white males to come together and have dialogues on race, gender, sexual orientation and the concept of white male privilege.

Andries admits that he was skeptical about the seminars. However, he says he was surprised by the experience. It was an opportunity for white men to talk openly about their thoughts on diversity, he states. It helped me realize what I could do to create a better work environment for everyone.

John Sullivan, a business manager in the Infrastructure Services Group at Shell, also attended. I became interested in the workshop after attending Shells diversity conference in 2000, he explains. I realized there was a lot more for me to learn about diversity, and I felt the workshop would be an important part of my ongoing education.

The most important result for Sullivan, he says, was a heightened sense of awareness of some issues that diverse groups of people face. It helped me become aware of the sense of privilege that my ethnic group is not even aware of, he notes.

Crocker says he attended the workshop to learn how to take a more active role in the companys diversity efforts. It turned out to be an enlightening experience for me, he states. For example, I started to become aware that women and people of color view white males as part of a white male culture, which is something I had never thought about before. I tended to treat everyone the same, but what that really meant was that I treated them the way I thought other white males wanted to be treated.

I also realized that white men need to get more involved in diversity. We tend to think of it as other peoples issues, Crocker adds. This is not the case.

Detroit Edison launched its diversity program in 1995, reports Nikki Moss, the power companys principal human resources consultant. When the utility heard about the White Men as Full Diversity Partners workshops, Moss identified employees at Detroit Edison that she felt would most benefit from the experience. She used three criteria in the selection process. First, I selected people I felt were already far along on their journeys. I felt the workshop would be an additional complement to their growth.

Second, she thought about sending one person from each of the different geographical regions in the utility, but realized that it made more sense to select people who were closer to each other. In this way, they would be able to see and support each other more often afterward, she explains.

Finally, she stayed away from sending both bosses and their subordinates to the same session. There might be a level of vulnerability during the workshop as a result of this relationship, she notes.

By the end of the first day, one of the men was ready to leave. It was a very personal and emotional experience for him, explains Moss. He ended up having to stay, though, because the workshop was at a remote location, and the person he came with was the one with the car. He later said that staying was one of the best decisions he ever made.

Moss adds, Overall, I think the experience has given the participants the ability to see when things are not quite right in the workplace. These can include responding to comments being made in subtle or joking manners, or to people making comments they are not even aware could be offensive. They are also becoming outspoken allies for women, people of color and people of different sexual orientations.


The biggest challenge for the participants is turning what they experience in three days into ongoing diversity enhancement at their organizations. Many participants interviewed lacked a sense of direction of what to do with what they learned at the workshop.

One strategy is to make sure the participants remain in close contact with each other. After a caucus, I think the participants need to engage in the paradox of actively challenging and supporting each other in doing the work of diversity, suggests Welp.

Participants need to meet with each other and challenge each other, not on What have you learned? but rather, What have you done? suggests Morris.

Shell Oil plans to formalize this process to ensure a return on investment in the training. We plan to bring participants back together on occasion to see what they have been experiencing in the workplace, in terms of sharing experiences, what barriers they are facing, what additional skills they need, and what additional support they need from each other and from the company, says Schroder.

For every two steps forward, I will always be in danger of stepping backward, states Rick Downes, a Shell employee who attended the seminar. Falling into stereotypes and stereotyping without conscious awareness. This session made me more aware of acknowledging our differences and, more importantly, highlighting our similarities. The big bonus and asset is [that there are] other white male partners, so that this is not a solitary, lonely journey.

For Andries, his goal is to be a role model for his colleagues. I dont plan to become a vigilant advocate for this in the future. I will work earnestly to try to understand how other people want to be treated, instead of just assuming that I already know.

Sullivan notes: I think all of us who attended the workshop walked away with a sense of obligation to make other people in our ethnic group aware of some of the issues that other ethnic groups have to deal withissues that we have not been conscious of.

If the goal of engaging white men in diversity is to succeed, the attitudes of white males will not be the only things that will need to change, adds Morris. One of the most troublesome concerns I have is that, as we continue to do white mens work, there is still much work for women and people of color to do on themselves and their beliefs about white men.

William Atkinson is a business writer based in Carterville, Ill. He specializes in safety, health and workers compensation issues.


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