My friend Milly jokes, “You’re the last white person I’m educating.” She’s referring to her role in developing my cultural competence. While this is funny, consider the serious issues that underlie her statement. Many people like me, who grow up white and privileged, make assumptions based on our own experience, or the lack thereof.
By “privileged” I don’t mean wealthy. I mean being able to walk into an expensive shop without worrying that the clerk will think you’re shoplifting. Or being able to assume your teenage son can come and go without being shot by police. People of color, on the other hand, don’t have this kind of privilege. Many grow up navigating two different worlds, the world of white privilege and the world of their less privileged, direct experience. They understand our world better than we understand theirs. This is a major handicap if we are unconscious of our privilege.
People of privilege sometimes make assumptions, attribute motivations, or come to conclusions that are inaccurate and possibly detrimental to our teams, projects, and organizations. I was lucky. I worked with people like Milly, who took the time to talk openly with me about issues of race, class, and privilege.
What’s more, we both worked in an organization–the Girl Scouts–whose leaders had the courage to offer safe, structured spaces for this kind of talk to take place. It was the early 1980s, when few workplaces made cultural competence a priority. We didn’t always get it right, and not everyone was on board, but many of us made an honest effort. It paid off for me, not just professionally, but in all aspects of my life.
Make it a point to educate yourself about how best to operate in today’s multicultural workforce. Whatever your racial, ethnic or cultural background, cultivate colleagues who can help you become a more effective teammate and manager by creating a work environment that values diversity. Cultural competence is no longer a skill that is nice to have. It is an attribute that is essential for success in a global economy, even if you never travel beyond the place you were born.