Positions of Privilege and The Impact in Higher Ed Leadership

Privilege. What a cringe-worthy word in today’s society! Imagine my shock when my accountability partner suggested that I, as a Black man in leadership, operated from a place of privilege. Couldn’t be me, except that it was. After reading an article on privileges and benefits, I realized that my accountability partner was right. I began to share this realization in my article Through the Lens of a Leader, noting that having an accountability partner and acknowledging the benefits of privilege were a major part of my career progression. In recent years as “privilege” has become more controversial I have had to stand at the uncomfortable intersection of vulnerability and accountability. And I would be willing to bet that you too, as a higher education leader, have found yourself in a similar space. It is imperative that you understand privileges, how certain privileges will benefit you as a leader, and how your privileges can be an obstacle to your leadership.

It is imperative that you understand privileges, how certain privileges will benefit you as a leader, and how your privileges can be an obstacle to your leadership.

Types of Privilege

Privilege is defined as special rights, advantages or immunity; favor; unearned benefits. While privilege can be attached to a position or an office, there are some privileges that are completely out of our control. Some of them are even hard to sit with. The five common privileges are:

  • Racial
  • Socio-Economical
  • Religious
  • Gender
  • Sexuality

Admittedly “white privilege” used to be the only privilege that I acknowledged and gave attention to. But as I previously mentioned, my accountability partner changed my entire perspective on this. I sit in 4 out of 5 of the places of privilege. I am a Christian, hetrosexual male, making a reasonable income. These privileges are present with me in most of the settings where I show up, that too is a type of privilege (and another article).

Benefits & Obstacles of Privilege

Privileges have their benefits, but can also present obstacles. In many ways my personal experience of privilege has been from a both/and place. For example, I have both benefited from and been the victim of socio-economic privilege. This awareness allows me to lead with more compassion than some of my peers.

Benefits

I would like to share a few benefits of privilege that I’ve experienced. This is by no means comprehensive, or in an effort to minimize privilege. Instead I am sharing in the hopes of pushing back against the negative privilege narratives. As a male in tech, specifically cyber security, I recognize that I am the majority gender. This means that I likely have more access to opportunities in the space than the 20% of women in the field. As a military veteran, I have traveled the world and seen religion in many forms. My privilege of Christianity did not resonate to me until I was with one of my brothers from the Muslim faith. I was moved to anger and indignation when he was the recipient of harsh remarks and sub-par service during one of our outings. He checked me in that moment, reminding me that Christianity is the most widely accepted religion in the world. This means I have more acceptance in many places than someone of a different religious background has. In addition to having more access and more acceptance, my privilege also affords me more action. My socio-economic background and heterosexual status often affords me more opportunities to act. If I have an idea I would like to explore, I have the financial stability to act on it. Similarly, my heterosexual privilege means that I can act more freely on ideas bound by gender norms with less scrutiny than my peers who are on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Not to be too harsh, but simply put, I can act on the urge to use a public bathroom without a second thought regarding which one I should use.

Obstacles

Just as I have been honest about the benefits of my privilege. I also have to be open regarding the obstacles that my privileges present, especially from the perspective of a leader. When I show up for talks, I am keenly aware that there are likely to be individuals in the audience that will not receive the information I have because I am a man. There are also challenges that come with people assuming that I am not aware of my privilege. This means I may have to share my awareness and proactively adapt to the environment I am serving. A simple example of this can be found in me showing up to an inner-city, underfunded community college for a talk. Coming in wearing a $1,000 suit and $700 shoes may not be the right approach for this audience. My economic privilege would be showing and could immediately create a barrier to the day’s desired outcomes.

As leaders, I charge us to constantly evaluate our places of privilege. When we show up, we must consider if our presence and that of our privilege is a benefit (to ourselves and others). We must also consider whether our privilege is an obstacle that we need to prepare for in advance.

Self Reflection on Privilege

I had the privilege of an accountability partner telling me that I operate from the place of privilege. Though I cannot be the accountability partner for everyone I encounter, I can expand my reach by empowering others to begin the work within themselves. Here are four guiding questions to assess your privilege:

  1. Which of the five types of privilege do you stand in?
  2. What benefits have you experienced because of your privilege? Obstacles?
  3. How might others view and experience your privilege?
  4. How can you utilize your privilege to help someone else?

If you spend some time reflecting on these questions, and answer honestly, then your awareness and empathy will increase. As a result of this raised awareness and empathy, you will be able to make stronger connections. You will also begin to see a greater level of effectiveness and impact of your leadership.

When it comes to this privilege thing, I admit that I’m still learning. Each time that I lead a workshop on privilege I walk away with new perspectives and clearer understandings of how privilege impacts leadership across the higher education industry. Privilege creates a ripple effect. To become more effective leaders we must not fear the ripples as disturbances of peaceful waters, but rather acknowledge the ripples as the beginning of waves of change. As a leader in higher ed, are you willing to accept your privilege and be forthcoming about both the benefits and obstacles that arise as a result?

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