Posted on December 31, 2023

White Men Are Key to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Conversation

Ron Carucci and Zoe Spencer-Harris, Newsweek, December 27, 2023

Within today’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, white men are often absent from the conversation. In one survey, 68 percent of white men said they didn’t feel part of DEI efforts and conversations. Some felt they were seen as the problem. Others (64 percent) felt they didn’t have the ability to speak candidly in conversations with colleagues from marginalized groups.

But given the wide representation of white men in positions of power in both the public and private sectors, we need to meaningfully engage them in the conversation to make real change. For example, of the 533 executive officers among the S&P 100, 70 percent are white men. In the public sector, despite representing only 30 percent of the population, white men hold 62 percent of elected offices. The group holding some of the greatest power to influence change are the ones most absent from the conversation about making it. Both our firsthand observations and the social sciences have shown us that when it comes to influencing white men to participate in conversations about racial equity and creating a more equitable world, a powerful place to begin is with their own experience of belonging.

Rethinking how to engage white men

We each come to this conversation from different perspectives. I, Zoe, as a Black scholar, researcher, and activist at Virginia State University, a historically Black University (HBCU). And I, Ron, as a white man working to understand how the privileges I have enjoyed simply because of my skin color and gender have led to the disadvantages others have suffered.

I, Zoe, never thought I would be doing this work with white men. As a Black woman activist-scholar, I have studied, researched, and authored work on oppression in my own silo, with my own people. And while I thought I had mastered a cultural understanding of how oppression works, I found myself completely outside my comfort zone when exploring this work from the perspective of white men.

Both of us have invested a great deal of time in understanding the excessive ways people of color experience exclusion, microaggressions, withheld opportunities and harm. Particularly, we’ve been curious about the disproportionate role white men (often unwittingly) have played in perpetuating the unlevel playing field of privilege, and the outsized role they could play in creating a more equitable world. Three years ago, our paths came together as we’d both become part of a significant social experiment and community, now called White Men for Racial Justice (WMRJ)—Ron as a member of the community and Zoe as one of its equity advisors, along with Taylor Paul.

Since its inception, more than 400 white men from across the U.S. have participated in this community focused on learning and unlearning through a disciplined weekly curriculum and community experience. The community was founded on two important premises.

  • First, Black people and people of color have consistently asked white people, particularly white men, to “do their own work,” urging that they invest the necessary time to learn about the privilege and power that comes with being a white man, thereby unburdening Black people from having to educate them.
  • Second, for white men to be willing to examine their own lives and experiences regarding race, privilege, power and how to make needed changes where racism has become embedded in our systems, it would be more beneficial to do so in the company of fellow white men curious about and committed to grappling with these issues.