Understanding White Privilege and Being an Ally to the Black Community

Last week, Fair360, formerly DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson spoke with Shannon Schuyler, principal, chief purpose and inclusion officer at PwC (Fair360, formerly DiversityInc 2020 Top 50 Hall of Fame), on actions white people can take to be allies to the Black community. They also covered topics related to understanding white privilege and taking allyship past performance and into action.

“What I love is this vulnerability to actually say, ‘I don’t know, but we’re going to work together to figure it out,’ ” Johnson said. “It is a journey and it’s a heavy lift, but we’ll all be part of it so we don’t end up here again.”

Shannon Schuyler, principal, chief purpose & inclusion officer at PwC. (Photo courtesy of PwC)

Schuyler added that she has worked to understand what actions she must take to do her part. “I hope to have lived my life in a way where I stand by and advocate for those who have been marginalized, and I will make sure they’re not in the shadows. That’s easy to say, but it’s harder to know what those actions look like,” Schuyler added.

This isn’t the first time Schuyler has addressed this topic. Back in May, during a TED-style talk with an audience of more than 1,100 people at Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s first-ever virtual Top 50 announcement event, Schuyler called for fellow white allies to hold themselves accountable in doing anti-racist work. This point has come to the forefront again in the months since the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of the police. These injustices have sparked worldwide protests—and a reckoning for white people across the country as they come to terms with what more they must do to be forces for change.

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During this week’s conversation, Johnson said that though work against racism is daunting, she is optimistic about the change it will yield. “I’m really looking forward to it, because I feel like we’re on the verge of real change.”

Schuyler said her journey toward allyship initially included a belief that coaching, counseling, and support were sufficient forms of activism. However, she came to realize that allyship requires further commitment to be effective.  She described her own personal experience witnessing racism against her husband, who is Black.

“I’ve been shocked in the last 10 years of how many times he’s been called the n-word when he and I are walking down the street together—how many times I’ve gone and had to get him from the police station. That’s so foreign to somebody who is a white, blonde woman who grew up in the suburbs,” she said.

She added that many people misunderstand privilege as something negative rather than a positive catalyst for change and that change starts with defining the problem, Schuyler added. White privilege does not mean that white people do not struggle. It simply means their struggle is not attributable to the color of their skin. Owning one’s privilege and using it to help others is productive, but when people misunderstand being asked to own their white privilege as being accused of racism, they’re more likely to act defensive and reject it.

“It’s not in people’s normal vocabulary to talk about white privilege, so I think it freaks a lot of people out immediately. Getting uncomfortable talking about white privilege is a good thing though. We, as white people, need to understand what it is, own it, and use it in the right way to help others,” Schuyler said.

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The reflex to feel attacked when asked to identify one’s white privilege is a privilege in and of itself, Schuyler explained. “I think when [white privilege] is met out front, [some white people] just clam up and feel attacked. I would argue, that’s their white privilege—that they can feel attacked, but not feel like they’re going to be killed.”

Leaders must combat this misunderstanding of white privilege and recognize that the process entails truly explaining what privilege means. “That is why we have to make sure we’re having these conversations, that we’re giving people examples so that they really do understand that there’s empathy required here to really figure out what the next steps are and what we’ve blocked out. What’s the real cause of systemic racism?” Johnson said.

While the dictionary definition of systemic racism may be complex, it comes down to one main factor: opportunity. “To simplify it, anywhere there is opportunity, Black people are denied that opportunity,” Johnson added. “I think when we simplify it that way, it helps people understand why people are unwilling, because nobody is holding them accountable to act.”

Coming to terms with the privilege of never having to intimately understand or discuss racism can lead to feelings of guilt. For many, recent protests have been the wake-up call to take action—but anti-Black racism has been a violent reality in this country since the first slave ship arrived on North American shores in 1619. It’s natural for white allies to feel shame for not taking action sooner, however, Schuyler said, leaders cannot allow this guilt to paralyze them. Rather, they must use it to propel them forward.

“You have to start with guilt and shame, but the next step is to get past that,” she said. “You can hold guilt in your heart but you can’t act on guilt. It can’t be our movement. Instead of getting on a soapbox to talk about the guilt I say, ‘OK, so what are we doing to get past that and do something?’”

Despite the clear benefits of diversity, the corporate world seems to be moving at a snail’s pace. Black people have been systemically excluded from leadership positions and board appointments, and the numbers don’t lie: There are only five Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

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Being a white ally comes down to what one is willing to offer or give up to give others an equal shot. “It’s not just saying, ‘Gosh, we should have more people on the board.’ It’s saying, ‘What would I actually do about it?’” Schuyler said.

A 2017 McKinsey study found that companies in the upper quartile for ethnic diversity outperform their non-diverse competitors by more than 30%. Similar studies in the years since have delivered the same conclusion: Diversity is not just the right thing to do. It’s about profitability and competitiveness.

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Schuyler pointed out that with every other business issue, proof of profitability serves as enough incentive to implement new policies and hire new people. When corporations remain unwilling to diversify their leadership and workforces despite proven business benefits, it points to the reality of systemic racism, Schuyler said.

“That’s where the piece of the racism comes in, because if we, like every other business issue, just said, ‘You’d make more money if you did this. Your boards and your leadership team would be all over it.’ We have said that, and that has not gotten people to move,” Schuyler said.

Johnson echoed Schuyler’s sentiment. “This is about profitability. It’s the right thing to do, but it is the right thing to do for all involved as well—and those responsible for making sure your organization does well and is competitive.”


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