Invisible Privilege
© 22 Aug 2016 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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An effort to illuminate the struggles of the minority.


One of the things I have learned over my years in the diversity world is that many of the arguments engaged by the majority are something like straw man fallacies, although generally not with the malicious intent which that phrase suggests. Biogtry and unfair bias do exist, and are non-trivial in impact, but they are both hard to combat and far from alone in their impact. In this post I hope to point out a few other, less generally recognized challenges faced by the minority generally, often without any conscious or even subconscious thought on the part of the majority.

There are more I could mention (and might in a later post); I’ve picked just three in interest of getting this post written within the time I have available.

Burden of Interpretation

I recently had a conversation with a female engineer who has taken a job in a mostly-male workplace. Her job involves a mix of sitting at desks working out the cognitive aspects of problems and crawling around in tight spaces adjusting mechanism. When she was being oriented to her new workplace, one of her coworkers explained that “‍we wear khakis and button-ups, except on Fridays when we are more casual and wear jeans.‍”

Now, one of the peculiar aspects of khakis in American male fashion is that they are both formalish and durable. There isn’t really an equivalent in American female fashion; the formality equivalent might be a skirt or dress pants, but the durability equivalent would be jeans. Thus, this perfectly innocent observation about the dress code (which for most males would explain all that needs to be said about attire) left my friend with an open question: what was she supposed to wear?

This is an example of what I And yes, it is me who calls it this; I’ve not heard it identified elsewhere. call the “‍burden of interpretation‍”: there is a question that has been answered for the majority but not in a way that the minority can use without additional thought and interpretation. My friend had to spend time and attention thinking about attire, time and attention her male colleagues did not have to spend on that topic and could thus devote to other things.

The burden of interpretation is not a one-time cost, either. There is a strong tendency to second-guess one’s interpretation, to be distracted from more productive thoughts by a desire to notice if members of the majority react to one’s interpretation in a way that suggests the interpretation was well made. This simple, innocent comment by a co-worker has likely cost my friend hours of attention, spread over the weeks that followed, all with no malice or even awareness on the part of the perpetrator.

Although my primary purpose in this post is to point out problems, pointing out potential solutions seems wise too. My advice to minorities: ask the majority “‍how does that guideline apply to me?‍” in order to share the interpretation burden, educate the majority that it exists, and reduce the fear of bad interpretation that follows trying to solve it on your own. My advice to majorities: ask the minority to ask you questions and try to understand the question and what led to it before you try to answer them.

Burden of Understanding Worth

When I interact with native-born Americans, I get a lot of feedback. Raising of the eyebrows, wanderings of the eye, inclinations of the head—all carry messages that tell me how the conversation is going, what I need to explain more, etc. When I interact with people from a different culture, some of those signals are missing and some are present but with a different meaning. For example, I have colleagues who make a noise that to me means “‍someone punched me in the belly‍” to mean “‍I agree‍” and that wag their head in a way that people in my culture use to mean “‍I’m mocking a crazy person‍” when what they mean is “‍yes, I follow you so far, keep going.‍”

This barrier to understanding is a real cost to heterogeneity and a logically defensible reason not to seek diversity. However, when it does not prevent the accumulation of a diverse workforce then it provides several other less-visible burdens on the minorities: the burden of understanding worthAgain, my own phrase..

A lot of messages about adequacy of work are given subtly. I can often tell, from tiny facial expressions and subtle body language, if my work is approved of as adequate or not. This in turn gives me the confidence to voice my opinions, to apply for new opportunities, and to trust myself enough to experiment with a potentially-better approach to whatever the task at hand might be.

All of these benefits that come from subtle communication cues are much harder for members of minority groups to gain. They are more likely to experience imposer syndrome, to believe themselves inadequate, to turn down opportunities that could further their career because they see more risk of failure, etc. Even minority bosses suffer from this, having more chance of their majority employees to think them “‍hard‍” or “‍capricious‍” because the subconscious cues they expected to see were not present.

My advice to minorities: assume that you are doing well and are as respected as any of your colleagues until/unless you are explicitly told otherwise. My advice to majorities: give clear, objectively-phrased feedback such as “‍your work puts you in the top 10% of our employees‍” rather than vague things like “‍good job‍” that can be seen as fluff praise and do not serve to correct misperceived value; likewise, contextualize corrections with things like “‍just about everyone makes this mistake a few dozen times‍” (or “‍this is unusually bad‍” if it is).

Burden of Representation

Stereotype ThreatNot my term; see, e.g., is a bigger topic than I can handle in this one post, but I’ll mention one piece of it here. Minorities often feel like their majority colleagues will judge their entire demographic group based on their individual performance. This puts extra pressure on them to represent their group well, heightening the risk they perceive in failure and increasing their overall stress levels. And, to quote myself,

Stress is wasting time thinking about how stressed you are.

Not a complete definition by any means, but I think it gets at a key point: stress consumes mental resources that would be better engaged in other tasks, reducing the ability of the stressed individual to preform as well as they could if relaxed.

This burden or representation I think I’ve heard it called this by others, but can’t seem to find a citation so maybe I made it up. is a surprisingly tricky one to get around. It is not obviously dependent on the actions of the majority, and most efforts to remove it fail. Saying “‍I don’t think of you as an X, only as a colleague‍” can be insulting and lead to a different kind of stress (“‍am I so emasculated that she couldn’t tell I’m male?‍”, “‍am I betraying my people by adopting these people’s customs so completely?‍”, etc.). Praising the minority group in question can be bad because it both emphasizes that you notice them and raises the bar of expectations even higher.

My advice to everyone: foster an attitude and outlook of work, growth, and progress rather than status, ability, and talent. When growth is expected, single failures lose much of their adjudicating power and reduce stress significantly. My advice for the majority: don’t hide individual differences in ability, values, and background. If everyone is seen as individual, there is less suggestion that groups are painted with the same brush.

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