Acknowledge Your Privilege! sign on a multi-colored wall.

When building diversity and inclusion practices in a workplace, how often do we identify where the majority culture’s customs have become the standard? In The Token: Common Sense Ideas for Increasing Diversity in Your Organization, Crystal Byrd Farmer helps transform how organizations view workplace diversity to create a culture of belonging. Today, we take an excerpt on majority culture from the Token and how it demands those who fall outside the majority code-switch to fit in.

Majority Culture: What’s Yours Is Mine

When I talk about microaggressions, I’m talking about things that are OK to do in majority culture. In North America and Western Europe, majority culture is middle-class white culture. I’ve heard white people say that they don’t have a culture, but they do. White culture is expecting a junior person to call a senior person sir or ma’am. White culture is politely agreeing with someone and fuming about it later. White culture is asking where the bathroom is when you can see the door down the hall just fine. Do these examples sound mundane? That’s because they are. White culture is set up as the standard.

My first time experiencing white culture was at church. In my city, Black people were historically excluded from the white mainstream churches. In middle and high school, I attended a residential summer program that offered to drive us to church on Sundays. One of the options for church was Baptist, so I chose that one. That’s when I learned there is a difference between white and Black Baptists. White Baptists sang. Black Baptists danced, shouted, and ran down the aisles. White Baptists gave a sermon. Black Baptists preached. White Baptists sat for an hour and went out to eat at the local restaurant. Black Baptists usually didn’t leave until the football game started.

A older caucasian man and an African American man stand across from each other on the walkway in front of a baptist church.

The white church was a different and not unpleasant experience, but it taught me that I had to be flexible when dealing with different cultures. I am not going to shout at a white Baptist church just because it was what I grew up with. When I’m in a place with a different majority culture, I have to fit in or I will be pushed out. The marginalized people in your community have learned to be flexible just like I have. It’s called code-switching, and it can be tiring. If your community as a whole was able to flex around different cultures, more people would share the load, and, as a result, we could all bring more of ourselves to the events.

Don’t adopt practices of a minority culture in order to “fix” majority culture. Not only does it result in stares from your mainstream parents, it harms the creators of that culture. Minorities do not have the opportunity to pick and choose what they enjoy of their identity. Black people, for instance, can not be Black when they’re cooking and white when they’re up for promotion. Culture is formed out of a shared sense of history and, at times, struggle. Trying on the practices of a minority culture like accessories reinforces oppression because it says, “I see things you are good at. It’s mine now.”

This is particularly a problem with white progressive communities, which have taken on the practices of many minority cultures: yoga, cacao ceremonies, and drumming as examples. All of these practices were initially seen as backward or primitive, only to be elevated as spiritual and intuitive once a privileged person started doing it. You may absolve yourself by saying you—or, at least, someone you know—learned from a teacher who is respected in that culture, but that doesn’t mean you can freely use it. Even minorities have their price, and you should pay it if you intend on continuing the practice. Giving money to a minority practitioner won’t make you less of an oppressor, but it will put food on the table. Either way, do some soul-searching and defer to the people you think you are honoring when using their practices.

A young woman sits on a deck in a yoga pose on the floor, basking in the early morning light.

The final step of examining majority culture is sharing your learning with others. If you have privilege, then you have a responsibility to help other privileged people understand that marginalized people are marginalized because of your culture. This is when you need to unblock people on social media and start engaging them in conversation. Help them understand that the key to diversity is not ignoring differences, but celebrating them. Teach them what you’ve been learning about bias, microaggressions, and privilege. Don’t lecture and don’t insult them. If they want to know more, they will ask. If they vehemently disagree, be the better person. Focus on maintaining the relationship so that they know who to turn to when they have questions. Know that they, like you, started in a place where they had no Black friends to tell them these things.

I understand that many people feel like the other side is actively harming them with negative social media posts or that their anxiety about current events leaves them with no energy to engage. This is the only time I would invite you to compare your suffering to marginalized people who experience difficulties in real life. Don’t avoid conflict just because it’s hard. If you don’t talk to the other side, you’re abdicating your responsibility to speak the truth and enact real change. We, the marginalized people, are already sacrificing our well-being to work with you. Oppression is something that people can grow out of. Consider if you too have things to grow out of.

A group of men is in a meeting room. Two men are sitting relaxed on a couch, another is sitting in an office chair crossing his legs, and the fourth man is standing at a whiteboard with sticky notes, pointing at something.

About the Author

Crystal Byrd Farmer is an engineer turned educator, organizer, and speaker who focuses on cohousing, Black, and polyamorous communities. She serves on the Editorial Review Board of Communities Magazine and is passionate about encouraging people to change their perspectives on diversity, relationships, and the world. She lives in Gastonia, NC.

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