Photo of Michael Baran, Ph.D

Sometimes the way you deliver a message, or the “framing” of it, is essential for getting that message across to your audience. This is especially true for messages related to diversity and inclusion.

For example, let’s think about the concept of white privilege. When white people hear that term, they often get defensive, which is the worst thing that could happen if we want people to take in new information that goes against their beliefs. They often get defensive because they associate “privilege” with economic privilege, the easy life. Yet they don’t feel like they’re living the easy life, so they shut down. We’ve now put ourselves as communicators in a very difficult position in order to reach our audience.

How could we communicate about this concept in a different way? I often start talks on privilege by addressing this issue head-on. I might say something like, “How many of you have heard the term ‘white privilege’? How many white people out there feel privileged? Not many of you, right? It’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet, to pay the medical bills, to pay for cell service, and forget family vacations!”

By addressing their very real concerns, we’ve started from a place of understanding and connection.

From there, I am given more leeway to explain how racial privilege can exist alongside economic challenges. I continue with something like, “I want you to think about the wealth that white families have on average to try to make a good life for themselves. And now I want you to imagine African-American families having 13 times less wealth than white families. That’s what the statistics were when I started this work, 20 years ago. Do you want to know what those statistics will be next year according to a projection from the Institute for Policy Studies? Eighty-six times less wealth for African-American families.”

With this framing, I’ve got the audience with me, and I can talk about other aspects of white privilege, bias and structural inequalities without the same defensiveness. With a topic as serious and important as this, we need to put in the time to think about how we can best get the message across to everyone.