Associations should check their privilege

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I suppose among the two hundred plus association executives gathered in Antwerp this week there were a good number of white, heterosexual, middle-aged, English-speaking men of Christian heritage.

But there were also lots of women and people from different ethnic backgrounds, too, as well as many young people representing an extraordinarily diverse range of associations and societies.

There were surely homosexuals among us, a few bisexuals, and, going by the last census, at least one transgender person. But that's all supposition: we haven’t quite got to the stage where enquiring after someone’s sexual orientation is considered an appropriate conversation starter over lunch.

Yet it was that first group - the white men - that might have felt slightly besieged.

For the politics of identity were never far away from the Associations World Congress and it was the pale, male and stale contingent that was, again, being told to check its privilege and change its ways.

Perhaps as someone who belongs to that category (I’m forty, does that make me middle-aged?) I was feeling a little too defensive. There were, after all, plenty of valid, and some very astute, points being made, even if some of us are growing a little weary of having our privilege pointed out to us. Some people are more privileged than others we say! Exactly! comes the reply. It's not an   argument we're going to win.

South African Roy Gluckman, lawyer turned evangelist for social cohesion, gave a nuanced keynote about why associations should make equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) a central pillar of their organisation. Choosing the carrot rather than the stick, he outlined how, by embracing EDI, associations could better grow, develop community, and support their members.

Rather more challenging was his assertion that equality was not about treating everyone the same way but treating different people differently. Perhaps he was right - but that’s something easier said than done. Cohesion is built on trust, a sense of everyone pulling in the same direction, without bias or prejudice. Treating members differently might look like favouring some over others, or making groundless allowances.

Still, you can take the point. Equality can’t mean assuming everyone thinks the same (your) way, or has the same privileges and, for too long, said Gluckman, that has been the case, with those setting the agenda ticking all of the aforementioned boxes – white, male, English-speaking etc, etc. I didn’t hear Gluckman use the word patriarchy – he made a point of being averse to intellectual shorthand - but it was surely on the tip of his tongue.

For a practical example of what he was getting at, consider how charging everyone the same subscription fee might be denying whole swathes of people access to your association. Is that true equality? There are some people who would answer that question in the affirmative. They probably shouldn’t be running your association, was Gluckman’s argument. Was he right?

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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